How to Read a Book, Part III

[Click here for Part I and Part II.]

If you have ever felt lost whenever you approached a particular genre of writing, Part III of How to Read a Book may help you tremendously. In this section, Adler and Van Doren take the four basic questions of analytical reading and customize them for readers of novels, stories, plays, poems, history, science, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and social science.

(The four basic questions of analytical reading are 1. What is this book about? 2. What exactly is the author saying? 3. Is it true? 4. So what?)

Although the basic questions to be asked of each genre remain the same, they need to be asked in different ways depending on the genre. For example, an expository work seeks to convey knowledge, but a work of imaginative literature seeks to communicate an experience, so you’ll need to approach those works in different ways. Some people read novels like they would instruction manuals, looking only for certain ideas or pieces of information, but Adler insists that you should not try to resist the experiential side of reading fiction.

Authors of several genres, such as history or science, often purport to be objective, giving us “just the facts.” Adler and Van Doren warn that writers in these genres rely on theories to explain the data they present to us, and frequently their theories will play a determining factor in the very selection of data they present. Therefore, in the case of history, “it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history.”

One of the keys to approaching some of these genres is recognizing that they may themselves be a mixture of other genres. For example, social science can be part science, part philosophy, part history, and part fiction, and you’ll need to be able to deal with each of those components as they appear.

Along the way, Adler and Van Doren offer some outside-the-box suggestions for coming to grips with certain genres. For example, they frankly acknowledge that most plays are “not worth reading” because the absence of the stage, sets, and actors takes away too much from our experience. Even those plays worth reading in their own right, such as Aeschylus’s Orestes cycle and Shakespeare’s works, lose much of their impact when they are reduced to words on the page. Our authors address this problem by suggesting that when you read a play, you imagine yourself as a director on the stage, giving instructions to the actors concerning delivery of the lines, gestures, etc. Doing this will help the play “come to life” for you.

This section of the book is difficult to summarize because of the wide-ranging subject matter and recommendations the authors make, but it is invaluable as a reference whenever you sit down with a book from a genre you’re not totally comfortable with. It may even help you pluck up the courage to pick up that work of philosophy or science you know is really important but have been avoiding!

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 III

  1. Max Weismann says:

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos, lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

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