On Marking Up Your Bible

May 5th, 2010

Mortimer J. Adler, in his essay, How to Mark a Book, from the essayist, Harper and Row, 1985, contended that “marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.” He said that “the marked book is usually the thought-through book” and added that “a great book, rich in ideas and beauty, a book that raises and tries to answer great fundamental questions, demands the most active reading of which you are capable.” He suggested that marking up a book is a part of the process of active reading.

I read Adler’s essay a year after I found the secret in Mom’s Bible.

Mom cherished books. Even though we didn’t have much spare money, the house was always filled with them, good books, challenging, enriching, fun-filled classics, and we were taught, early, to read them, to enjoy them, but to treat them with absolute dignity. Books were accorded the same respect shown to the good china … though they were to be used more often. Books called for clean hands, and tender handling. Mom’s children did not bend corners nor break spines.

Mom died two years ago, at the age of 87. Just before her last illness she moved in with one of my sisters. Until then, she had lived for several years alone in a little senior citizen’s apartment in Saskatchewan. I had been left with anxious, unanswered questions. How lonely had she been? Did her days drag, endlessly? Was she unhappy? Had there been joy in her days? And, most of all, had I neglected her? Did she feel abandoned, by the world, by the nine of us she still had, to whom she had given so much of herself for so many years?

Last year, one of my siblings sent me a small collection of Mom’s things, including  a Bible, a relatively new one, a soft cover version of The Way which I added it to my reference shelves without too much thought. A few months later, I fetched it down, wanting to cross reference a translation of some quotation for an article I was writing.

A red ball point pen check mark literally shot off the page. I began to leaf through the Bible. Passages were checked off in red ball point, passages were checked off in blue, all of them made in Mom’s unmistakable hand. I flipped to the front of the Bible. Mom had an interesting little quirk – if there were no message in a book she received as a gift,  she would inscribe it herself. This Bible read, in her own handwriting, “1980, to Mom from Magnus and Maretta.”

Not an old Bible. And the passages weren’t all marked with one pen, as they might have been if someone had gone through, quickly, one day, making points. But the marks were all in the same style, little check marks, unassuming, as Mom herself was, but affirming, the response of someone who was nodding enthusiastically and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” I searched the Bible for the marked passages, Old Testament, New Testament, then closed the book slowly and hugged it for a long moment.

I had my answer. I no longer carry a mental image of a lonely old woman, sitting in the dark, hurting in silence. I see a woman with her Bible, reflecting on her life, seeing the far-reaching good that had come from the harsher moments, and, finally, I see a lady who, with joyful and sometimes impatient anticipation, waited to return to her real home.

The message was obvious. I chose my soft cover version of The Good News, the one that I connect with my life-changing Cursillo weekend. It’s my write-in Bible … my favourite passages are underlined, boldly, and sometimes double-scored, in thick, black pencil. I can find them, when I need them, by a quick flip through the pages, and, where a passage has spoken deeply to me when I’ve needed it, I’ve drawn a cross in the margin.

I wouldn’t do it to my old leather bound family Bible, the one that my father inscribed for me when I was confirmed, but, then, I don’t use that one much, either. It’s my pocket book Bible that sits at the head of the bed, and we have another one, a battered little testament, “The Blue Jeans Bible” that travels with us on the boat, and which lends itself to rough usage and marking up.

“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author,” Adler said. But he missed an important point in his essay. “You won’t want to lend your books, because a marked copy is a kind of intellectual diary and lending it is almost like giving your mind away,” he said.

But isn’t that a wonder-filled and powerful way to share? Someday, just maybe, one of my kids will find me, in the pages of my old marked-up Bible, and, maybe, just maybe, I will be able to speak to my child, then, of values and philosophies and attitudes in ways I had never before managed.

Mark up my Bible? Of course I will. Adler missed it in his essay; Mom surely didn’t know it while she was doing it, but the marked passages in my Mom’s Bible have become the final, greatest, most lasting gift of all, from my Mom to me.

Joan Eyolfson Cadham

(From the Companion of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony, January 1989, pp. 23-23;

Reproduced with permission of the author, and of the Conventual Franciscan Friars of Immaculate Conception Province.)

About Father Murray Watson
Fr. Murray Watson is a priest of the London diocese. Ordained in 1996, he teaches Scripture at St. Peter's Seminary and has lectured on the Bible in various parts of Canada. Fr. Murray’s research focuses on the Jewish context of Jesus and the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He recently completed his PhD in Scripture at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.