How to Read a Book

To read well is to keep our minds alive and growing. --M.J. Adler
"How to Read a Book” is the title of a famous guide to the art of reading, first published in 1940 by Mortimer Alder and later revised and updated with the collaboration of Charles Van Doren. The book is a guide to anyone who wants to improve his ability to analyze and understand the written word, improve comprehension, and maximize his investment of time in the pursuit of knowledge. It is, in sum, counsel for those who want to read well.

To read well we must read actively, says Dr Adler, not merely for information or amusement but to understand. To understand is to have light shed on the facts, rather than simply to learn new facts. We improve our ability to read and to understand when we read books that challenge us, books that are “over our heads.” As an athlete will improve his skill by challenging his body, active reading will improve our understanding by challenging our minds. This was on Dr Eliot's mind when he edited the Harvard Classics.

Adler listed fifteen rules for the active reading of expository writing, with adjustments to be made for imaginative literature, poetry, and drama. These rules are inherent in the questions a good reader asks, because active reading asks questions of the book and its author. Firstly, says Adler: ask what the book is about. How can it be classified? This may not be as simple as it sounds. At the start of his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin writes to his son:
Imagining it may be agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life, I sit down to write them for you. ...Having emerged from poverty and obscurity to a state of affluence and reputation with a considerable share of felicity ...the conducting means [of which] my posterity may like to know, as they find some of them suitable to their own situations and therefore fit to be imitated.
Is Franklin writing a memoir or a guide to life? I suspect Dr Eliot thought the latter; among Franklin's “conducting means” was dedicated self-education via the reading of books, and so this passage is found not coincidentally on the first page of the first volume of the Harvard Classics. Your own answer to this question will enhance your appreciation of this unfinished work, and your understanding of the rule: Know what you are reading, and remember--your conclusion may vary from others’.

Secondly, ask what is being said, and how. Who is making the argument, and in what way? The purpose, arguments, and method of a good book have an order and relation to one another and to the work as a whole.

The best books have an intelligible structure. In architecture school I was taught that “an architectural idea is readable.” Practising architects will refer to the articulation of design elements, whereby the structure, facade, or other building systems may be made to look distinct from each other, so that each can be visualized as an element independent of the other yet which together create spaces appropriate for the purpose of the building. Adler and Van Doren describe the best writing has having much in common with the best design:  in their words, a “pervasive unity” of concept and execution. To recognize the structure and method of a book, how its parts relate to the whole, is a rule for good reading.

Next, ask what question the book seeks to answer, and of course, ask whether or not the answer is true. Not everyone is entitled to an opinion, at least not to an uninformed one. We must make up our own minds, yes, but to do so honestly we must first know what we are talking about.

To do this we must keep our mind open to the author’s arguments, and the propositions and individual terms upon which they are based. We must suspend judgment until all arguments are heard. Our disagreements with the narrative voice should be polite and engaging, at least until we can legitimately say, in the spirit of this essay:  “I understand this book.” This is to judge fairly, to judge on merit. Only when we understand the author and his work do we have the right, the duty says Adler, to criticize. Rational, unprejudiced, and sympathetic judgement completes the act of reading.

Ask whether or not it’s important, and why. The answer to this question is not in the book but in the reader. After the effort of reading well, if the answer to this question is “yes,” the reader has new duties to fulfill: (1) where to pursue his line of inquiry, and (2) how to adopt the lessons learned.

Naturally the pursuit of wisdom will include other books. At this point, says Adler, the ultimate goal of reading is “syntopic.” This is essentially the same exercise practiced not on one book but across an entire group of books within the same topic. Syntopic reading presents the greatest challenge to a reader:  not only to understand the books, but to conceive new ideas not present in any of the books individually--in effect, to create.
The great writers have always been great readers [says Adler]. They had mastered [others’] books, and became peers with their authors. As a good student frequently becomes a teacher, so, too, a good reader becomes a writer.
Dr Adler was thinking of the deep canon of western writing, specifically the Great Books of the Western World, a collection he edited, when he described critical reading as a “well-disciplined conversation between the reader and writer.” In the end the duty of the reader is to continue that conversation. Thus to adopt the lessons learned we must write.

The Sixth Foot is this blogger’s humble attempt.