How To read A Book- The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading – By Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Mark Twain once said, “A person who does not read good books is no different from a person who cannot read them.” In this age of information overload where what’s app, blogs, magazines and newspapers are vying to catch the reader’s attention are we more knowledgeable and wiser than our ancestors? Most of us would reply in the affirmative. We may have more information of things around us but more knowledgeable may be a bit debatable.

Late Dr. Gopal Valecha was an Industrial Psychologist and a renowned trainer. While attending his training program in 1997 he narrated an interesting anecdote. After completing his Ph. D. at Iowa State University his guide asked him what can Gopal term as his major accomplishment? He said that from then onwards he can put ‘Dr.’ behind his name. His guide replied, “More than that you will understand how to read a book.” I found that statement a bit weird but around 7 years later I could understand the significance of that statement. Not that I did my Ph. D. but came across a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.

It was first published in 1940 and later on got translated into French, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian.  After reading this classic of 426 pages, I was shocked to know my limitations in reading. 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 ABCs cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. One of the errors is to assume that to be widely read and well read are the same thing. The book is divided into four parts:

Part I – The Dimensions of Reading: This covers the first two levels of reading viz. the Elementary Reading and the Inspectional Reading. Elementary reading is more to do with grammar, syntax, sentence construction etc. which is generally covered in school.

Inspectional Reading involves skimming or pre-reading. This will help you decide whether you really want to read a book, and whether it requires analytical reading. Time being the major constraint and a number of books needing your attention, inspectional reading helps you make that critical decision. Inspectional reading should not involve more than 15-20 mins. It includes reading the blurb, the preface, and scanning the book to see illustrations, tables to get an overall feel of the book.

Part II – The Third Level of Reading: The Analytical Reading is the complete and thorough reading which requires maximum effort. Inspectional reading is the best option when you have limited time, whereas analytical reading is apt when you have adequate time. Francis Bacon once remarked, “most of the books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and a few to be thoroughly chewed and digested.” Remember analytical reading is primarily for the sake of understanding.

Ponder over a title to understand the classification. A title as well as the subtitle conveys vital information about the book.  A group of 25 reasonably well-read people were asked to name the book which shot Charles Darwin to fame.  Darwin is known for his Theory of Evolution and the participants guessed the book as The Origin of the Species. Having not read the book, they assumed that the book must be about the development of human species. Actually, the title of the book is The Origin of Species and discusses the proliferation of the natural world of the great number of plants and animals from a small number of species.

The evolution of human race from apes has been covered by Darwin in The Descent of Man. Title  and preface are generally ignored by the readers  as they are  perceived being insignificant from the angle of classifying a book.

Part III – Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading: This part contains seven chapters which include reading of practical books, imaginative literature, history, Science and Mathematics, Philosophy and social sciences. One chapter is devoted for reading of stories, plays and poems.

Part IV – Fourth Level of Reading, The Syntopical Reading: When you are carrying out a research on a topic and know very well that one book is not sufficient, you need to refer a number of books on the same topic or related topics. You can either devise a bibliography of the number of titles available on the subject or scan few books at random.

Let us say your research topic is: Have the economic reforms really benefitted the country? In such a case you need to refer books not only from economists like Getting India Back on Tracks by Bibek Debroy, An Uncertain Glory by Jean Dreze etc. but also the biographies of Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh. The other purpose is you need to look at different perspectives of the topic. You may read the complete book or you may read only the specific topic. In case of syntopical reading, the emphasis is more on the reader’s priority than on the book.

To enhance the reading competency, a reading list of 150 books has been recommended which include works of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Essays of Francis Bacon, Voltaire, novels like Don Quixote, Karl Marx’s Das Capital etc. Exercise and tests to understand the four levels of reading are also provided. The book provides intellectual satisfaction on the pleasures of reading.

 

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