How NOT to answer a question

How is Morton Adler’s 1941 essay, “How to Mark a Book,” relevant today? Well, we still have books. So it’s still relevant.

That’s my flippant, only-had-one-cup-of-coffee response. Let me look at the question again and see if I can get more serious.

OK, so yeah, the question is a bit confusing. No wonder some students emailed me asking for clarification. I think the confusion is with the term “educational media.” Here’s the question: “Argue for or against the proposition that this essay has lost its relevance owing to the introduction of new forms of educational media.”

Adler is talking about making books our own. About engaging knowledge — that is, reading actively. And yes, that sentence was a fragment. When is it OK to write fragments? And now I’m almost hyper-conscious of my audience, which are the writers in my two sections of EH 101. Many of these writers have been taught not to begin a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “because.” Many of them have learned that writing a fragment will produce the fragment police and an automatic appearance in grammar court.

I’m digressing. I told you I haven’t had enough coffee.

The author of our writing prompt equates Adler’s books with educational media. Is Adler only writing to students about the books they read? I don’t think so. I think he’s writing to any reader who tackles challenging books. Adler excludes Gone with the Wind. When was that published? (Quick rummaging in Google — Wikipedia says it was published in May, 1936 and that Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 1937.) So fictional bestsellers don’t count. I wonder if Dickens’ Oliver Twist would count as a book that merits marking up? That was a fictional bestseller, too, but the novel’s status as a classic may garner it a place on the Great Books list — Adler talks about the University of Chicago president’s reading habits, and President Hutchins (“The most famous active reader of great books,” as Adler describes him [14]) and Adler are both founders (?) of the Great Books curriculum of reading. Somewhat elitist, very western and classical. As someone who studies novels for a living, I can say that many of my marked-up novels would likely make Adler proud.

I haven’t even gotten to the question yet. So who was Adler’s audience? The Saturday Review of Literature, 6 July 1941 — the where and when of publication. What the heck is  The Saturday Review of Literature? Sounds like a defunct publication. Again, back to Google.  Aha! Here’s the start of the Wikipedia entry: “Saturday Review (1924–1986) was a weekly U.S. based magazine. From 1920 to 1924, Literary Review was a Saturday supplement to the New York Evening Post. Henry Seidel Canby established it as a separate publication in 1924. Until 1942, it was known as The Saturday Review of Literature.” So, the audience was a more general one, not just focused on students.

And as I write down how I’m responding to this question, I’m finally coming to a kind of answer. Sixty-nine years after Adler published his article, we still have books, we can still learn from his recipe for reading actively. But information is radically different. We have so much more of it, and it’s so much more accessible. Twice while writing this, I turned to Google to find answers. I used a search engine and a collaboratively built encyclopedia. If I googled Mortimer Adler and “How to Mark a Book,” I”m sure I’d find loads of sites discussing this article. It’s anthologized in our reader, and I’m sure it’s anthologized other places.

If anything, we need to be more careful and engaged readers than Adler describes. We need to be detectives — who wrote the entry on Wikipedia that tells me about The Saturday Review of Literature or Gone with the Wind? Is Adler’s original article reprinted  correctly in our reader? Reading online or reading e-books or on a Kindle — do these media make marking up the reading more difficult or easier? I tend to only mark up hard copy.

*Footnote on writing in WordPress: I wrote the above on a Pages document (Pages is the word processing program for the Mac OS), copied it, and pasted into a new post. When I re-read, I noticed all my careful italicizing was gone, so I had to go back through and highlight the titles of books and magazines and use the WordPress editor. Just FYI.


3 responses to “How NOT to answer a question

  1. This is such a great example of jumping between the subject matter and things that are going on around you, amaZING!

  2. You definitely practice your word BARF teachings. It almost makes it difficult to read. I had to pick around to find information even remotely relevant to the topic. But it also adds an element of intrigue to your writing. It allows me to figure out what is going on in your mind as you are writing, and it lets me know that i am not the only one who thinks like that. I typically don’t write it out though.

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