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Tag Archives: Mortimer Adler

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.

Reading a Book is a Conversation Between You and the Author

reading a book

While I've posted this before as part of my series on reading a book, I wanted to draw your attention to this beautiful excerpt from Mortimer Adler's How To Read A Book:

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.

The Necessity of Marginalia in the Age of the Ebook

Marginalia
Francis Bacon once remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Reading and writing often go hand in hand. Reading is not a passive skill but rather an active one.

One of the ways we chew and digest what we're reading is to comment on something someone else has written. We do this through Marginalia — the broken fragments of thought that appear scribbled in the margins of books. These fragments help us connect ideas, translate jargon, and spur critical thinking. (One notable downside though, giving away books becomes harder because often these fragments are intimate arrows into my thinking.)

In the world of ebooks the future of marginalia and reading looks different. With electronic reading devices, the ease of inserting these thought fragments has diminished. I have Kindle and while I'm trying to use it more, there are issues. By the time I've highlighted a section, clicked on make a note, and laboured intensively at the keyboard, I've often lost the very thought I was trying to capture. (Ebooks, however, make certain things easier, like searching.)

This excerpt from How to Read a Book, written in the 40s, captures the necessity of marginalia to reading.

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.

Follow your curiosity to the pleasures of reading in an age of distraction, how to read a book, and a process for taking notes while reading.

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.

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.

The Art of Reading: Inspectional Reading

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

How To Read A Book

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

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?”