How to Read a Book

Why would an avid reader for decades pick up How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren?

I had three reasons:

  1. I’d like to retain more from my reading. Though I flag pages, underline or note important points, sometimes even outline chapters, I forget much of what I’ve read in a short while.
  2. Reading better in general should enhance one’s ability to read the Bible.
  3. I see so many people online talking past each other. I’ve wondered if that has anything to do with a lack of reading comprehension.

This book was originally written by Adler in 1940. Adler revised and updated it with Charles Van Doren in 1972. Even though 1972 doesn’t seem all that long ago to me, as far as literature is concerned, I found this book very tedious. I read a lot of old classics, so I don’t think older language is the problem here. I think it’s just Adler’s style.

It would take up too much time and space to go into Adler’s method here. But this Goodreads review goes into more detail.

Adler’s first step would be what we call pre-reading, and most of us do this to some degree, depending on the book, the author, and our familiarity with both. Many of us would look at the front cover, the back cover, look over the table of contents, read the first paragraph or two, maybe leaf through the whole thing briefly. But Adler’s method goes into much more detail and study. One of his first steps is to read the whole book once and then come back and apply these other steps.

Adler’s stages of reading are: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. He discusses the first three in great detail and then applies his principles to various types of books. Then he has a chapter on syntopical reading, which goes beyond the reading of one book to reading several books on a given topic. He ends with a list of recommended reading and an appendix of exercises and tests for the various levels (I just glanced through the last appendix without trying any of the tests).

Honestly, I can’t see someone going through all Adler’s steps unless they’re incredibly academically minded or unless they need to know the book extremely well for a class.

Does that mean my time in the book was a waste?

No. Even though I have no desire to follow Adler’s advice for all my reading, I agreed with many points. I especially appreciated the urge to read actively, not passively. I gleaned numerous nuggets I liked. I can’t share them all here, but here are a few:

I think his evaluation of the average high school student is probably true even of many adults today:

He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college (p. xi.).

This was written before personal computers, much less iPhones and ebooks, but this is even more true now:

There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding. One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think (p. 4).

Even though I don’t know many people who would read a whole book at an elementary level before coming back to read it analytically, I can see Adler’s point here:

We were told to consult footnotes, scholarly commentaries, or other secondary sources to get help. But when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

The tremendous pleasure that can come from reading Shakespeare, for instance, was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, As You Like It, or Hamlet, scene by scene, looking up all the strange words in a glossary and studying all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never really read a Shakespearean play. By the time they reached the end, they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole. Instead of being forced to take this pedantic approach, they should have been encouraged to read the play at one sitting and discuss what they got out of that first quick reading. Only then would they have been ready to study the play carefully and closely, because then they would have understood enough of it to learn more (p. 37).

I thought this about propaganda was especially good:

The best protection against propaganda of any sort is the recognition of it for what it is. Only hidden and undetected oratory is really insidious. What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business. Propaganda taken in that way is like a drug you do not know you are swallowing. The effect is mysterious; you do not know afterwards why you feel or think the way you do (p. 198).

What about my three purposes for reading the book?

First, I did not get any information specifically about retaining more from reading, but that was not this book’s purpose. Probably one would retain more, at least for a time. Even if I did use Adler’s methods, I would still probably forget much without reviewing either the book or my notes from time to time. But I did get some ideas for improved note-taking.

Secondly, I did think that Adler’s methods would be good for Bible study. I’m an advocate of reading a book of the Bible at a time rather than cherry-picking random verses here and there.

As to my third purpose, I thought he brought up some very good points. One of his steps is ascertaining whether or not you agree with the author, and if not, why not. But you have to support your views from what the book actually said. So one can’t take things out of context, infer one’s own views, etc. Of course, our era of sound bytes and no context at all on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t really support good, meaningful communication.

Have you read Adler’s and Van Doren’s book? What do you think about any of his points mentioned here?

I counting this book for the Hobby category of the Nonfiction Reader Challenge since reading is my main hobby.

