“How to Read a Book”, by Mortimer Adler is both a damning account of our current state of affairs with regards to education in reading and writing, and a brilliant treatise on how one ought to approach the skillful, delicate act of reading. I won’t be approaching any piece of writing quite the same ever again after having read this book.
Now you might be thinking, as I was, “What the hell could this book even be about? Don’t you just need to read and understand words on a page?” Indeed, this is the first step in reading, but there are three more active, in-depth stages every true reader should be aware of, according to Adler. Whilst in school, we are taught the rules of spelling, grammar, syntax and so on, there is more component skills in reading than these. In fact, Adler argues that there’s no upper limit to how skilled a reader can be; and yet we receive no instruction past the basics through formal education. So, left to our own autodidactory devices, what else can one do with a book? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Adler identifies three, successively more advanced stages of reading any book: Inspectional, Analytic and Syntopical.
Inspectional reading can take two forms; systematic skimming and superficial reading. The former is inspecting the book in a full sense of the word; browsing the table of contents, author/publisher’s blurb, the introduction, and even the index. These are parts one should take care to inspect with every book. This can answer the first of our four questions: What kind of book is it? Deceptively simple, some books don’t neatly fall into categories (is Thus Spoke Zarathustra fiction or philosophy? Is the Iliad poetry or a story?), but this is of paramount importance to get sorted before all else. Once this is done, inspection by flipping through pages, dipping in and out to get a feel for the flow of the argument and structure of the book as a whole can serve to begin answering our second question: What is the book about, and how does the author structure their argument?.
This leads into the third stage: Analytical reading. Here, the reader must well and truly interact and engage with the book beyond simply absorbing words. One must give the attention the book deserves, identifying key and/or recurrent words, phrases, sentences, and ideas. In analytic reading, our primary process is to come to terms with the author. A word (or sentence) may mean several things, but it signifies or indicates only a single term, or meaning. It is this which we must grasp at as best as we can, by observing how words, sentences, phrases, syntax and style are used in relation to each other. In doing so, we approximate the precise meaning the author meant in writing whatever they did, and hence acquire that ourselves so we may then play with the idea, and agree, disagree or withhold our judgement.
This is in fact, the third question we must answer: Is the author correct? Adler humorously points out that many a time have students read a piece of work and stated something along the lines of:
“I don’t really understand what the author is trying to say, but I disagree with it anyway.”
There’s really no greater kind of intellectual hubris and ignorance one can express. Not only are we, as readers, obligated to take a stance on any piece of work, be it fiction or non-fiction, but we must be able to say why. If it is fiction, the goal here is to say whether or not we “like” the book, and why (which is really quite difficult!). Fiction books often (but not always) strike at some question through their plot, which we must also identify. For expository and non-fiction works however, there is undeniably some thesis which we have to identify, be able to state in our own words, and then agree or disagree, providing reasons why. If we must suspend our judgement, then here to we must give reasons. There’s no backing down, reading a (good) book is no joke.
Finally, there is Syntopical reading; the act of reading several (perhaps many) books revolving around some idea, and extracting answers for ourselves out of them. Here, Adler’s personal experience in collecting and reading the Great Books of the Western World (he is the guy who basically came up with this idea), comes into play. It won’t always be the case that an author will have something to say on our issue of interest, in which case inspectional reading should take care of trimming down our reading list. After having inspected every book (or paper) on the list, we can then begin to analytically read each, all the while constructing our own neutral language with which to extract ideas, meaning and answers from each book so that all of their ideas may exist in tandem. This process is difficult to describe, but from personal experience this is quite similar to doing a literature review prior to beginning some research project in say physics. First and foremost, we have a research questions (or a set of such questions). We then construct a list of papers (books) to read, skim them, then analyse them to see what work has been done in the past on some issue, taking notes, and observing how we might ourselves solve whatever problem it may be using previous ideas. Almost always it will be the case that new solutions arise from the synthesis of knowledge across works, rather than simply applying one idea from one book/paper.
The exposition Adler gives on “Inspectional reading” was particularly interesting, since I’ve always had the perception of skim reading being almost entirely useless. On the contrary, Adler makes a clear case of why not only is skim reading in and of itself (when done properly) is of use, but also why Analytic and Syntopical reading rely on it so heavily. In skimming and superficially reading a book, we construct a rough guide, a framework in our mind of what to expect, which Analytic reading can then fill in with details, colours, and key points of arguments. I’m now taking the effort with each book I read, even with my maths textbooks, to inspect the whole book carefully. Otherwise reading is like stumbling around in the dark.
I’d already had some advice given previously on how to mark and take notes in books (with a particular kind of system), but Adler emphasizes how crucial this is to active reading. It makes sense for textbooks, but for fiction and classics, one might even be adverse (as I used to be) to making notes, and hence “defacing” their pristine copies. I’m now beginning to see that conversely, marks, notes and scribbles are a mark of a book read properly, and with attention. So despite having a gorgeous copy of the Iliad, I’ll be writing all over it without hesitation soon.