How to Read a Book

by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

ISBN 0-671-21209-5

Simon & Schuster

How To Read a Book Cover page

A lot of people laughed when I told them that I was reading a book titled 'How to read a book'; they retorted, 'You don't already know? LOL'! A few, (okay, only one) said, that I either underestimate my skill or am looking for something more. I'd rather let these words taken from the book explain the situation I am trying to avert. Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.” The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABCs, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. They are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, bookful blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well. The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages, they are all ‘sophomores’".

The book title is 'How to Read a Book - The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading'. It was written first in the 1940's, was a best seller, was revised once in late 70's and now stands unchanged. That said, it is necessary to assert that not even a single line of the book is irrelevant even today, if not only more significant; since the way we consume books and any form of written media might have changed drastically, but the core principles still hold. It is a guide book, that offers one systematic way of achieving the purpose of 'Reading'. Reading, here is used in a highly contextual way, as 'A process in which we, with nothing but the power of our own mind, operate on the symbols before us in such a way that we gradually lift ourselves from understanding less to understanding more.' Thus, the authors make it explicit that this book offers one method when we have understanding the book as our aim, and that reading is not just any desultory exercise. There’s a difference between reading for instruction and reading for understanding. “To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: While it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects is it the same, in what respects is it different, and so forth.” This distinction is familiar in terms of the differences between being able to remember something and being able to explain it. But it must be remembered that “being informed is prerequisite to being enlightened”. Also, another prerequisite of such kind of reading is that we have to start from inequality of intellectual states of the author and the reader. The author ‘has’ to know more than his reader, only then can this kind of reading be fruitful.

With that objective clear, they expound the various levels of reading- elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading and finally syntopical or comparative reading - each one building upon all previous levels such that no step may be omitted in particular without handicapping the other in some way. For example, by the time we are ready for reading a book analytically, we need to know a few answers for sure, the first and foremost being, does the book deserve an analytical read at all? Other questions are aimed at finding the structure of the book, what kind it is, what does it say (the central idea), how the author says he intends to go about it. If this is not clear, then we cannot answer the questions we'd want to ask while reading analytically, like - does the author achieve what he proposes to achieve, and is it acceptable to us? Or, say, if he expounds something, that what of it, what would be its consequences. The purpose of our reading being understanding and not just informational, knowing that something IS the case is not enough, we also want to understand WHY is it the way it is, and what of it.

Thus, the readers of this sort are highly demanding readers, for they are constantly conversing with the author in his book. If they do not achieve what is sought in inspectional reading, they might argue over a point, outside its context and since the author is not there to defend himself, they will commit the fallacy of judging too soon, or making a misinformed decision. As an example, 'Wealth of Nations' by Adam Smith is one such book (as per the authors) where an idea is used before it is explained, and if we get stuck in its application, while never moving ahead, we'll only be confused, and more likely to disagree with Adam Smith.

An article on Brainpickings got me all worked up to order this book, putting my mind on high alert. One of the most promising advert to what's inside was what is proposed in these lines: "When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it-which comes to the same thing-is by writing in it." I've been raised with the notion that Goddess Saraswati resides in books, and we must keep them clean and scot-free at all times, which literally meant, no underlining, no writing on it. I've got through many years of schooling, Engineering and office, following this rule. And now that I fairly understood why I was told that, I take pride in writing down thoughts in places which gave rise to them in the first place. So, perhaps you can understand the sense of urgency with which I had ordered this book.

