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How to Read a Book

How to Read a BookMost of us assume we learned everything we need to know about reading at school. As adults, we consider reading a book to be as straightforward as starting at the beginning and stopping at the end. In How to Read a Book, however, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren argue that, if we read to increase our understanding of the world, we can get more from our books by first learning how to read them more skilfully.

The authors argue that good reading is active and effortful. It requires us to ask questions of a book as we go. Specifically, our goal should be to answer four questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

Taking notes as we read is essential:

“First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.”

There are four levels at which we can read. Elementary reading is what we learn at school. Inspectional and analytical reading are techniques for reading a single book. Finally, syntopical reading is a technique for reading many books on the same subject. Each level builds on the ones before.

Inspectional reading

Inspectional reading involves systematically skimming the contents of a book to rapidly identify its main points. By doing this first, we can later read each chapter with a better understanding of the larger context into which it fits. It’s also useful for quickly determining whether a book is worth reading at all. Not every book has something of value to offer us, and we only have time to read a tiny fraction of those that do.

To conduct an inspectional reading, first look at the title and subtitle. Be careful not to bring any preconceptions about what the book is about. What, exactly, do they say?

Next, study the table of contents. This is a topical arrangement of the material. It indicates the structure of the book and provides an idea of what the main points are and the order in which they will be developed.

Then look at the index. This is an alphabetical arrangement of the material. Words with many references likely represent the key concepts discussed in the book. This gives us an idea of what’s most important to the author.

Read the preface if there is one. This ought to provide a high-level summary of the material that will be covered in the book. Supplement with the publisher’s blurb. Although generally promotional in nature, it can still provide insight into what exactly the book is about.

Finally, look for what appear to be the pivotal chapters of the book and scan their beginning and end for summaries of the points made therein.

Analytical reading

Analytical reading is the process of reading a book in depth, from beginning to end. It involves first understanding what the author is saying, then deciding whether we agree.

What is it about?

The first stage of analytical reading is developing an understanding of what the book is about. This requires us to:

“1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.”

An inspectional reading will have already provided the answers to most of these questions.

When classifying a book, we should consider whether the work is theoretical or practical:

“Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.”

When looking for the structure of the book, it can be helpful to keep in mind the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing:

“The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through.”

What is being said?

The second stage of analytical reading involves interpreting the book’s contents:

“5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.”

The first step is to identify the terms the author uses. These are the words used with a specific meaning. Often these are the most frequently referenced words in the index.

Next, we look for the propositions that the author constructs from these terms. These are single sentences, either premises or conclusions, that constitute declarations of knowledge or opinion that provide the answers to the questions the author is trying to answer. Knowledge can be distinguished from opinion by the presence of supporting reasons.

“Unless we are exclusively interested in the author’s personality, we should not be satisfied with knowing what his opinions are. His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. If it is the book and the subject with which it deals that we are interested in, and not just the author, we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.”

The author’s arguments are contained in collections of sentences that include his propositions. These sentences may be contiguous, within the same paragraph, or spread throughout the book, in which case we may need to construct the argument for ourselves. Every argument must start with either an assumption or a fact that the author holds to be self-evident. The author may or may not make these explicit.

We can either search for the terms and work up to the propositions and arguments, or we can look for the arguments and from them work down to the propositions and terms.

Searching for collections of sentences with a defined beginning and end is one way to find the author’s propositions. To be sure we have understood them, we should state them in our own words, and try to provide an example, preferably from our own experience.

Books that increase our understanding of the world, by definition, teach us something new. Because of this, another way to identify the author’s key terms, propositions and arguments can be to look for the material that we find difficult to understand.

Is it true?

The third stage of analytical reading requires deciding whether we agree with what the author has said. In doing so, we should abide by the following rules of intellectual etiquette:

“9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment , until you can say “I understand.”)

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.”

Point 9 is crucial:

“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.”

If we are going to criticise the author, we must:

“12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.

14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.”

If we can show that the author is uninformed (he lacks relevant knowledge), misinformed (he made a faulty assertion), or illogical (his conclusions do not follow from his reasons, or he has been inconsistent), we can disagree with his conclusions. However, we must give our reasons for doing so, otherwise we are mistaking our opinion for fact.

We should also be sure that we are disagreeing with the book’s conclusions, not its assumptions. The analysis of a book is about determining whether an author’s conclusions follow from his assumptions, not whether the assumptions themselves are valid.

If we can show that the author’s analysis is incomplete, we may suspend judgement on his conclusions.

If we cannot disagree or suspend judgement, however, then we must agree with the author. Note the “must”. We may not like his conclusions, but unless we can show where the author’s analysis was faulty or incomplete, we are bound to agree with them nonetheless.

What of it?

Finally we must consider the implications of what we have read:

“If the book has given you information , you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you , but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.”

If we are reading a practical book, and we agree with the author, then we have an obligation to act upon what we have read.

Syntopical reading

Beyond inspectional and analytical reading is another level of reading that the authors term syntopical reading. This is the process of reading more than one book on a particular subject in order to obtain a broader understanding of that subject.

Preparing for this requires drawing up a shortlist of potentially relevant books, then performing an inspectional reading of all of them. The latter helps us to determine which are actually relevant, as well as clarifying what our subject actually is, something that’s not always simple.

Next we must actually read the books we have identified. Although the skills of analytical reading are still important when reading syntopically, analytical reading is primarily about how to read a single book with the goal of understanding what its author is trying to say. In syntopical reading, however, the goal is to address our concerns. Thus we do not simply read every book on our shortlist analytically. Instead:

“1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject… in order to find the most relevant passages.

2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing , whether they actually employ the words or not.

3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.

4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.

5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.”

The goal is to look at all sides, but take none:

“The aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it, or the final solution of the problem with which the project began. This is particularly true of the report we might try to make of such syntopical reading. It would be dogmatic, not dialectical, if, on any of the important issues that it identified and analyzed, it asserted or tried to prove the truth or falsity of any view. If it did that, the syntopical analysis would cease to be syntopical; it would become simply one more voice in the discussion”

Avoiding explicit judgements, however, isn’t sufficient:

“Partiality can intrude in a variety of subtle ways—by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various different answers to key questions are presented.”

Adler and Van Doren have a solution, however:

“In order to avoid some of these dangers , the conscientious syntopical reader… must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language.

How to Read a Book provides an invaluable framework for anyone who reads for wisdom, understanding and enlightenment.

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