Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Benefits of "How to Read a Book"

A reading of the highly instructive How to Read a Book would show that after 70-plus years, the book still applies to an e-reading world. It was first published by Mortimer J. Adler in 1940 and was last revised with Charles Van Doren in 1972, which seems like ancient history, especially in light of the reading revolution. Yet as we click on links and skim through headings of text in our iPads, Kindles, and Nooks, the four levels of reading and the various stages within those levels described in the book still reflect the reading experience. The truth be told, most adults still need instruction in how to read critically, and this book shows us how.

In How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren begin with the notion that reading is far from the passive activity many educators claim it is. They lay out in great detail the four levels of reading as elementary (word, sentence, and paragraph recognition, vocabulary development), inspectional (learning the basis and content of the book), analytical (interpreting and critiquing the author’s viewpoint), and synoptical (finding the relevance of the book, clarifying questions, defining issues, discovering relevant bibliographies). Most readers need not worry about the synoptical level if they read for quick information or pure entertainment. However, an awareness of the inspectional level, when the Adler and Van Doren say we should perform a structured skimming through the book, would save us a lot of reading time if done systematically. This book details such a system.

The authors employ a recursive approach, restating their earlier major premises in relation to new ones as the book advances through the four levels. They also provide in-depth guidance for reading practical, literary, historical, scientific, philosophical, and social science books. Readers and reading instructors will find most useful the four basic questions to answer at the heart of active reading: What is the book about? What is the author saying? Are the author’s ideas true? What can we make of the ideas in the book? The authors even detail what they consider to be three kinds of notes one can take during inspectional reading: structural, to understand the content; conceptual, to consider the author’s concepts in concert with one’s own; and dialectical, to merge related ideas from other books.

Those who choose to disagree for its own sake (think Washington, D.C.) would do well to practice the three conditions of general criticism outlined in How to Read a Book: first, understand before criticizing; second, criticize without being contentious; third, disagree on items that are remediable. Once readers are prepared to disagree, they would find helpful the conditions to satisfy for well-conducted controversy (pages 154-155) and the four remarks to make in disagreeing with the author (page 156).   

In any Mortimer Adler book one will find many side benefits as well. His trenchant observations about his subject matter and his highly quotable style are among them. Here is one of this comments that stuck with me: “Common experience is available to all men and women just because they are alive. Special experience must be actively sought and is available only to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it.” It's simple, clear, and corroborated observations like these that make How to Read a Book a reading pleasure.