Imagine me - there I was, for decades of my life, thinking I knew how to read a book. I'd advanced through elementary school and prep, into college and finally to graduate school when I discovered, to my horror, that I in fact did not know how to read! Perhaps that helps to explain my affinity to literacy programmes, with whom I will begin working again come this Wednesday.
But no, perhaps I overstate the situation. What I actually mean to say is that it was not until my graduate school days that I happened across the most excellent work How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This staple had somehow eluded me; familiar as I was with both Adler and Van Doren, I had never encountered this text.
This book was written in 1940, as World War II was beginning and the Great Depression ending; it was revised in the 60s and again in 70s, with the assistance of Charles Van Doren, another person who had had some difficult dealings with Columbia, due to his involvement in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Van Doren moved away from the East Coast and landed in Chicago, near Adler, at Britannica, also again near Adler, and has the kind of intellect and unconventional circumstance that Adler admired. Adler of course had his own unique academic career, failing to get an undergraduate degree due to a physical education requirement that went unmet.
The book itself is divided into four main sections with two sizeable appendices.
The Dimensions of Reading
In this section, the authors look as types of reading and reading levels. They look at basic goals for reading, and discuss different types of learning. While they do not get into the theoretical complexities of learning styles as intricately as more recent educational theorists, they do make interesting and insightful distinctions between learning by instruction and learning by discovery.
This section is, in fact, full of rules. Rules for notetaking, annotating (highlighting, underlining, summarising, etc.), skimming, comprehending, etc. are all presented in an almost overwhelming sequence. There is so much to remember while reading (and I remember how smug I felt at having discovered many, if not most, of the rules on my own). But the authors beg for the rules to be consistently applied so that they merge together to become simple habit. They use the analogy of learning to ski - the rules are important, each in and of itself, but successful skiing transcends a mere application of rules until they become a natural impulse. So it is with reading.
This is crucial for true benefit and comprehension of any book. The authors talk about analysis in stages:
o Pigeonholing a book
o X-raying a book
o Coming to terms with an author
o Determining an author's message
o Criticising a book fairly
o Agreeing or disagreeing with an author
o Aids to reading
Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter
In this section, the authors look at critical differences between different styles of books. It is obvious to even the inexperienced reader that reading a technical manual is vastly different from reading plays, poems, or history texts. Even the most educated of people occasionally stumble when confronted with high-level material from outside fields, such as asking the social scientist to deal with mathematical and scientific texts, or asking the physicist to deal with history and psychology treatises. One might argue about their divisions, but within the chapters they cover a very broad area.
The Ultimate Goals of Reading
Why does anyone read in the first place? Here the authors talk about developing beyond individual books into fields of learning, introducing ideas of synoptic reading and understanding the importance for doing so. Again charting rules of engagement for multiple texts, the authors discuss the importance of reading for understanding and deeper comprehension.
* * *
The first appendix consists of a lengthy list of the great books identified by Adler, modified over time by the various people involved in great books curriculum development. This is an admittedly Western-dominated list.
The list is certainly a long one. There are 137 authors, often with several works attached, recommended in this list. One can find this list in physical form in the Great Books series that is a companion to the Britannica. Itself only recently updated and revised, it consists of several linear feet of bookshelves, and even their recommended 10-year plan is ambition and doesn't cover the entirety of the series. The list is presented (as the book set is organized) in chronological order; this is not the best order in which to read the works.
The second appendix is actually a series of reading exercises for self-examination or group consideration. These are designed to be used for different levels of readers and different intentions. The authors tackle the question of arbitrary and cultural bias in manners of testing, coming to the pragmatic conclusion that, so long as academic and society advancement is tied to these kinds of testing and evaluations, it makes sense to learn how to do them, and however biased they may be in form or content, they still do provide a good measure, if not the best possible measure, for reading comprehension and retention.
One can tell that one's book has been successful when parody versions begin to appear. The year after the first edition of How to Read a Book appeared, there was the spoof How to Read Two Books; shortly thereafter there was a serious monograph by a Professor I.A. Richards entitled How to Read a Page.