Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of the Great Books of the Western World project, also wrote How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, a book that is precisely what the title suggests.

His mention, early in the book, of speed reading instruction brought back some memories. I recall the special projectors they brought into our classroom, which scrolled a narrow strip of words along the screen faster and faster, forcing us to read faster to keep up. Adler’s book, though, is not about reading as fast as possible, but reading at a pace appropriate to the level of the book and to the reader intentions.

Though Adler starts out laboriously stating the obvious, he does move on to some helpful ideas. He distinguishes between reading for entertainment, for information, and for understanding, and prescribes different approaches to reading in each of those situations.

Among the more evident points he makes is the suggestion to read the table of contents and the index before reading the rest of a book. What caught my attention here was his description of something that used to be more common: detailed tables of contents that contained an outline of the main points made in each chapter. Once in a while you will see such thorough TOCs in old books, but very rarely anymore. Adler prepared a thorough table of contents in his own book, and I can see how it adds much more value to the book than would the abbreviated list of chapter titles one usually finds as a table of contents.

Depending on what I am reading, particularly with more challenging material that contains multiple layers of meaning, I often find myself torn between wanting to read for the story versus plumbing the depths for symbolism, underlying themes and parallels with other works. Adler addresses this matter with the recommendation of reading a book more than once, if it warrants such attention. He urges the reader to ask questions of the book and to make a quick pass through the book with four questions in mind:

What is the book about as a whole?

What is being said in detail, and how?

Is the book true, in whole or in part?

What of it? (What is the significance of the book?)


Adler says these four questions, summarizing the whole obligation of a reader, apply to anything worth reading.

Often, I am at a loss for words to describe a book that I may be reading at a given point in time. So Adler’s advice is well-taken, that is, to summarize what the whole book is about in a single sentence or short paragraph. Adler also suggests that the reader outline the major parts of the book. I have to agree that taking these steps can contribute greatly to the value derived from a book, and I expect to be posting such notes for the titles on my reading list.

Adler has much more to say in his “rules for analytical reading” and his discussion of syntopical reading, which involves the analysis and comparison of multiple books on a given subject. (More on this later, perhaps.)

Initially, I was disappointed with the Adler book, but his methodical approach to the subject offers some valuable techniques that are especially well-suited to the task at hand.

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