How to Read a Book, Part II

[This is the second in a series of posts on Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic work How to Read a Book. For the first post in the series, click here.]

The second section of How to Read a Book, comprising Chapters 6-12, focuses on the third, or analytical, level of reading. Adler and Van Doren break this level down into several smaller stages, each of which builds on the preceding stage. In each stage, the authors lay out a number of rules to help readers make sense of a difficult work.

The first stage of analytical reading consists of finding out what the book is really about. Essentially this stage consists of performing inspectional reading (the second level of reading) on the book. First, one “pigeonholes” the book; is it fiction or expository? Practical or theoretical? Once the reader categorizes the book, the next step is to “X-ray” it. Formulate a brief statement about the book’s content and purpose. Often the author gives such a statement of his own (either in the title or introduction), but you may decide that the author’s statement of purpose is really insufficient and needs elaboration. With the unity of the book stated clearly, the next move is to identify its constituent parts through (briefly) outlining the major sections. Performing this task will help you clearly see exactly what problems the author is attempting to solve.

Once you have a firm grasp of the book’s purpose, it’s time to move to analytical reading’s second stage: interpretation, or figuring out what exactly the author is saying. It’s amazing how many people will skip over this stage, although your understanding obviously will never be increased without it. A few years ago, I wrote a review of a new book on a prominent 20th-century author. Shortly after the review was published, the book’s author wrote me to say how much he appreciated my review. Of all the reviews of his book he had seen, mine was the only one that had accurately summarized his arguments! So even highly educated, published authors frequently do not devote the necessary time to understanding what they are reading (and writing about).

Adler and Van Doren offer several suggestions for effectively interpreting what you are reading. It’s important to identify the author’s key terms and figure out exactly how he uses them in his book. You should also pinpoint the book’s key sentences to understand the author’s main propositions. Then, figure out how those propositions are strung together to form arguments. Sometimes authors will make identifying arguments convenient by grouping them in concise paragraphs. At other times, you will have to put the argument together yourself by pulling propositions together from different parts of the book. Finally, you need to compare the author’s arguments to the problems he was attempting to solve in the book. Did he succeed?

Only after you have figured out the book’s arguments should you proceed to the third stage of analytical reading: evaluation or criticism. Now that you know what the author is saying, you can ask the question, “Is this true?”

(I know that many people today think that the question of truth is an idle one, that if there is such a thing we can never know what it is, and so the only sensible course of action is to adopt views and positions useful in advancing one’s interests. These people are pretty clearly outside the classical and Christian tradition of the West.)

Adler and Van Doren insist that any disagreement with the author of your book not be contentious or disputatious. The point in evaluating a book is not to win an argument, but to discover what is true. If you are going to disagree, make sure you distinguish between a “gut” feeling and an informed position. There are basically three grounds for disagreeing with an author: he is uninformed, he is misinformed, or he has made one or more logical errors in reasoning. So, to disagree in an informed manner, you need either information the author did not have or the ability to identify logical errors. (Unfortunately, our schools have not taught logic as part of the standard curriculum for many years, and many readers lack this ability.) If you can’t spot any of these problems in the work, integrity mandates that you either agree with the author or suspend judgment pending the discovery of new evidence.

This section ends with a chapter on reading aids: commentaries, abstracts, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other books that shed light on the subject of your book. The authors also point out the importance of the reader’s relevant experiences in interpretation and evaluation. Although brief, this chapter has great information on how to use (and how not to use) reading aids.

Coming up next: recommendations on how to approach different types of works.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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1 Response to How to Read a Book, Part II

  1. Pingback: How to Read a Book, Part III | The Western Tradition

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