The rules do not preach anything esoteric, it is all common sense, if we look at them closely, every step is essentially the same, often with a little more skin. It is much like putting up an act, from smaller, simpler acts, and that indeed is what it is. I know a few people, who, though never having read any such book on reading, closely resemble the reading process that is proposed here. Such kind of reading comes naturally to them, and they are fairly good in whatever they do. One important etiquette that this book teaches, is that of carrying out conversations (even with something passive like a book) with civility. This, on a very coarse level means, 'Shut Up' when someone's talking, and listen. For me, it is a very hard thing to do but I am learning. Don't judge in haste. As Bacon advised: “read not to contradict and confused; nor to believe and take for granted; not to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.” It also warns us of a caveat in reading - we "must not fall into what is called by critics the intentional fallacy. This is the fallacy of thinking you can discover what was in an author's mind from the book he has written." It is a grave error, to "psychoanalyze Shakespeare from the evidence of Hamlet."

The book itself is highly demanding, particularly because it carries a lot of detail. The authors leave no stone unturned to make sure why is the case. It is in many ways, not just a book on good reading, but also on good writing, for bad books cannot be read in a good way despite the goodwill and skill of the reader. It draws life from so many classic texts (which is entirely intentional, with reasons stated for those who would care to read them, by the rules of good reading.)

It is in many ways, a book about life, and people, the experiences beautiful, the reasons cogent, and the progress fluid. There are some, (many) deeply beautiful lines in here. For example, in offering a method on reading fiction, they try to explain why we love fiction, why is it necessary and why is it different from non-fiction. "A very significant importance of reading fiction separates it from expository reading is that it affects, and in a certain manner appeases the subconscious. That is often why we enjoy fiction related to its characters and don’t know why...Perhaps we would all like to love more richly than we do. Many novels are about love-most are, perhaps-and it gives us pleasure to identify with the loving characters. They are free, and we are not. But we may not want to admit this; for to do so might make us feel, subconsciously, that our own loves are inadequate...Again, almost everyone has some unconscious sadism and masochism in his make-up. These are often satisfied in novels, where we can identify with either the Conqueror or victim, or even with both…Finally, we suspect that life as we know is unjust. Why do good people suffer, and bad ones prosper? We do not know, we cannot know, but the fact causes great anxiety in everyone. In stories, this chaotic and unpleasant situation is adjusted and that is extremely satisfying to us…The great storyteller makes no mistakes. He’s able to convince us that justice - poetic justice, we call it- has been done.” Isn't that poignant?

Language is an imperfect medium of exchanging ideas. Some things, like social science literature have been the victim of familiarity and the absence of objectivity that is often attributes to scientific works, which makes the reader susceptible to getting the wrong idea, of thinking in one direction while the author was thinking in the other. This imperfection of language has also given rise to beautiful things, like poetry. But above all, it establishes that words are merely grammatical constructs. They hold no value on their own. It is the logical constructs, the way the words are strung together in words, in a context which breathes fire into them.

Many people have argued that the book is very boring. I would not fully agree to it. First, because the book proposes to be a practical book, where the ultimate action must be performed by the reader, of carrying out what the book proposes to see if it works or not. Without doing that, the book ought to be boring. “It is obvious that teaching is a very special art, sharing with only two other arts-agriculture and medicine - an exceptionally important characteristic. A doctor may do many things for his patient, but in the final analysis it is the patient himself who must get well-grow in health… Similarly, although the teacher may help his students in many ways, it is the student himself must do the learning”. On a personal note, I found great insight and about a lot many books that I must read along the way, to enrich myself in more than one way.

I keep developing theories about things, and people, and the world, try to connect the dots that I am aware of and to discover new dots. One such thought which found much morale boost, that I might not be wrong in this case was must be the contribution of society in an individuals life, particularly in the educational sphere. They said it with much conciseness, as a democratic ideal of education: “We are on record as holding that unlimited educational opportunity- or, speaking practically, educational opportunity that is limited only by individual desire, ability, and need- is the most valuable service that society can provide for its members. That we do not know how to provide that kind of opportunity is no reason to give up the attempt.”

It was a very fulfilling read, and something that I would want to return again. Indeed, I'm writing this review after giving it two reads, which now I can say were Inspectional and Analytical.

P.S.: In case you want to buy this book right now, you can click on the image on the top of this post and buy it from Amazon (or click here).