Tag: Charles van Doren

Mortimer Adler on Understanding What You Read

One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.

Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author's meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)

Consider this beauty from Machiavelli's The Prince:

You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?

In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.

Van Doren: That's a terrible statement isn't it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.

***

Most of the time, especially with expository books, it's easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.

We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all, we understand the words the author is using. Adler, however, encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you've done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.

***

Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren's conversation.

Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.' What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …

Van Doren: It means I can't be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can't hurt me.

Adler: Unless something exists it can't hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can't hurt you because it isn't actual.

Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can't wet me.

***

We've just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren's fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don't want to miss this.

The Art of Reading: Analytical Reading

Analytical reading is the fourth part in my series on ways to improve our reading skills.

The first rule of analytical reading is that you must know what kind of book you are reading.

Are you reading a novel, a play, or is it some sort of expository work – a book that conveys knowledge?

This sounds simple but it's not. For example, is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a work of fiction or a psychoanalytical study? Is Gone with the Wind a romance or history of the south?

Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in this meaning of knowledge and is an expository work.

The goal is more nuanced than distinguishing fiction from nonfiction, because there are various kinds of expository books.

It is not merely a question of knowing which books are primarily instructive, but also which are instructive in a particular way. The kinds of information or enlightenment that a history and a philosophical work afford are not the same. The problems dealt with by a book on physics and one on morals are not the same, nor are the methods the writers employ in solving such different problems.

The best way to do this is through inspectional reading.

Practical vs. Theoretical Books

One of the things we need to focus on is the distinction between practical and theoretical works. While we all use these words not all of us understand the meaning.

The practical has to do with what works in some way, at once or in the long run. The theoretical concerns something to be seen or understood. If we polish the rough truth that is here being grasped, we come to the distinction between knowledge and action as the two ends a writer may have in mind.

But, you may say, in dealing with expository books, are we not dealing with books that convey knowledge? How does action come into it? The answer, of course, is that intelligent action depends on knowledge.

Books only interested in conveying knowledge itself limit themselves to one type of communication and leave the rest to others. Others, it can be said, have an interest beyond knowledge for the sake of knowledge and concern themselves with problems that knowledge can solve.

Making knowledge useful involves the transformation of knowing that and knowing how.

Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

Practical books will tell you how something should be done along with an argument for the right way of doing something. A theoretical book, in contrast, will argue that something “is” true.

Blueprints

Every book has structure. This leads us to the second and third rules for analytical reading.

The second rule of analytical reading is state the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

This means that you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible.

The third rule is to set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

The reason for this rule should be obvious. If a work of art were absolutely simple, it would, of course, have no parts. But that is never the case. None of the sensible, physical things man knows is simple in this absolute way, nor is any human production. They are all complex unities. You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many that consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many.

There is a difference between a heap of bricks, on the one hand, and the single house they can constitute, on the other. There is a difference between a single house and a collection of houses. A book is like a single house. It is a mansion having many rooms, rooms on different levels, of different sizes and shapes, with different outlooks, with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part. Each has its own structure and interior decoration. But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected by doors and arches, by corridors and stairways, by what architects call a “traffic pattern.” Because they are connected, the partial function that each performs contributes its share to the usefulness of the whole house. Otherwise the house would not be livable.

The analogy is almost perfect. A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts. Each major part has a certain amount of independence. … As houses are more or less livable, so books are more or less readable.

The best books, Adler argues, are those that have the most intelligible structure.

Though they are usually more complex than poorer books, their greater complexity is also a greater simplicity, because their parts are better organized, more unified.

How important is it to determine the structure of a book?

We think very important. Another way of saying this is to say that Rule 2— the requirement that you state the unity of a book— cannot be effectively followed without obeying Rule 3— the requirement that you state the parts that make up that unity.

