On Wrecking Books To Bring Them To Life

Jul 12, 2011

This guest post is by Renee Mathis, a CiRCE Certified Master Teacher and expert in The Lost Tools of Writing.


Teachers love their books. Homeschooling moms love their books. English majors, pastors, and writers all love their books. Who among us hasn’t at one time secretly believed that “the one who dies with the most books wins” or perhaps harbored a hidden hope that bookshelf-lined walls might, at the least, add an extra layer of insulation to our homes?

Sometimes, unfortunately, there is a disconnect. A parent’s or teacher’s love of reading doesn’t necessarily transfer to the student. Sometimes we forget that a skill we have taken years to perfect doesn’t always come easily to those whom we teach.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Your teenager flops on the couch, overwhelmed by the seventy-five pages assigned and reluctantly opens his book. Eyes glaze over. Snoring commences. The book falls to the floor. So much for this study session. Or what about this? You settle in for a reading session on your sofa, ready to infect your progeny with your love of all things literary. Eyes glaze over. Frustration ensues. The book sits unread. What’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t we as classical educators  supposed to be centered around words? Then why aren’t our kids “getting it”?

Agreed, words are wonderful. No one doubts that the ability to read, decode, comprehend, interpret, analyze this wonderful thing called language should be at the center of any education - classical or otherwise. How then do we inculcate not only a love for reading but an ability to do it well? Some argue that “readicide”, that is any attempt to interpret and analyze will “kill” the book (and probably take the reader down with it.) Others contend that it is sufficient to expose children to a print-rich environment, that somehow the light of language will cause the fruit of knowledge to bloom and grow. Since we agree that reading skills are crucial, let us consider a method that promotes comprehension, interaction, and ownership. It’s time to wreck our books, not read them.

Wreck This Journal, part of a best-selling series by Keri Smith, advocates a unique, if slightly unorthodox, approach to writing. Owners of a blank journal are instructed to scribble, jot, muse and even take the book out for dinner. Mightn’t we do the same thing with our beloved copy of Homer? Take a simple colored highlighter (or five) and use it to begin the quest for comprehension.

How do we begin to learn? We ask questions.

Click to see full size

Good readers automatically keep a running dialogue going in their head while they read. Beginning readers don’t know how to do this and this is where the encouraging teacher comes in. Ask: What is going on here? Where is it taking place? Who is doing the action? Are there words that we need to learn? How is the author getting the point across? Which part is a favorite? Simple questions can unlock the treasures waiting between any two covers. A color-coded highlighting system is the key. Use a different color for each kind of question. For example, answers to the question, who is doing the action?, might be highlighted in pink (names) and answers to the question, "which parts are your favorite?", might be highlighted in blue.

Additional advantages await. In this digital age, how many times has the word “interactive” been used to tout the latest and greatest educational gizmo? Instead of thinking that interaction must involve electricity or pixels, think of it as an “action” between (“inter”) at least 2 parties: the reader and the book. The act of asking questions and marking a text involves movement and objects. A kinesthetic learner suddenly finds that reading is literally a hands-on experience. A visual learner instantly categorizes the content by means of the colors used to draw attention to words or sentences. An auditory learner is free to talk back to the author and becomes an active participant. All benefit by the ease of reviewing the material, which in turn reinforces the material for easier retention.

The best benefit? It’s hard to fall asleep while wielding a handful of highlighters.

Lastly, this kind of participatory reading brings with it a level of ownership lacking in more traditional (i.e. passive) reading sessions. The active reader doesn’t say “Here am I, I dare you to entertain me”, rather he approaches a text with the intention of making it his own. Two students won't necessarily be captivated by the same brilliant sentence. Everyone will bring his own background and knowledge with him which will in turn inform their questions and notes. When a book is read, it may well become a favorite, filled with markings and notes of favorite passages. For some it might occupy a space on the shelf reserved for reference material, material which will be easier to find later thanks to careful annotations. It may be loaned, beginning a journey marked by a map of notations, penned by subsequent readers. No matter the end result, the experience of truly understanding a book lasts forever.

Understandably, some may be a little concerned by the idea of permanently marking in a book. Trained by years of “don’t touch” and “don’t bend”, we bristle at this unorthodox method. To take a repository of words and thoughts of those who have gone before and…and….color on them.... seems the height of sacrilege! Consider these alternative views instead. Might not the original author have wanted his or her audience to actively engage in learning from these carefully orchestrated thoughts? Does any writer pour his soul onto paper with the goal of having it rest on a dusty shelf? Likewise, think of a hammer or nails, tools meant to be used for a further purpose. Books are tools to grow human beings. They are a step on the path, not the destination. Mortimer Adler says that “…marking up a book is not an act of mutilation, but of love.”

