The Western tradition holds countless riches to be explored: poems, paintings, symphonies, novels, and much more. Unfortunately, this cultural legacy remains largely inaccessible to many Westerners today for the simple reason that they have not learned how to read actively. In other words, although they can read to the extent that they can learn new information from a book, article, or other text, they have never been taught how to engage material that is “over their heads” in such a way that they can increase their level of understanding instead of simply throwing up their hands in despair upon reaching the first really difficult passage.
For this reason, I believe Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic How to Read a Book should be a part of almost everyone’s personal library (and if you don’t have a personal library, this would be a great title with which to begin one). If our high schools were turning out graduates possessing the skills this book teaches, I believe we would be living in a much healthier society, not least because it would enable us collectively to recover the Western tradition. In this post I begin an examination of How to Read a Book in the hopes of persuading some people to give it a look.
(By the way, I am now providing links to Amazon.com for most of the books I discuss on the blog. If you purchase the linked title after clicking through from this site, I will receive a small commission on the sale. If what I have to say about a title is an encouragement to you to buy it, please consider buying through this site. At this point, I plan to put all revenue back into the blog to improve its features.)
In their first five chapters, Adler and Van Doren define four “levels of reading”: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Elementary reading is the skill of converting symbols on a page into meaning; almost all of us were taught this skill many years ago. Inspectional reading is the systematic skimming of a book for its key ideas under time constraints; let me tell you, I became very proficient at this in graduate school! Analytical reading is systematic reading without time constraints, and its goal is to increase understanding. Syntopical reading compares the material in different books and can even lead to a reader’s original analysis of a subject, an analysis derived from the reading of certain books, but one that is not actually in any of them. After providing these brief definitions, the authors discuss the first two levels in more detail.
Adler and Van Doren’s contention is that any decent high school ought to produce good analytical readers, and any decent college ought to produce good syntopical readers, but that unfortunately so many students enter high school and even college without having fully mastered elementary reading that these goals are not met. Often students think they are good readers because they can decipher unfamiliar words and phrases using contextual clues and are able to follow and summarize an author’s argument. These are important skills, to be sure, but they still belong to the elementary level of reading! (By the way, the authors wrote this in 1972, and things do not seem to have improved in the intervening years.)
When performing inspectional reading, your goal is to determine within a short period of time whether the book deserves an analytical reading–let’s face it: many books do not. The systematic skimming to determine this includes examining the table of contents, the index, and passages from the chapters you have decided are central to the book’s arguments. This “pre-reading” is extremely useful in providing a sort of skeletal framework in your mind about the book, a framework you can flesh out when you begin to read analytically; unfortunately, I have encountered many bright college students who did not have the first clue about how to do this.
Inspectional reading also includes the concept of reading superficially: reading straight through the book without stopping to look up unfamiliar words or phrases or to ponder things you don’t immediately understand. This flies in the face of what students are sometimes told to do by well-meaning teachers, but the authors make a convincing point here: “What you understand by reading the book through to the end–even if it is only fifty percent or less–will help you when you make the additional effort later to go back to the places you passed by on your first reading. And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to.”
Finally, Adler and Van Doren offer eminently practical advice about how to treat books. They encourage readers to “make books their own” by marking them up, putting notes and questions in the margins, underlining key passages, create their own indices in the back and outlines in the front, etc. After many years of watching students who avoid marking in their books, possibly harming their grades in the hopes of getting a few extra dollars when they sell their textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the semesters, I especially appreciate this admonition. The point of all this is to help you get everything you can out of the book by understanding what is saying, deciding whether it is true, and figuring out any possible application to your life.
I am confident that the grades of students in my courses would measurably improve if they simply mastered the elementary and inspectional levels of reading. But we’re not even to the good stuff yet. In the next post we’ll see what Adler and Van Doren have to say about analytical reading, which is where the real fun begins.