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The Art of Reading: How to be a Demanding Reader

In order to improve our reading, we need to learn to ask the right questions in the right order.

Don’t forget, reading a book, for any reason other than entertainment, is essentially an effort on your part to ask the book questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability).

There are four main questions you must ask about any book, found in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:

1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.

2. What is being said in detail and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking

How to Make a Book Your Own

Asking a book questions as you read makes you a better reader. But you must do more. You must attempt to answer the questions you are asking. While you could do this in your mind, Adler argues that it’s much easier to do with a pencil in your hand. “The pencil,” he argues, “becomes the sign of your alertness while you read.”

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

Adler goes on to argue that there are many ways to mark a book. He recommends you underline major points, draw vertical lines at the margin to emphasize a passage too long to be underlined, place a star, asterisk, or other “doodad” in the margin to emphasize the most important statements in the book, place numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points made in the natural development of an argument, place page numbers of other pages in the margin to remind you where else in the book the author makes the same points, circle keywords or phrases, and write your questions (and perhaps answers) in the margin (or at the top or bottom of the pages).

When you are giving a book an inspectional reading, you won’t have much time to make notes. Yet you, as a demanding reader, are still asking questions about the book. Primarily 1) what kind of book is it? 2) what is it about as a whole? and 3) what is the blueprint the author lays down to develop our understanding of the subject matter?

These answers should be recorded when they are fresh in your mind.

At this point your notes primarily concern the structure of the book and not its contents or the strength of its argument. You know the general idea and the blueprint.

The best way to start reading better is to form the habit of reading well. Setting aside time to read help makes you smarter.

Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.

This is the third part in the how to read a book series.