How To Read A Book

This might seem like a stupid idea for a page, but you’d be surprised at how hard it is for some people to sit down and grasp everything a book might be saying.  All of this comes from a book called How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. I’m going to try and relate this to you in a smaller form, but to really get better at reading, I recommend you go and pick this book up. These methods help me out with books that are difficult to understand and may take a long time to fully grasp and make an opinion.

Inspectional Reading

Presuming you have an elementary level of understanding how to read (as in your ability to comprehend grammar and syntax), step 1 to reading is giving the book an inspectional reading, which comes in two parts.  The first part is something you can do in the store (or on Google books).  It’s pretty straightforward: peruse the book to get a good idea as to what it’s about.  Some of you might be thinking “Well, duh, you ALWAYS want to do that,” but you’d be surprised how often people just look at a book’s cover and just move on.  Don’t do that!

In your persual, make sure you…

  1. Look at the title page and, if there is one, the preface.
  2. Study the table of contents.  These days, authors aren’t always giving gobs of information here (perhaps to add an aura of mystery to their book) but some authors give you exactly what they intend to talk about chapter by chapter.
  3. If the book has a dust jacket, read the publisher’s blurb.  This can be slightly misleading at times (from my own experiences) but it can help you get a feel for the book all the same.
  4. Flip through the book and read a paragraph or two, or sometimes several pages in a row, but not more than that.  You can use this to grasp the author’s writing style in addition to subject matter.

Part II of Inspectional Reading is what you do after you’ve purchased the book.  This is also known as superficial reading, and all it entails is reading through the book without stopping.  This seemed rather odd to me, but it really does make a difference.  Basically, you’re just having at the book, going through it without stopping.  If something confuses you, don’t stop, just keep going.  If you hit a word that you don’t know the definition of, mark it for later and keep going.  Don’t skim it; actually read the text, but remember that you’re going to go back to it later on.

Analytical Reading

Now that you’ve thoroughly inspected the book, we’re going to move onto a process called analytical reading.  This is where you go back through the book of which you just did an inspectional reading.  Some of you might be dropping out at this point.  “You mean I have to read it TWICE!?  Why in God’s name would I want to do that?!” Well, can you really say you absorbed the book well enough your first time through?  Sometimes, in my opinion, you can, but given some of the things I read, I definitely need more than just a run-through to get the full grasp of it.

Picture it like you just got a part in a play.  It’s been my experience that, after an audition and casting, the cast gets together and does a full read-through of the play.  After that’s where the fun of memorizing lines, block scenes, and fine-tuning acting comes in.  Essentially, that’s what you’re doing with a book that requires a second reading.  You did your run-through, now it’s time to fine tune and examine (or analyze). This part comes in

Anyway, here’s the first stage of reading analytically, or Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents

  1. Pigeonhole the book. As Mortimer Adler states it: You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.  This is a pretty obvious rule, but so is stopping at stop signs (and people fail to do that all the time).  An inspectional reading can show you what you’re reading (or about to read), and once you’ve classified what you’re reading (be it a novel, philosophy, science, history, etc.), you can continue on with the proper mindset for such a book.
  2. X-ray the book. What you’re trying to do here is look at a book’s structure, it’s skeleton.  For Mr. Adler, it goes as follows: State the unity of the book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph). If it takes you too long to to do this, try thinking smaller.  Getting caught up in a really dense book can be overwhelming; remember, you just want to state, in a few sentences, what a book is about.
  3.  After you’ve discovered the unity of the book, you must then enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.  This is just like writing an outline to your papers in high school or college.  By understanding the layout of a book, you understanding, logically, how an author’s arguments flow.
  4. After you’ve got that together, define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. Most nonfiction books, in their preface or introduction, name specifically what they want to do, so this isn’t too difficult to manage.

Alright, now we’re at stage 2!  Stay with me! This one’s called Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents.

  1. Now we must come to terms with the author. This means understanding that the author, for this particular book, has a specific language he’s going to use, and this can be identified and understood by finding the important words and through them come to terms with the author. If you don’t know the meaning of the word, and can’t find it through the context of the sentence it’s in, then use a dictionary, but leaning too heavily on reference books can hurt how well you understand an author, and inhibit you from forming your own opinion.  Remember: as a reader, your goal is to come to your OWN conclusion.
  2. Here we’re trying to determine an author’s message. Basically, what’s he trying to say? Here’s how we do this one: mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain. Yes, it’s OK; you are allowed to mark up your books.  I’m trying to break the habit of using a pen when I read, so I recommend a pencil or a highlighter.
  3. After you did that, you’re gonna locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences. Basically, you’re just plotting out logically, “OK, he said A, B and C, so he must be trying to say X.” Logical thinking might sound hard, but reasoning like this is something we do subconsciously every day.  We just need to learn to apply this consciously, and this takes practice.
  4. Once you’ve found out the arguments that the author is presenting, find out the author’s solutions. If an author is going to present a problem, he needs to present a solution, otherwise he’s only done half the work.  Solutions come in the forms of things to do about a problem, or presenting why something is a problem.  Look for these kinds of sentences to determine an author’s solution.

Hey, we made it to stage three!  Don’t lose hope yet; this is the final one!  This one’s called Rules For Criticizing A Book as a Communication of Knowledge.

  1. Here we’re trying to criticize the book fairly.  Human beings usually aren’t good at this, but ol’ Adler and Van Doren are gonna try hard to get us to be fair.  Before we do anything though, you must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.” This is true of everyday life, but especially so of books.  There’s no “I’m not entirely sure what you mean, but I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.”  No, you’re not sure they’re wrong; you don’t understand.  How can you know if someone’s wrong if you don’t understand?
  2. Here’s another rule that’s hard for human beings to stick to: When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.  It’s very, very easy to let our personal feelings get in the way of logic, so, in this one regard, let’s try to be as Vulcan as possible and suspend emotion from our disagreement. The point isn’t to win the argument, but to discover the truth.  If every conversation is a battle to you, you’re not going to enjoy life very much.
  3.  Finally, respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make. In other words, if you’re gonna say someone is right or wrong, or that you’re just not saying, that’s fine, just give a good reason why!  There is no “You’re just wrong.”

Now, if you intend to make a critical judgment, consider the following methods:

  1. Show where the author is uninformed.  If he missed something, point it out!
  2. Show where the author is misinformed. If the author made a statement based on facts that were incorrect, make note of the correction.
  3. Show where the author is illogical. If something doesn’t follow from points presented, that’s a good reason to disagree.
  4. Show where the author’s analysis or account is incomplete. This does happen from time to time, so be on the lookout for it. It’s hard for author’s to consider everything.
    NOTE: Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement, Failing, in all of these, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of the last point.

And that comprises analytical reading! If you take those rules with you when you read a book, you’re bound to understand and comprehend almost anything you read! I encourage you to pick up How to Read a Book; the authors give lots of good advice about how to read for specific genre (as well as a new level of reading called synoptic reading, which entails reading multiple books of the same subject at the same time.  I don’t employ it here, or very often, for that matter). It also comes with lots of things that work well in life as well.  Before you go, just a couple notes about these rules.

  • Obviously this makes reading something more tense (Adler calls it active reading), but if you stick with it, these rules turn into habit, making the experience seamless and fully functional.
  • Also, you don’t have to apply this to EVERY book you read.  I can’t imagine applying these rules to a Stephen King book; they’re designed predominately for nonfiction books, but if you find that their use applies to the book you’re reading, then use them!
  • Above all else, have fun with your reading!

Anything in italics or bold was pulled straight from How To Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, unless used for emphasis.


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