A very simple example will show what we mean. A two-year-old child, just having begun to talk, might say that “two plus two is four.” Objectively, this is a true statement; but we would be wrong to conclude from it that the child knew much mathematics. In fact, the child probably would not know what the statement meant, and so, although the statement by itself was adequate, we would have to say that the child still needed training in the subject. Similarly, you might be right in your guess about a book’s main theme or point, but you still need to go through the exercise of showing how and why you stated it as you did.

If these rules seem like they could also apply to writing, they can. “Writing and reading are reciprocal, as are teaching and being taught.” While the rules can work for both, the roles are not the same. Readers try to uncover the skeleton of the book. The author starts with the skeleton and covers it up, say, by putting meat around the bones.

The fourth rule of analytical reading is to find out what the authors problems were.

The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. The writer may or may not tell you what the questions were as well as give you the answers that are the fruits of his work. Whether he does or does not, and especially if he does not, it is your task as a reader to formulate the questions as precisely as you can. You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts.

This doesn’t mean you need to go into what the critics call, the intentional fallacy. That is, thinking that you can discover what the author was thinking as he wrote the book. Commonly this applies to literary works. An example of this would be trying to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from Hamlet. There is a big difference between trying to figure out what questions the author set out to answer and trying to determine what they were thinking at the time of writing.

How do you Find What a Book is About?

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

While there are four levels to reading — the fourth being syntopical reading — I'm stopping here. If I've whetted your appetite to learn more, you should read the book.

Inspectional Reading: How to Intelligently Skim a Book

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves,
and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction
and comprehension”
.
Mortimer Adler

***

This article is part of our series on how to read a book.

The second level of reading concerns inspectional reading and is from How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

There are two types of inspectional reading: systematic skimming or pre-reading and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming shouldn’t take much time to master. Adler offers some suggestions about how to do it:

1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at its preface. Read each quickly. Note especially the subtitles or other indications of the scope or aim of the book or of the author’s special angle on his subject. Before completing this step you should have a good idea of the subject, and, if you wish, you may pause for a moment to place the book in the appropriate category in your mind. What pigeonhole that already contains other books does this one belong in?

2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip. It is astonishing how many people never even glance at a book’s table of contents unless they wish to look something up in it. In fact, many authors spend a considerable amount of time in creating the table of contents, and it is sad to think their efforts are often wasted.

3. Check the index if the book has one— most expository works do. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and of the kinds of books and authors referred to. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up at least some of the passages cited. The passages you read may contain the crux— the point on which the book hinges— or the new departure which is the key to the author’s approach and attitude.

4. If the book is a new one with a dust jacket, read the publishers blurb.

5. From your general and still rather vague knowledge of the book’s contents, look now at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument.

6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter. Above all, do not fail to read the last two or three pages, or, if these are an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book. Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages.

* * *

That’s how you skim a book. Once you get some practice, it should take at most, an hour.

Skimming helps you reach to a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention? Why? Unless you’re reading for entertainment, if you can’t answer that question you can toss the book. Mastering this technique will save you a lot of time, offer knowledge of the books blueprint, and make it easier, should you decide, to read the rest of the book.

The second part of inspectional reading is superficial reading.

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

… What you understand by reading the book through to the end— even if it is only fifty percent or less— will help you when you make the additional effort later to go back to the places you passed by on your first reading. And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to.

The tremendous pleasure that can come from reading Shakespeare, for instance, was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, As You Like It, or Hamlet, scene by scene, looking up all the strange words in a glossary and studying all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never really read a Shakespearean play. By the time they reached the end, they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole.

* * *

Superficial reading is the first step towards analytical reading – that is, understanding and interpreting a book’s contents.

Inspectional reading should be able to answer the questions, what kind of book is it? what is it about? and what is the structure, or blueprint, of the book “whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?”

Improve Your Reading Skills: The Levels of Reading

Reading

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot.

But reading is not enough.

Knowledge cannot build unless we comprehend what we’re reading.

We need to read with the aim of increasing our understanding: we need to read above our level.

To do that, we need to think about how we read.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on how to improve our reading skills.