Book Review: How to Read Slowly

How to Read SlowlyI don’t remember how the book How to Read Slowly: Reading For Comprehension by James W. Sire first came to my attention, but it caught my eye when it did. I didn’t want to change my reading speed necessarily, but I did want to learn how to retain more from what I read, especially non-fiction (stories seem to stay with me longer and better with less effort). Even with marking quotes, using sticky tabs to mark the most important passages, and sometimes even outlining the chapters, I still tend to forget a great deal. Even though this was a book about comprehension rather than retention, I figured the one would aid the other.

I had not known Sire was a Christian when I bought the book, but right at the beginning he states that though this book would be beneficial to any reader, he primarily wanted to encourage “Christians to think and read well. Christians, of all people, should reflect the mind of their Maker. Learning to read well is a step toward loving God with your mind. It is a leap toward thinking God’s thoughts after Him” (p. 12). To which I say a hearty “Amen!”

With both instruction and example, Sire shows how to detect an author’s world view, how to read “between the lines” while not “inventing or imagining what is not really there” (p. 42),  how to “track the flow” of author’s argument or reasoning process. He has a whole chapter on poetry, another on reading fiction, another on reading in context (not imprinting our current way of thinking on older books, but understanding the context in which they were written). He gives tips for how to read, what to look for, what to mark, and encourages a lot of rereading. He talks about the difference between reading nonfiction and imaginative literature.

Here are some quotes that stood out to me:

What is the primary reason for reading poetry or any imaginative literature? Beyond all psychologizing as to real or apparent motives, we read literature because we enjoy it — and we enjoy it because we are grabbed by it, our attention is arrested. We say, “Aha! Yes, that’s how it is.”

In great literature — poetry and fiction — we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, the world around us. We see our interests portrayed in bold relief — our questions asked better than we can ask them, our problems pictured better than we can picture them by ourselves, our fantasies realized beyond our fondest dreams, our fears confirmed in horrors more horrible than our nightmares, our hopes fulfilled past our ability to yearn or desire. In literature we catch reality in a mirror…

Life is short, but art is long. Sophocles is dead, but Oedipus lives on…Each of us when we read a great piece of literature is a little more human than before (pp 58-59).

Well-wrought poems and works of imaginative literature can do for us what stone-cold prose can never do. They can help us grasp the full dimension of ways of life other than our own (p. 86).

Our ability to read well depends to a large degree on just how clearly we understand ourselves and how much we realize ours is not the only way to look at reality….I am not saying we ought not to disagree with anything we read. Indeed not. We must disagree if the thrust is in opposition to what we take — after reflection, study, and prayer — to be the truth. But we must also be sure that we have “heard” the other person as he or she wishes to be heard (p. 141).

We have more to fear from naivete with regard to error than we do from clear knowledge of error that we recognize as error….A knowledge of the truth is the best defense against error (p. 146).

One thing the Bible does not do: it does not denigrate the mind. The Bible is not anti-intellectual. Rather it gives the reason why all of us know what we know, why we can think with some degree of accuracy, and why we fail to think with complete accuracy (p. 148).

Every avid reader struggles with the sheer amount of good books on our shelves that we haven’t gotten to as well as the ones we see in stores or online or recommended by friends. Sire says, “We will never catch up. But we can get on with it…Reading does get done. The point is to start and then to read well. How far we get, how many books we read, must not become the issue” (p. 155).

I don’t know if I would say that I enjoyed the book – it’s not something I’d pick up for fun. But I did benefit from it. It feels a little like high school or college English class in some places (not surprisingly, Sire taught English literature and philosophy at various colleges), but I liked classroom English, so I didn’t mind that aspect of the book. The section on the mechanics of poetry got a little technical for me (I had not known, or else had forgotten, what a spondee was), but I appreciate his illustration that even the meter and rhythm of a poem illustrate its message. I just don’t know how many people are seriously going to count syllables and abab cdcd the rhyming lines outside of a classroom unless they’re really into poetry. But that’s the only part that went a little overboard (for me. Someone else may have found it fascinating). This is a book I would highly recommend for anyone interested in the subject.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)