Skip to content ↓

False Reverence

Here is a great (and famous) quote from Mortimer Adler’s classic How To Read a Book.

There are two ways in which one can own a book. The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it. An illustration may make the point clear. You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher’s icebox to your own. But you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your blood stream to do you any good.

Confusion about what it means to “own” a book leads people to a false reverence for paper, binding, and type — a respect for the physical thing — the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author. They forget that it is possible for a man to acquire the idea, to possess the beauty, which a great book contains, without staking his claim by pasting his bookplate inside the cover. Having a fine library doesn’t prove that its owner has a mind enriched by books; it proves nothing more than that he, his father, or his wife, was rich enough to buy them.

There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the standard sets and best sellers — unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books — a few of them read through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a few books or many — every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.) …

But the soul of a book “can” be separate from its body. A book is more like the score of a piece of music than it is like a painting. No great musician confuses a symphony with the printed sheets of music. Arturo Toscanini reveres Brahms, but Toscanini’s score of the G minor Symphony is so thoroughly marked up that no one but the maestro himself can read it. The reason why a great conductor makes notations on his musical scores — marks them up again and again each time he returns to study them–is the reason why you should mark your books. If your respect for magnificent binding or typography gets in the way, buy yourself a cheap edition and pay your respects to the author.


  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 20)

    A La Carte: How to support the caregivers in your church / What we gain in following Jesus / The way we feel is not necessarily the way it is / The power and danger of habit / The man who introduced American Evangelicals to C.S. Lewis / and more.

  • Do Not Envy the Wicked

    Do You Envy the Wicked?

    It takes a long time for sinful instincts to become pure, for tendencies toward what is evil to be transformed into tendencies toward what is good, lovely, and pleasing to God. The man who quits drugs will still react when he catches a whiff and the woman who gave up alcoholism will still struggle when…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 19)

    A La Carte: The golden rule for hard conversations / Seven reasons you shouldn’t ignore beauty / The early church on entertainment / The uselessness of prayer / A thousand wheels of providence / Impossible, hard, and easy / and more.

  • Our Salvation Through Christ

    This week the blog is sponsored by Moody Publishers and this post is adapted from The Kindness of God by Nate Pickowicz (© 2024). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. Just like the Old Testament, the New Testament teaches that this wonderful salvation is extended to us as a kindness. Paul opens his letter…

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (June 18)

    A La Carte: The pursuit of (which) happiness? / Don’t hastily choose elders / The evangelistic nature of awe / What you read builds who you are / Till he was strong / A father’s threads of living faith / Logos deals / and more.

  • Lets Hear It For the Second Parents

    Let’s Hear It For the Second Parents

    While today we tend to associate step-parents with divorce, in previous centuries they were almost exclusively associated with death and with either widow- or widowerhood. In an era in which lifespans were shorter and, therefore, a greater number of parents died while their children were still young, there was a distinct and honored role for…