This destination will cost a fortune! Yes, it can be argued that this is not the most cost effective way to read and learn, but all is not lost. First, many inexpensive editions of classic works are readily available. No painter begins with the expensive oils, neither should a beginning reader go to town on Great-grandfather’s leather bound antique edition. Start small. Stop thinking of books as a one-time purchase and begin to look at them as a lifetime investment. What a joy to send your child or your student on his way into the world armed with a collection of well-loved, used books.

No one embarks upon a decision to become a classical educator without counting the cost, so be forewarned. This is not the cheapest way to read a book nor is it the quickest. That impressive reading list you have built might have to be shortened. Building those reading muscles takes hard work. Thankfully, the first step is an easy one and doesn’t take much muscle power at all: Open a book, grab a highlighter, and make your mark.

David Kern

David Kern

David is director of our multimedia initiatives (podcast host, web-content manager, magazine editor, etc). He often writes about film, television, books, and other culture-related topics, and has been published by Christ and Pop Culture, Think Christian, Relevant, and elsewhere.  David and his wife, Bethany, have three young boys and they live in Concord, NC. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS

Wonderful post here, Renee! Thank you for the clear and concise thoughts. I am passing this onto my community parents as we head toward our Shakepeare studies this year!

I love this post, Renee! This is a yearly discussion here with parents and students, and I love to see students grasp this idea. It makes me incredibly happy as a teacher to have a student whip out their book, find something they have marked, and confidently share their ideas with the class. The whole process becomes even more exciting when students have marked and "conversed" with a book so much that they bring out a book read previously in the year and relate what they have noted there with the book currently being discussed.

It might defeat the purpose of using a Kindle or similar technologies but you could try getting a notebook and marking down page and paragraph numbers of the text to be annotated, and then making your notes in the notebook. More to lug around, but possibly an acceptable way to do it until someone designes a reading software that permits the addition of annotations smoothly. Of course, the extra step might break your flow of thought and concentration and make this method drastically less viable.

Also, if you do any reading on an iPad or similar device you could open a folder for notes and keep text files of your annotations to negate the need for carrying around a notebook along with the E-Book. This method may suffer from the break in thought flow as well though.

This post reminded me of another post I recently viewed. I hope you all will enjoy it. It shows how some famous people wrote in the margins of their books. Thomas Jefferson is one of them.



I think the real problem is less how readers encounter the material object of the book than how we teach children to read. When I graduated from college, I lucked into a job at an unconventional private school teaching third grade. As a political science major, I wasn't really sure what eight-year-olds were supposed to know. So I taught them to close read. Now, as eighth graders, those same children are among the most effective readers of any age that I know. It's not because I was a brilliant teacher, but because, for them, reading and reading critically are the same process. They think about everything the read without the need to mark up the text because they learned to keep a dialog going in their heads at the same time they learned to read.

(It doesn't hurt that they've grown up reading great children's books either. It's not fair to expect someone who's been reading mediocre, "age appropriate" fiction to have the skills necessary to read a Greek epic. I run my website of good, literary books for kids for exactly that reason.)

I love this. Something Kim Jahn wrote in a post on 5/2/2012 relates to this:

When you seek the truth, the other stuff follows. It's not about a particular technique, but about the hunger (god-given, and very alive in children) to understand. This leads to an internal dialogue in which the child is actively engaged.

Amen and amen!! I have the hardest time convincing my students (9th grade literature) that it is a good thing to mark up their books. Ah! if only their parents would read your post.

When I first attempted to read The Iliad the only thing that got me through all of the violence and the myriad of names was colored pencils! I would shade in red the most violent lines, purple for the thoughts of the gods, blue for the descriptions of the main characters' and their important lines, etc. etc.

This is a helpful article. I was never taught to annotate, but now I have hired a tutor to teach my son this skill.

I do have a serious question: I had virtually stopped reading because of vision issues, but now that I have a Kindle, I read a LOT and I am reading the classics. I have seen this same thing happen with others who have taken on electronic reading devices.

So here is my question: do you know of anyone who has taken a look at how to "annotate" electronically? The Kindle has the ability to bookmark and type annotations, but this is a flawed process; it is an attempt to port a process across a technology line where it doesn't work.

The only responses I have seen from academics have been Luddite squawks of disapproval and demands that the readers return to paper. I think we can do better than this. I am working on it, that is, practicing a method of annotating while reading from my Kindle, but as I don't really know what I am doing to start with--in the paper world--I don't think much of my own efforts.

Do you know of anyone who is thinking about the way we read in an electronic world?

Does your kindle allow colored highlighting? On my I-pad I follow the highlighting system that Renee described above. It's not perfect, but nothing is.