How to Read a Book:…

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (A Touchstone book) by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

I should have thought about this book when I posted How to Read a Paper. I haven’t seen a copy in years but that’s a flimsy excuse for forgetting about it. I was reminded of it today when I saw it in a tweet by Michael Nielson.

Amazon has this description:

With half a million copies in print, How to Read a Book is the best and most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader, completely rewritten and updated with new material.

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests you can use measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension, and speed.

Is How to Read a Book as relevant today as it was in 1940?

In chapter 1, Adler makes a critical distinction between facts and understanding and laments the packaging of opinions:

Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

I can’t imagine Adler’s characterization of Fox News, CNN, Facebook and other forums that inundate us with nothing but pre-packaged opinions and repetition of the same.

Although not in modern gender neutral words:

…he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

In a modern context, such viewers, listeners, or readers, in addition to the “play back” function are also quick to denounce anyone who questions their pre-recorded narrative as a “troll.” Fearing discussion of other narratives, alternative experiences or explanations, is a sure sign of a pre-recorded opinion. Discussion interferes with the propagation of pre-recorded opinions.

How to Mark a Book has delightful advice from Adler on marking books. It captures the essence of Adler’s love of books and reading.

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