From The New York Review of Books:
Imagine you are asked what single alteration in people’s behavior might best improve the lot of mankind. How foolish would you have to be to reply: have them learn to read with a pen in their hands? But I firmly believe such a simple development would bring huge benefits.
We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both. If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity. What surprised me most when I first began publishing fiction myself was how much at every level a novelist canget away with.
This extravagant regard, which seemed to reach a peak in the second half of the twentieth century as the modernists of a generation before were canonized as performers of the ever more arduous miracle of conferring a little meaning on life, is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins. Obviously, for those of us brought up on library books and school-owned textbooks (my copy of Browning bore the name of a dozen pupils who had used the text before me), there were simple and sensible reasons supporting this behavior. But the reverence went beyond a proper respect for those who would be reading the pages after you. Even when I bought a book myself, if my parents caught me breaking its spine so that it would lay open on the desk, they were shocked. Writing was sacred. In the beginning was the Word. The word written down, hopefully on quality paper. Much of the resistance to e-books, notably from the literati, has to do with a loss of this sense of sacredness, of a vulnerable paper vessel that can thrive on our protective devotion.
. . . .
Aside from simply insisting, as I already had for years, that they be more alert, I began to wonder what was the most practical way I could lead my students to a greater attentiveness, teach them to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it? I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “bullshit.”
A pen is not a magic wand. The critical faculty is not conjured from nothing. But it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books