Tag Archives: Great Ideas

How to Read a Book

While reorganizing my books recently, I reread Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972) and, the author of its original version’s (Adler in 1940) being a co-author of The Great Ideas Program, decided to recommend it here.

The back cover of How to Read a Book describes its contents thus:

“You are told about the various levels of reading and how to achieve them‒from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. You are told how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science.
“Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list [of works in Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books] and supply reading tests [on works included in Great Books of the Western World] whereby you can measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension and speed.”

Here I’ll just distinguish between the four levels of reading identified in How to Read a Book and summarize the steps the authors recommend taking in the third level of reading, analytical reading. I won’t consider approaches to the different kinds of reading matter identified above or duplicate the reading list and reading tests.

Adler and Van Doren call the first level of reading Elementary Reading because it is ordinarily learned in elementary school. It could also be called rudimentary reading, basic reading, or initial reading. It includes at least these four stages: reading readiness (acquired in pre-school and kindergarten experiences), learning to read very simple materials (typically acquired in first grade), a stage characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context skills (typically acquired by the end of fourth grade), and mature reading characterized by refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired (typically acquired by the end of elementary or junior high school). The question asked of the reader at this level of reading is “What does the sentence or paragraph say?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 3 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren call the second level of reading Inspectional Reading. It could also be called skimming or pre-reading because it begins with systematically skimming or pre-reading the book, but it also includes a superficial reading of the book, a reading through it without stopping to look up or ponder what the reader doesn’t understand right away. Its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time, usually a relatively short time and always too short a time to get everything out of a book that can be gotten. Questions typically asked at this level are “What is the book about?” and “What are its parts?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 4 to this level of reading.

Before proceeding to consideration of the next level of reading, Adler and Van Doren give some tips on becoming a demanding reader. They identify four questions a reader must ask about any book: What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or in part? and What of it? They suggest several ways a reader can mark a book to make it his or her own, such as underlining major points and important or forceful statements. They describe three kinds of the notes a reader will make in and about books‒structural in inspectional reading, conceptual in analytical reading, and dialetical in synoptical reading. And they encourage readers to form the habit of reading because “one learns to do by doing” (How to Read a Book, page 53). These tips constitute Chapter 5 of How to Read a Book.

Adler and Van Doren call the third level of reading Analytical Reading. They devote two or three chapters to each of the three stages of analytical reading identified by them, and they conclude their consideration of the level by summarizing the rules for analytical reading that they presented in those chapters:

The First Stage…Rules for Finding Out What a Book Is About
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. [Chapter 6]
2. Select what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. [Chapter 7]
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. [Chapter 7]
4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. [Chapter 7]
The Second Stage…Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. [Chapter 8]
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions b dealing with his most important sentences. [Chapter 9]
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. [Chapter 9]
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. [Chapter 9]
The Third Stage…Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. [Chapter 10]
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. [Chapter 10]
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. [Chapter 11]
12-15. Show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical and wherein his analysis or account is incomplete. [Chapter 12]

The above rules concern reading a book in itself without reference to other books. However Adler and Van Doren recognize that sometimes reference to other books is necessary for full understanding of a book. Thus in Chapter 13 of How to Read a Book they discuss these aids to reading: relevant experiences, other books (especially the so-called great books), commentaries and abstracts, and reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. They recommend “that outside help should be sought whenever a book remains unintelligible to you, either in whole or in part, after you have done your best to read it according to the rules of intrinsic reading” (How to Read a Book, page 169).

Adler and Van Doren identify the fourth level of reading as Synoptical Reading. Although it could also be called comparative reading because it involves reading many books and placing them in relation to each other and to a subject about which they all revolve, it involves more than mere comparison of texts, its also enabling the reader to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. Before doing a project of synoptical reading, the reader must know that more than one book is relevant to a particular question and know which books should be read, thus creating a bibliography. Then the reader should inspect (skim or pre-read) all the books in the bibliography, giving him or her a clear enough idea of his or subject to make analytical reading of some of the books worthwhile and allowing him or her to cut down the bibliography to a more manageable size. Adler and Van Doren identify and discuss five steps in synoptical reading: finding the relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms, get the questions clear, define the issues, and analyze the discussion. How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 20 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren conclude the body of How to Read a Book by considering what good books can do for us.

