The Recursive Book

The recursive book.
(“How to Read a Book“, Screengrab from Amazon / Desaturated from original)

This post reproduces my review of the book “How to read a book: the classic guide to intelligent reading“, by Mortimer J. Adler and Dr. Charles Van Doren, posted a while back on Amazon. It is the recursive book I mention on a previous post called Teachers All Around.

This was my first (and only) review on Amazon and I am pretty sure I broke some kind of record based on the sheer length of it. I don’t care. Whoever has the stamina to read it through will realize its length is a symbol of my appreciation for the book. I also hope that whoever reads it will realize Adler and Doren’s book is not a simple how-to book. Instead, it is a thorough exposition of a forgotten art — the Art of Reading — and just like the Art of Memory, I can’t imagine a time when such an art would be more needed then in the current Dark Ages we live in.

Learning How and What to read from great absent teachers

I have always had a nagging feeling that I didn’t know how to read well. This book showed me that I was right. But it also showed me that I wasn’t expected to know how to read well (not with the kind of education most of us receive) and that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Reading well involves hard work and precise skills. This book provides the latter — the former is up to us.

We take reading for granted because we are supposed to be fully alphabetized at around tenth grade. We are not told that this is just the first level of reading — Elementary Reading (Part 1, Ch. 3) — when you learn to recognize the written symbols and to convey meaning from them. You learn how to grow your vocabulary on your own and to transfer and compare concepts from different reading materials. But most of us stop there. And from there we live the rest of our lives treating books in undeserving ways, wasting too much time on the bad ones and granting so little time to the good ones. The great ones, we hardly read, because they scare us.

The problem of wasting time can be drastically diminished by applying the second level of reading — Inspectional Reading (Part 1, Ch. 4). This level means “skimming systematically” to grasp as much as you can from a book in a limited time-frame (possibly just a few minutes). That was an important skill on Adler and Doren’s time when libraries were the norm, but it is even more important now when you have digital previews of a plethora of books in services such as Amazon. If “Customer’s Review” sections existed during their time, I am sure they would also have devoted a portion of Chapter 4 to provide insights on how to better profit from them.

The problem of spending little time on the good (or great) books can only be solved by the third level of reading — Analytical reading (Part 2). Without it, you either refrain from reading a good book altogether (specially a great one) or you read it badly. “Reading badly”, the book explains, is to read passively. Reading analytically is very active and it is hard work. To help us in this endeavor, the book provides extensive advice on how to physically mark the books we read (Part 1, Ch. 5). These note-taking techniques are indispensable to read well and the reader is advised to experiment with them and adapt them to his own style of understanding and to the new types of media now available.

To read analytically you have to ask yourself a number of questions while reading and you must make your best to answer them yourself. The authors present these questions in sequence, but they are quick to explain that in practice (and with experience) we should try to answer them mostly simultaneously.

First, you need to know what the book is about as a whole (Ch. 6 and Ch. 7). This means first categorizing the book, then expressing its unity in as few words as possible. You should then proceed to outline its main parts, each of which should be treated as a subordinate whole and have its unity also expressed. This process could continue ad aeternum, but “the degree of approximation varies with the character of the book and your purpose in reading it”. At the end, you should have identified what questions the author wants to answer himself.

After this more “descriptive” stage, you should now try to grasp the author’s message (Ch. 8 and Ch. 9). This means first reconciling the grammatical and the logical aspects of what he writes by matching his chosen words with the terms they express. Only then you can identify the important sentences and paragraphs (the grammatical units) in order to establish the author’s leading propositions and arguments (the units of thought and knowledge — the logical units). Once you have reached actual understanding by identifying and interpreting the author’s terms, propositions and arguments, you can now evaluate if the author has answered the questions (the problems) you identified earlier.

You and the author are now peers and the best thing you can do now is to praise him by criticizing his book (Ch. 10 and Ch. 11). However, in order to do so, there are rules, just like there are rules to reach understanding — there is an intellectual etiquette grounded on rhetorical skills the reader must possess. You should understand first and only then criticize, but not contentiously or disputatiously. You may disagree based on the author’s lack of information, misinformation or reasoning fallacies. You may also judge the author’s completeness as faulty. But the most important maxim is to do so with the sole intention of conveying and discussing knowledge, not opinions. “Knowledge consists in those opinions that can be defended” and “opinion is unsupported judgement.” You must be sure to distinguish between both.

So you have described the book, you have understood it and you have criticized it — now what? This is the last (and possibly most important) question you should make. If the book has enlightened you, even if just a little, you must go further — you might even have to act upon it. I like what the authors say about this question applied to historical books: “The answer to the question lies in the direction of practical, political action.” History shows what has been done, so it is a lesson of what we can do or avoid doing. In the same way, whatever the kind of enlightenment you had by reading the book, you have had a glimpse of truth — you can’t ignore it now that you know it.

Part 3 is useful in that it provides some interesting aspects of specific types of reading material, namely practical books, history (including biographies and current events), imaginative literature (including plays and poems), science and mathematics, philosophy and the social sciences. While a pleasure to read, it is not imperative that you do so if you have fully grasped the analytical reading process. There is, however, a lot of value in this part of the book, specially in the later chapters, and the reader is strongly advised to read it. One thing I should say is that, while they detail interesting aspects of reading imaginative literature, their techniques mostly apply to expository works. I think their best advice with respect to the former is “don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you”. This means allowing the work to show you “a deeper, or greater reality”. And this reality is “the reality of our inner life”. We don’t need any more rules than this one.

The last part of the book presents the fourth (and highest) level of reading — Syntopical reading — or reading two or more books on the same subject. By reading syntopically you are not concerned with understanding each book in all its details — in fact, you won’t read any of the individual books analytically (not at the present syntopical reading effort, at least). Here you are reading each book for what it may contribute to your own problem, not for the book’s own sake. Furthermore, you are not reading to find the truth or to establish your own voice — you would be only one more voice in the conversation. You are simply trying to understand the controversy itself, to establish the many voices you hear in a pure exercise of dialectical objectivity. This is a fantastic topic, which the authors have materialized in their greatest contribution to mankind, in my opinion — the Syntopicon, volumes II and III of the Great Books of the Western World. The reader is very much advised to check it out.

The book ends with two appendices. The first one provides a fascinating list of great books — the “endlessly readable” books. The list may seem overwhelming at first glance (and it is!), but the authors are prompt to address the reader and explain that the list does not have any time frame attached to it. I say it should just be begun — even an ignorant reader like me will be so flabbergasted by what he will learn that he will never stop reading it. This is a project for your life as a whole — to never stop reading these books. For a much more restrictive (but also magnificent) reading list, the reader is referred to the 10-year-reading plan provided in Adler’s Great Books.

The second appendix provides exercises and tests on all four levels of reading. I must admit that I hadn’t read them until I got this far in my review. I then decided to do it and now I tell you this: just read it. If you have had literature classes as an undergraduate or graduate student, you might find it slightly commonplace. But if you haven’t, like me, you will be glad you read it. Like they state at the beginning of the appendix, the selected texts are “themselves worth reading”, so you can’t lose much by doing so. It is a delightful taste of what awaits you in your future exploits of the Great Books — if you do well and accept the challenge, of course.

On my part, simply put, this book has changed my life. It not only showed me “how” to read a book, but it also showed me “what” to read. I’ll be forever in debt with two of the greatest absent teachers I’ve had, Dr. Mortimer J. Adler and Dr. Charles Van Doren.

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