How To Read A Book

Mortimer Adler originally published How To Read A Book in 1940. It immediately became a bestseller. Since that time the book has been updated and recast many time, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

With so much changing recently with how we read and what we read, a keen observer would ask what we can learn from such an ancient book?

One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different— appropriate— speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed.

As Pascal observed long ago, “When we read too slowly, we understand nothing.”

Another thing that hasn’t really changed much is the failure to continue to learn how to read beyond the instruction we receive in elementary school. We think of reading in binary terms – you can either read or you can’t. But the truth is that reading is a skill along a continuum. We can improve our skill with knowledge and practice.

In 1939, Professor James Mursell of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Failure of the Schools.”

Do pupils in school learn to read their mother tongue effectively? Yes and no. Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level. This is not because a person arrives at his natural limit of efficiency when he reaches the sixth grade, for it has been shown again and again that with special tuition much older children, and also adults, can make enormous improvement. Nor does it mean that most sixth-graders read well enough for all practical purposes. A great many pupils do poorly in high school because of sheer ineptitude in getting meaning from the printed page. They can improve; they need to improve; but they don’t.

The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of reading, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. (Note that this holds true of the average student, not the person who is a subject for special remedial treatment.) He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college.

In today’s information obsessed world, it would seem we need to understand how we read more than ever. Despite the abundance of media, we still gain a large share of our understanding about the world through the written word.

“There is a sense in which we moderns,” Adler writes, “are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding. One of the reasons for this situation is that … media … are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary.”

* * *

The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day.

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.

* * *

Active reading

Passive reading is impossible, thus all reading, to some degree is active reading. Some reading, however, is more active than others and the more active the better.

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

Success in reading is determined to the extent that you receive what the writer intended to communicate.

There are two senses of the word “reading.” One is reading for information and another is reading for understanding. (We can, of course, also read for entertainment.)

Reading for information is the one in which we read

…newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth— that is, if we were both alert and honest.

Alternatively, we can try to read something we do not completely understand.

Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader. The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader’s understanding. Such communication between unequals must be possible, or else one person could never learn from another, either through speech or writing.

In short, we can only improve our understanding, from people who understand more than we do. Our goal as a reader, then, is to identify who they are and how to learn from them.

Everyone who can read has some skill. No doubt all of us, however, can learn to read better over time through reading and practice.

If you learn to read to increase understanding the theory is that reading for information and entertainment will take care of themselves, as this is the least demanding kind of reading.

* * *

The Difference Between Learning by Instruction and Learning by Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This is the difference between being able to remember something and being able to explain it.

… if you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You can’t be enlightened unless you are informed, however you can be informed but not enlightened.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”

The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.

The Greeks had a name for people who have read too widely and not well, sophomores.

Being widely read and well-read are not the same thing. Adler argues that to avoid this error we must distinguish between how we learn into instruction and discovery.

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

* * *

The Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines how you read. If you’re reading for entertainment, you’re going to read a lot differently (and likely different material) than if you’re reading to increase understanding.

To some extent, how effective we are at reading is a function of how much effort we put into it: the more, the better.

Adler argues the “difference between the levels (of reading) must be understood before any effective improvement in reading skills can occur.”

There are four levels of reading. They are thought of as levels because as you can’t get to the higher levels without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

The first level of reading is elementary reading.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

This is the level of reading so frequently taught in our elementary schools.

The second level of reading is inspectional reading.

It is characterized by its special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading.

[A]nother name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

The point of inspectional reading is to examine the “surface” of the book.

Adler guides us:

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Inspectional reading is underappreciated by a lot of readers. A lot of people like to read linearly. They pick up a book, turn to page one, and plow steadily through it without ever reading so much as the table of contents. “They are,” writes Adler, “thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it.” This makes reading more difficult, not less.

The third level of reading is called analytical reading.

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. … Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … [A]nalytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Francis Bacon remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Think of analytical reading as chewing and digesting.

analytical reading is hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.

The fourth, and highest, level of reading is syntopical reading.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. … With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.