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Monday, August 8, 2011

"How to Read a Book" (Adler and Van Doren)

Much of what you will find in this blog is inspired by Mortimer Adler, great American educational philosopher. This project itself came about because I was reading his brilliant text “How to Read a Book” (co-authored with Charles van Doren). [Buy it at] My copy is the “revised and updated” 1972 edition. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend it. Here are some highlights from the first section of the book which details the first three levels of reading.
One of the first distinctions he makes is between reading for entertainment, information, and understanding. I like this because each of these three has a place in our lives.
“Being informed is a pre-requisite to being enlightened.” (p. 11)
The Four Levels of Reading:
  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading
  4. Synoptical 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.” (p. 43)
“To use a good book as a sedative is a conspicuous waste.” (p. 46)
Basic questions a reader asks:
  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?
Good writing should have unity, clarity, and coherence. (p. 91)
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning, from books as well as from nature.” (p. 123)
“No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment....The most teachable reader, therefore, is the most critical.” (p. 140)
I think my favorite thing about Adler and Van Doren’s approach is their very realistic recognition that not all books have the same value, and thus not all books deserve to be read in the same way, with the same degree of attention, or with the same goal in mind.

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