“A good book [rewards] you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second‒and this in the long run is much more important‒a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable‒books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” (How to Read a Good Book, page 341)

That’s one of my reasons for rereading Great Books of the Western World, or at least those parts of it discussed in The Great Ideas Program. The other is to provide me with a foundation for sharing my love of good books with my family and friends through Bob’s Corner.

2. Aristotle’s Politics

“We live under a constitutional form of government. We are, as citizens, constituent members of the State and its ruling class. No man is our political superior: those who hold the offices of state are our representatives, chosen by our suffrage. We are thus free men and equals. In other countries, where the reign of constitutional law is unknown and no one is a citizen, the despotic power wielded by some men subjugates the rest.

“The blessings of political liberty and equality, which we so often take for granted, are the gift of two great inventions for which we are indebted to the ancient Greeks–constitutions and citizenship. In the whole history of political thought and action, there are no ideas more revolutionary than these. Aristotle’s Politics is the first full statement of the theory of these ideas. Its opening book repeatedly calls our attention to the fundamental difference in the condition of those who, on the one hand, live as slaves or as the subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free men and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.’” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 47-48)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small Greek colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Acedemy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures which he delivered at the Lycaeum.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Woolf discuss Books III-IV of Aristotle’s Politics. In them Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state.

Aristotle opens his consideration of citizenship by asking, “Who is the citizen, and what is the meaning of the term?” (Politics in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 471). After considering various answers to the question, he defines a citizen as “he who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of [the] state [which he is a citizen of]” page 472). In accordance with the custom in his day, his definition doesn’t include women and children (or slaves), but today they can be citizens. After defining who is a citizen, Aristotle considers the virtue of the citizen, concluding that “the good citizen … should know how to govern like a freeman, and to obey like a freeman” (page 474).

Aristotle begins his consideration of the forms of government by affirming that government (the supreme authority in a state) must be in the hands of one, a few, or the many and by distinguishing between true forms of government and their perversions, true forms of government being ones in which the rulers govern with a view to the common interest and their perversions being those forms of government in which rulers govern according to their private interests. He goes on to identify the three forms of true government as kingship or royalty, aristocracy, and a constitution and their perversions as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy and then, because of difficulties about these forms of government, examines each of them at length.

Two things stood out to me in Aristotle’s consideration of the best state, his stressing the importance of a large middle class (neither very rich nor very poor) in having stable government and his recognizing that a particular form of government may be best for some people and another form for other people. Incidentally Aristotle devotes the last two of the eight Books in Politics to picturing the Ideal State and describing the educational system it should have.

Please feel free to ask me to elaborate anything that I’ve said above about Aristotle’s consideration of citizenship, the forms of government, and the best state in Books III-IV of his Politics.

See also my post on Book I of Politics, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/aristotle/.

1. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Arguing that it would be easier to see justice in the state than in the individual because of the state’s larger size, Plato (through Socrates) considers the ideal state in Books II-V of its ten Books.

Plato begins his consideration of the state by stating that it exists to enable people to aid each other in providing for their needs and thus requires the presence of workers in different occupations–he identifies artisans, traders, retailers, and labourers as necessary in any state and various professionals as also present in a “luxurious State.” He goes on to observe that as a state’s population rises its territory may become insufficient, causing it to try to annex some of its neighbours’ territory, and thus it needs warriors as well as workers. Next he adds that it will also need rulers, which he argues should be chosen from the class of warriors. Initially Plato calls the warrior class “guardians,” but later he suggests applying that term only to rulers and designating warriors “auxiliaries.” He proposes that to ensure that the auxiliaries put the good of the state before themselves they have no private property or wives (and households) of their own. He argues that this will promote unity in the state, which he claims is the greatest good in the state.

My first reaction on reading Plato’s description of the ideal state was alienation at his proposing not allowing those in the military to have private property and wives and households of their own. Reading others’ comments on his proposal made me realize that I wasn’t the only one to have such a reaction. For example, in The Great Ideas Program Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff observe, “This writing has shocked some people by its proposal of … the possession of all things in common, including wives and children” (Volume 2: The Development of Political Theory and Government, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1959, page 1). They continue, “It has shocked others by its portrayal of an authoritarian, hierarchal state, with a ‘guardian’ elite, a philosopher-king, and a ‘royal lie’ [that God had framed the different classes] to keep the lower classes content…. It has also been considered a heavenly community … and its influence has come down the centuries to utopian communities in the United States … and to the communal settlements in modern Israel” (pages 1-2).

Incidentally here is what Plato concluded about justice. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).

See also my post on Books I-II of the Republic, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/plato/.