How to Read a Book

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To address the importance of reading and rules and regulations to be adopted by an efficient reader while reading; Mortimer Adler composed a book of 400 pages, first published in 1940. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition.

Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. His Book entitled “How to Read a Book” has become among popular best sellers.

This book explains the various levels of reading and how to achieve them-from elementary reading, through systematic skimming, and inspectional reading. You are taught to identify the subject matter, pigeon hole the central idea, evaluate, argue, question and even criticise a book. Further, it also teaches different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, mathematics, science and even social science. Finally this book enlists the Classical Western Books.

  • The book is broadly divided into two main sections.

First section highlights the importance of book reading, failure of Contemporary education with respect to reading and the remedies there of, Types of Reading and defines great books and teachers .And second part elaborates the Rules of Reading.

  • In the first section, author deliberates on the importance of reading and credits art of reading for enabling the mind of a reader to elevate itself with no help other than that of the readable material and attaining the power to operate on its own. The entire process of reading involves active participation of the reader wherein he must strive to come on equal levels with the author by understanding the words, phrases and sentences used therein. Reading is more like learning where one has to discover the valuable nuggets in the form of important sentences and understand what they mean.

Author elaborates the purpose of reading when he says that reading can be for information and for understanding. He says, “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: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same and different and so forth”. (p21).

Author has categorised the books in fiction and non-fiction. But according to him it is the non-fiction which develops the reading aptitude of a reader even if it was reading a few books in his life but it is more important to absorb the content of the book. For the laxity in reading that is so prevalent; author blames educational institutions for failing to develop this basic skill of reading by considering it insignificant. Arts, grammar, rhetoric and logic is lost. And since we have stopped reading great books, written with precision by great men of the past we don’t value great books of the present as well and eventually we content ourselves with secondary and tertiary accounts of them.

He supports his argument by saying that in the late Middle ages, there were men who could read better than the best readers today. Though less in number, but they mastered the books they valued like Bible, Quran, or Thalmud, a text of Aristotle, a dialogue of Plato, or the institute of Justinian and mastered the art of reading to a higher level than it ever reached before or ever since. “We must get over all our funny prejudices about the Middle Ages and go to the men who wrote exegesis of Scripture, glosses on Justinian, or commentaries on Aristotle for the most perfect models of reading ”, he says. (p50).  Thus the rules formulated in this book are what the author has learned from the methodology of medieval teacher reading a book with his students.

Reading, (as mentioned earlier), only for amusement may be far easy , but reading for understanding requires active participation which involves reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting. An active reading requires taking notes, arguing and reasoning with the author; be it writing on the margins of the page or on a separate pad. Author has differentiated types of books as well as a source of information and knowledge. These are digests and repetition of other books in the former and Original communications in the later.

  • The second section deals with the Rules for Reading.

For an effective reading each book should be read thrice. First reading involves skimming through the title of the book, table of contents, maps and figures. “Tables of Contents are like maps. They are just as useful in the first reading of a book as a road map is for touring in strange territory.”(p 58).

  • The first reading is called structural or analytic.

Here the reader proceeds from the whole to its parts which involves knowing the subject matter of the book, the purpose of the book, the parts in which the book is divided, and the problems that the author is trying to solve. The reader should be able to define the purpose of the book in one sentence or a couple of sentences and should assemble and organise the major parts and relate it to one another to the unity of the whole.

  • The second reading is called interpretative or synthetic which proceeds from parts to whole.

Here the reader focuses on the terminology, arguments, ideas of the author and discovers whether the author has solved the problem. The primary step for an effective writing is defining the skeleton of the Book. A piece of writing should have unity, clarity, and coherence. And a reader should identify and appreciate it by finding the distinction and order of the parts.

  • The third reading can be called critical or evaluative.

 First and second reading is a must to be done separately before jumping into the third reading. Author clearly states that, “Understanding an author must always precede criticizing or judging him. I have met many “readers” who do the third reading first. Worse than that, they fail to do the first two readings at all. They pick up a book and soon tell you what is wrong with it. They are full of opinions which the book is merely a pretext for expressing. They can hardly be called ‘readers’ at all”.(p62)

 

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The first rule of critical reading involves that one must be able to say with reasonable certainty “I understand” before saying “I Agree” or “I disagree” or “I suspend Judgement”. Criticism also involves refraining from both disagreeing disputatiously or hopelessly. (p118). Adler insists that it is in the critical reading a reader is expected to highlight where the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or where author’s account is incomplete.

However, having said that; Adler’s book does not delve into the technicalities of reading in the current times when information is available in different forms (such as e-books, e-pub books, animations, screen casts, podcasts, audio books, videos, webinars, lectures). One needs a more general, technology-enabled, cognitive science-based system for processing resources than Adler’s book provides.

To conclude, “How to read a Book” is a phenomenal guide on the methodology of reading books. Author has tried his best to explain that it is equally important to know “What to read” as it is important to learn “How to read”. Overall I find this book a must read for the academicians , students and all those who are fond of reading books and have an undying passion for acquiring knowledge.

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