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.

“Speed Reading” That Works: 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, a concept from The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler.

Inspectional Reading

There are two types of inspectional reading: systematic skimming, also known as pre-reading or intelligent skimming, and superficial reading.

Intelligently Skimming

The first type of inspectional reading is systematic skimming, which you can easily put into practice today. Here’s how you start:

Read the cover and preface. Start with a quick read of the cover, publishers blurb, and the preface to get a feel for the scope of the work. This will not only prime your brain for what you might read in its entirety, but it will help you mentally place the book in a category.

Read the table of contents, which will give you a feel for the map of the book. Where is the book taking you? How are you getting There? It’s amazing how many people just dive in reading without even glancing at the table of contents and yet, the author spends considerable time coming up with the table of contents (as that’s the spine of the book). With non-fiction books you often can’t sell them without having a detailed table of contents.

Understand the language of the book. This means skimming the index. Not only will this give you an idea for the range of topics covered but it will also tell you the other people the book connects to and the jargon used in the book.

Identify the pivotal points. At this point, you have an overview of the jargon and the journey the author is taking you on. It should be relatively easy to identify the pivotal chapter to the argument. Dive into these reading bits and pieces. How are they structured? How connected is it to the rest of the book? Is this a place you want to end up? Turn the pages and dive in here and there with a few paragraphs or even pages.

Read the end. Authors generally do a good job summarizing their work in the last few pages. This where they sum up what they think is most important about their work.

Listen to an interview. While this has nothing to do with the actual book, interviews can be a great way to get the gist of a book in 30m or so. Authors do so much promotion now that its relatively easy to find interviews. And of course, they use the best examples from the book in these interviews.

Deciding to Read a Book

That’s how you intelligently 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 intelligent skimming will:

  • save you a lot of time because most books are not worth reading
  • offer knowledge of the book’s blueprint and contents so you know where to find stuff if you need it in the future
  • and improve retention, if you decide to read the book in its entirety because you’ve primed your brain with the contents.

Superficial Reading

The second part of inspectional reading is superficial reading. This is used when you’re tacking a book that’s notably above your level. Most of us stop when we’re confused and ponder what’s being said but a superficial reading means that you quickly read start to finish without stopping to ponder the things you don’t understand. The reason this works is that by reading the book start to finish, you’ll have a great overview of what’s going on. You might only understand 25% of what’s going on but that’s better than nothing. Should you decide to go back and re-read the book, a lot of the things that gave you pause the first time would have been resolved. If you stop and go over everything you don’t understand on your first reading, you get lost. Sure you finish the book but you’ve lost sight of where you’ve been and where you’ve come.

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?”

The Four Levels of Reading: Improve Skills One Level At A Time

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot. My Hero, Charlie Munger, said it best “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Picking up a book and reading the words is the easy part. Reading to understand is much harder.

The key is not simply to read more but rather be selective about what we reading and how we are reading.

This article, the first in a multi-part series on improving our reading skills, outlines the four levels of reading.

“Books give delisght to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join us in a living and intense intimacy.” — Petrarch

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 times, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

How To Read A Book

Active Reading

There is no such thing as passive reading. All reading, to some degree, is active reading. The only difference is that some reading is more active than others. And when it comes to reading to learn something or reading for information something the more active your reading habits 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. That doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you understood them.

Reading For Understanding or Information

Assuming we’re not reading for entertainment, there are two things we generally want to get from reading. We can read to acquire information and facts or we can read to learn something new and improve our understanding.

Reading for entertainment is self-explanatory.

Reading for information is the one in which we read media or anything else that’s easily digestible. These things give us more information but don’t improve our understanding. There is no shock, no moment of … that doesn’t make sense.

Alternatively, we can try to read something by someone who knows more about the subject than we do. After reading works by authors who know more about a subject than we do, our understanding is changed … it may be the case that we better understand something or perhaps we understand that our understanding was incomplete. Either way, our understanding has changed.

The easiest way to improve our understanding is from people who understand more about the subjec than we do.

So half the battle of reading for understanding is to identify and select works from someone (or a group of people) who know more about a subject than we do. The internet and Amazon have made this much easier with ratings and book reviews.

And if you can read for understanding, you need not worry about reading for information or entertainment as, being less demanding, they will take care of themselves.

Instruction or 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 knowing the name of something and knowing something.

… 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 4 Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines the best way to read the material in question. If we’re reading for entertainment, we’re going to read a lot differently than if we’re reading to build a rocket ship.

A thorough understanding of the levels of reading is necessary before we can improve our reading skills.

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

1. Elementary Reading

The first level of reading is elementary reading, which is what we learned to do in elementary school. Most of us never get beyond this level.

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.

2. Inspectional Reading

The second level of reading is inspectional reading, which can be thought of us intelligently skimming a book in a limited amount of time. Not only does this prime our brain with the material in the book, but it helps us determine if we want to read the entire book.

Adler writes:

[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 because they see it as a waste of time.

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.

3. Analytical Reading

The third level of reading is called analytical reading, which goes deeper than inspectional reading. If your goal in reading is entertainment or acquiring information, analytical reading is not necessary. However, if you are reading to improve understanding, analytical reading is entirely necessary.

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.

4. Syntopical Reading

The fourth and most difficult 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.

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