Konkvistador suggested that I review “How to Read a Book” by Charles van Doren and Mortimer Adler, so I picked up a Kindle copy and re-read it. My post the other week about learning better reading habits with modern technology provoked the recommendation.
While it may seem like a silly topic (the introduction itself recounts that earlier editions set off parodies like “How to Read Two Books”), it’s actually an important one, especially considering that the school system tends to teach poor reading habits, even in private schools with solid reputations.
The least useful parts of the book are the beginning parts which discuss elementary and analytical reading. But some of the more general observations made by the authors are useful to put at the top of your mind. From the early parts of the book:
Admittedly, writers vary, just as pitchers do. Some writers have excellent “control”; they know exactly what they want to convey, and they convey it precisely and accurately. Other things being equal, they are easier to “catch” than a “wild” writer without “control.”
The ability of the writer and the ability of the reader must match one another for the reader to get much of use from the material. Language is symbolic and imperfect in its capacity to convey meaning.
The authors criticize speed-reading everything, which I partially agree with, but I also disagree with some of their assessments of what properly-executed speed reading is.
A lot of speed-reading involves physically training the eyeball with drills and managing your head movement to minimize physical eye movements, going down the center of the text while using your peripheral vision to take in the whole line. You can ‘speed-read’ in this way slowly enough for your thoughts to catch up. This, the author addresses on p. 39 of the linked edition, and his generalization of speed-reading courses is accurate enough.
That’s really a digression, though, because this practical manual mostly concerns itself with how to read solitary books, along with how to conduct syntopical reading — which just means picking a large number of books in a given topic, selecting the ones worth reading, and then going through them in a time-efficient fashion.
This is the particular area which made the largest difference to me, in part because my reading tends to be haphazard, directionless, and based primarily on whatever is making me most curious at the moment.
Adler and van Doren break the method into two parts on p. 309:
Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement. The second requirement is a great deal harder to satisfy than the first.
This may require making a list of 100 books or more, breaking them down into different classifications, reading some, eliminating others, and then continuing through the process. While this is supposedly taught through the assignment of research papers in contemporary undergraduate schools, in practice, nothing like this method gets through, because the student just learns to parrot whatever conclusion the professor wants him to rather than being actually going through an independent process.
The authors have a strong point of view on ‘non-active reading’:
Most of us are addicted to non-active reading. The outstanding fault of the non-active or undemanding reader is his inattention to words, and his consequent failure to come to terms with the author.
He advocates instead to make frequent notes (even if they are simple), contemplating whether or not one has understood the author, and making use of titles, subheadings, chapter names, and other structural guides to aid in comprehension ahead of time.
We would probably not see advice like this in today’s uncivil times from p. 137:
Ordinary conversations between persons who confront each other are good only when they are carried on civilly. We are not thinking merely of the civilities according to conventions of social politeness. Such conventions are not really important. What is important is that there is an intellectual etiquette to be observed. Without it, conversation is bickering rather than profitable communication. We are assuming here, of course, that the conversation is about a serious matter on which men can agree or disagree. Then it becomes important that they conduct themselves well. Otherwise, there is no profit in the enterprise. The profit in good conversation is something learned.
From p. 346:
Television, radio, and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. The are like drugs. We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them.
With even more effective distractions, it’s even easier to be diverted from our common goals of finding more profitable information for ourselves and our friends.
If you are interested in learning how to become a more effective reader, this is worth picking up. At the time that the authors wrote it, it was intended as a remedial text to address the rapid reduction in educational standards at that time. Because educational standards have dropped even more since the early 1970s, it will likely be relevant to you, even if you went to a fancy college in Cambridge.
The appendix also contains a useful ‘Great Books’ reading list along with some quiz material to test your reading comprehension. While the book is certainly liberal in orientation, and appears to be motivated by a Dewey-democratic-universal-education impulse, it is also emphatically pro-Western in some of the last years in which it was permissible to be so. If you want to make better use of your reading time, go ahead and buy it.