How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

In the beach house we are renting resides a small sampling of books:  Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, Lillian Jackson Braun, Danielle Steel.  I, of course, don't go anywhere without a sizable stack of my own, so I didn't have to resort to these authors this week.  Instead, I finished Jacob's Room (which I don't plan to comment fully on after all - suffice it to say that I remained intrigued with the concept if not enamored of the whole experience) and began Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book.  My in-laws all found this title extraordinarily ironic. 

My connection with Adler began when I was in the 5th grade and enrolled in a new magnet school based on Adler's Paideia philosophy of education.  I did some college projects on the Paideia philosophy, so I have read most of the books he wrote on that subject.  But I just stumbled across this classic text at a used bookstore some weeks ago and figured I should give it a read.  Written originally in 1940, and revised and updated in 1967, this text has offered a mixed bag of thought-provokation.

The idea here is that of a practical exposition on reading: like an appliance manual or a cookbook, it wants to teach you how to properly (note the importance of this modifier!) accomplish this thing called reading.  The book is divided into four parts and attempts to cover a broad range of questions surrounding the art and craft of reading.  The first section focuses on the first two levels of reading which Adler and Van Doren call "elementary reading" and "inspectional reading."  These levels confront the basic notion of translating symbol into meaning and how to first approach a book - skimming or prereading, if you will.  Part two devotes itself to the third level of reading: analytical reading, and it gives you specific and demanding rules for how to properly engage with a book.  Part three provides more detail about how to approach different kinds of books, with chapters entitled "How to Read Philosophy" and "How to Read Social Science."  Part four takes on "The Ultimate Goals of Reading" - what they call syntopical reading and the general idea of growing one's mind through reading.  If all this summation doesn't make you laugh or turn you off entirely, knowing that the whole text is over 400 pages long will probably do it.

So, why have I persisted with this work?  Well, it is actually interesting. . . to a degree.  They have managed to break down and examine the intimately familiar act of reading and have transformed it into something almost foreign.  I have learned a few things, agreed with a few points (in particular, the claim that "the dictionary also invites a playful reading.  It challenges anyone to sit down with it in an idle moment.  There are worse ways to kill time" (178), and found their ideas lacking in some areas.  It is a bit pedantic, but the overall effect has been positive. 

In part one, Adler and Van Doren argue against the trend of speed-reading (which was apparently quite popular in the 60s) by insisting that speed is not the ultimate goal of all reading.  Increasing your speed might help you enjoy or comprehend what you read more, but you should not always view faster reading as better reading.  "Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension" (39).  I agree with their point and actually take it further to assert that within any given book, there might be sections that demand more or less time and attention depending on their subject matter.  For example, in this book, I have annotated and perused the first two sections (as possible teaching tools) fairly seriously, but I mostly skimmed the third section. 

Perhaps the most interesting assertion they make, though, could be applied outside the particular realm of reading.  In discussing the proper ways to disagree with an author, they offer three ideal conditions which they call "the sine qua non of intelligent and profitable conversation" (155).  They follow those assertions with this jewel: "But the ideal here, as elsewhere, can only be approximated.  The ideal should never be expected from human beings" (155).  As a part-time perfectionist, I had to pause at this moment.  How could you lay out rules and insist that they cannot be expected to be followed?  It is in this statement that Adler and Van Doren show their hand:  this book is not just an auto-repair manual or simple "how-to".  It is a philosophical treatise on a dying art, an attempt to conjure and protect some worthy craft that has been too-long neglected.  Only after pausing in this moment was I able to get to the bottom of my unsettled feeling about this text.  It claims to be a hands-on practical application book, but I could not imagine anyone wanting to read it who was not already an avid reader.  It is preaching to the choir, or to the teachers anyway, but it claims to be an evangelist. 

Perhaps it is this underlying conflict that made my non-bibliophilish in-laws laugh at the title.  Perhaps the non-readers knew automatically what it took me reading most of this book to figure out.

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