Tuesday, 6 December 2011

How to read a book by MortimerJ. Adler and C.VDoren

 About 130 years ago, Gustave Flaubert (Author of Madam Bovary) made the following remark,"What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books."To be a good reader has always been the aspiration of all great minds.
I realised very acutely the deficiencies in my reading skills  when I found that my comprehension of some of the great books had been really low .By  a stroke of chance , I  reread some of these  great books very slowly and analytically ,  and realised my mistakes.I am an ambitious reader but the time to read great books is just not enough , due to other demands on my time .You cannot buy time as you can buy books.This left me with the only option : To revisit the way I read books .I have realised that rapid reading need not be good reading .Also , wide reading need not be good reading. I also read Nabakov's "Lectures on Literature."I also understood with Nabakov(Author of Lolita) that to understand  and appreciate a master writer or a master artist , the reader should have and use imagination, intelligence and energy.The reader has to be deserving.I am aware that in the era of Kindle and e-books , printed books are fast losing the race, but even to comprehend and appreciate a creative work on the cyber space , you need a similar skills- set, similar mind and similar imagination.
Mortimer J. Adler wrote this book in 1940 , but it is needed more now than when he wrote it . This book is a living classic.It is long , with 426 pages , and is a serious work about proper reading .It has been translated into five languages,French,Swedish,German , Spanish ,Italian.
What really makes a good reader? Vladimir Nabakov answers this question as follows:"A good reader is one who has imagination, memory , a dictionary and some artistic sense. .. ."He also says that the best temperament for a reader to have , or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one.This applies to the reader of fiction as well as science.The boundary between the work of fiction and work of science is not as clear as is generally believed.In fact , a good novel has the "merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science.".While there is a case of improving ourselves as a person , there is always a scope to improve in the art of reading .
As Nabakov says , one cannot  read a book:one can only reread it .A good reader , an active reader is a re- reader.When we read a book , the very process of learning stands between us and artistic appreciation.It is only on second or subsequent readings that we appreciate the book .

"How to read a book" describes the four levels of reading:
1.Elementary reading
2Inspectional reading
3.Analytical reading
4.Syntopical reading
Reading is an art.Our goal is to acquire higher levels of skill in this art.Reading skill is taught and learnt  in the schools   in the first six grades.But at that age and stage, we do not reach the limit of efficiency in reading .Often , we remain poor and incompetent readers.
The authors make it clear that good reading is not speed reading .The main purpose of good reading is to gain understanding  and appreciation  of the book .These rules of reading can be applied not only to books but also to newspapers,magazines , articles,pamphlets, and even advertisements.
Reading is active.It is less like receiving a blow and more like catching the ball in a game of baseball.Reading requires us to be alert and awake .We must not daydream while reading.
Books can be categorised into practical or theoretical books,imaginative literature(poetry,novels, plays, stories) or history, science or mathematics, Social sciences , philosophy, reference books , journalism and advertising.While the general rules of good reading remain the same , there are some differences when you read a fiction  or non-fiction .Fiction satisfies many conscious as well as unconscious needs of a reader.When you read the work of fiction, you have the experience that the author tried to produce for you by working on your imagination and emotions.There is magic as well as sensual imagery."The logic of expository writing aims at an ideal of unambiguous explicitness.Nothing should be left between the lines.Everything that is relevant and statable should be said as explicitly and clearly as possible.In contrast,imaginative writing relies as much upon what is implied as upon what is said.The multiplication of metaphors puts almost more content between the lines than in the words that compose them.The whole poem or story says something that none of its words say or can say."You do not look for terms, propositions and arguments in imaginative literature.
  It is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it.Similarly , in case of philosophy books , sometimes it takes years to read , and many reading and re-readings.
Reading has three purposes:
3.Understanding /appreciating
Understanding  and appreciating is the most important purpose.Our continuous education depends on books and reading them with understanding. To be widely read is not the same thing as to be well read.A person who reads too widely but not well is Literate ignoramus.He is at par with an ignorant person .
Reading is similar to listening .It is an active process.It is never effortless.Thinking as well as imagination is a part of reading.
 Inspectional reading is also called skimming systematically .You allow yourself a fixed time(say one hour) and within that time , you complete the book or part of the book .You can then answer the question'"What is this book about?"The main aim of inspectional reading is to discover whether the book needs a more careful reading.Some important steps in inspectional reading are as below:
1.Look at the title page and the preface .Read these quickly.
2.Study carefully the table of contents.
3.Check the index , the kind of books , authors and crucial terms appearing in the index.
4.Read the publisher's blurb on the jacket.
5.Look at the chapters that seem pivotal to its argument.
6.Thumb through the book .Read a paragraph or two , sometimes several pages in sequence.read the last few pages .
Done in this way , inspectional reading can give a value for a reader.
Analytical reading is thorough and complete.In Bacon's words, it means "chewing and digesting " a book .
In syntopical reading , you read many books on the same subject and compare them.After comparing , you create an analysis of the subject , which may not be in any of the books.Syntopical reading is is the most active and most effortful reading.
We are expected to master our elementary reading in our primary and junior high school .If we have done so , we should begin a book with inspectional reading .A good inspectional reading will help us to decide whether we should go for thorough analytical reading .Finally , analytical reading of one book will help us to decide whether we should go for reading synoptically a number of other books on the same subject .
The preparation for an examination requires a synoptical reading on the chosen subject .
We need to institute courses in analytical and synoptical reading in high schools and colleges.Only the we can hope to become a nation of competent readers.
As the literacy spreads , we need more and more people to be trained in higher levels of reading .
Inspectional reading is done twice.First stage is systematic skimming.The second stage is superficial reading.In this , you read the book through at least once , before you do analytical reading ,pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you can not immediately grasp.Concentrate on what you do understand.Superficial reading is the first necessary step in the interpretation of a book 's contents
Normally , inspectional reading is faster than analytical reading However , there is every need to read faster , depending on the material we are reading .One effective way to increase the speed is this;"Place your thumb and first two fingers together and sweep this pointer across a line of type, a little faster than is comfortable for your eyes to move Force yourself to keep up with your hand.You will soon be able to read  the words as you follow your hand.Keep practising this, and keep increasing the speed at which your hand moves, and before you know, it will have doubled or trebled your reading speed."
Concentration in reading means not day dreaming, and not letting the mind wander.Speed reading achieves concentration.But concentration alone does not lead to comprehension or understanding.Sometimes comprehension requires days, or weeks, or even years.Speed reading therefore, need not improve our comprehension and need not be given too much importance.
It is generally desirable to skim or do inspectional reading of even a book that we intend to read carefully, to get some idea of its form and structure.

The four questions a good  reader must ask are :
1.What is the leading theme of the book ?
2.What are the main assertions and arguments?
3.What does your own mind say about what the book says?Is what the book says true?
4.Is the book important to know?Will you seek what follows or is further implied or suggested?
Marking a book is an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author.Marking a book gives you intellectual ownership of the book.
Seven devices for marking a book are :
1.Underlining,circling key words or phrases, vertical lines at the margin.
2.Star or asterisk at the margin to mark the most important passages.
3.Numbers to indicate the sequence of points.
4.Numbers of other pages which make the same points or contradict them.
5.Notes in the margin, at the top, bottom and in the end papers at the back of the book.
6.The front end papers for a record of your thinking.
7.You can make notes during Inspectional reading also, not only during analytical reading.
There are three kinds of note making:
1.Structural notes at the time of inspectional reading .
2.Conceptual notes at the time of analytical and synoptical reading.
3.Dialectical notes at the time of synoptical reading.
The title of the book as well as the chapter headings need to be read carefully.
Analytical reading has 15 rules :
1.Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2.State what the whole book is about in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences(a short paragraph).
3Enumerate the major parts of the book in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4.Find out and define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
5.Find the important /key words and through them , come to terms with the author.
6.Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the leading propositions that the author is making .
7.Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.In other words , find if you can the paragraphs in a book that state its important arguments.But if the arguments are not thus expressed, your task is to construct them by taking a sentence from this paragraph ,and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the propositions that compose the author's arguments.
8.Find out what the author's solutions are.Determine which of his problems the author has solved and which he has not;and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
9.Do not begin to talk back until you have listened carefully and are sure you understand.You must be able to say with reasonable certainty,"I understand" before you can say any of the following things;"I agree", or "I disagree"., or "I suspend my judgement".
10.When you disagree, do so reasonably and not disputatiously or contentiously.
11.Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgement you make.
12.Show wherein the author is uninformed.
13.Show wherein the author is misinformed.
14.Show wherein the author is illogical .
15.Show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete.
You should not read any commentary by someone else until after you have read the book .
Both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as preparation for syntopical reading.The seven steps in syntopical reading are as below:
1.Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisers and bibliographies in books.
2.Inspect all the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.
3.Inspect the books already identified above in order to find the most relevant passages.
4.Bring the authors to terms by constructing a mental terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
5.Establish a set of neutral propositions for all the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
6.Define the issues, both major or minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors' views on matters that may not have been their primary concern .
7.Analyse the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should e clearly indicated.

 Syntopical reading pose the following paradox"Unless you know what books to read , you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read".