Is this book anywhere near as commonly known as, say, THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE? I have the impression it was widely known at some point, and my 1972 revised edition is subtitled “the classic guide to intelligent reading” – the original edition was published in 1940. I picked up my copy off a remainder table at UCLA nearly 40 years ago, perhaps struck by the cheeky title – if one doesn’t know how to read a book, how could one possibly read this one?

Well, to answer my first question, since drafting part of this post a couple days ago, on Monday I saw two hardcover copies of this book at my neighborhood bookseller, A Great Good Place for Books, in the general nonfiction section — face out! So apparently it’s still in circulation.

To answer my second, rhetorical, question, HOW TO READ A BOOK is about how to read and digest and process books in ways more comprehensive than a straightforward, obvious, ‘elementary’ reading.

The authors are Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Adler was something of a pop philosopher, among other things, who oversaw the selection of the Great Books of the Western World (a set of titles a bit analogous to the Harvard Classics, which I am in custody of a set of, courtesy my forward-thinking parents, who filled my childhood home with various sets of encyclopedia and other volumes, though they did not read themselves). And in fact HOW TO READ has an appendix of ‘recommended reading’ that begins with Homer and goes through Solzhenitsyn.

This is a 400+ page book about various ways of approaching, inspecting, analyzing, and reading one book or many books on a given topic. These reading protocols are surely familiar, and easily discovered, to most devoted readers, though Adler & Van Doren’s focus was, as indicated, on the ‘classics’. They weren’t much concerned with popular fiction, or even any kind of current nonfiction books.

They describe four levels of reading: elementary reading, which is basic understanding of reading sentences and paragraphs; inspectional reading, which is the art of gleaning, in an hour or less, the topic and point of a perhaps substantial volume of nonfiction; analytical reading, the way to thoroughly read any book, depending on its classification; and finally, syntopical reading, which is about formulating questions on some topic and examining many books for the insight they can provide in answering those questions… a bit like ‘research’, though not exactly.

I haven’t actually re-read this entire book; what I’ve done, more-or-less, this past week, is a refresher inspectional read. Here’s what they mean by that:

  1. Look at the title page and preface, if it has one, and read each;
  2. Study the table of contents;
  3. Check the index to get an idea of the range of topics covered;
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb [i.e. the dust jacket description];
  5. Look through key chapters, and read any summary opening or closing pages;
  6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a page or a few, but never any more.

Their point of inspectional reading is to decide, given one’s time constraints, whether a book is worthy of a closer, analytical reading. Much of HOW TO READ consists of describing this third technique and how it applies to various types of books. The basic principles involve 1) find out what the book is about; 2) understand and interpret the book’s contents; 3) criticize it, in terms of your agreement or disagreement, on grounds; and 4) ask what of it?, i.e., does the book require any kind of response?

Of primary interest to me are the sections on ‘imaginative literature’ (by which they mean all sorts of stories, plays, and poems), and certain sorts of nonfiction more than others, science and mathematics. (They also have chapters on history, philosophy, and social science, which actually I’m lately investigating as well.) Their approach to ‘imaginative literature’ is mostly warnings about how not to treat it as nonfiction, and to immerse oneself in the experience; their approach to ‘science and math’ is mostly to consider the intellectual exercise, i.e. they think you are going to be reading classics like original texts by Darwin or Einsten, though they do have an afterthought about what they call ‘popular science’.

Their fourth level, syntopical reading, involves formulating a question or thesis, identifying a bibliography of books that address that concern, and analytically reading them against each other. In detail:

  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject;
  2. Perform an inspectional reading of all books on the bibliography, to identify which are key, which might be ruled out, other titles that might be added;
  3. ‘Bring the authors to terms’ by constructing a neutral terminology to map the authors to;
  4. Frame a set of questions and issues for which the authors might provide answers;
  5. Analyze the discussion by finding relevant passages that inform your subject.

(I’m condensing and paraphrasing steps outlined on pp335-336.)

In my own history, their points about inspectional reading have stuck, even to the idea of browsing books in a bookstore (back when people actually browsed books in physical bookstores… which I still manage to do now and then). Read the title, the book flap, the ToC; glance at the index, check for selected topics which you might think would be covered in a volume on this subject, and the bibliography if there is one. I would add: consider the ‘blurbs’ on the back cover; they give you an idea of who the publisher thinks this author aligns with, which both in fiction and nonfiction can reveal a great deal about where the author of the book at hand is coming from.

Lately, on this blog, I’ve been doing what they would call analytical readings, where I closely read substantial nonfiction books, take notes while reading, write up the notes in a Word doc, summarize and paraphrase those notes in a blog post, and quote selected passages from the author that I’ve noted while reading. [I might mention here that the authors of HOW TO READ advise to you *write in your books*, underlining or highlighting key passages, writing key points on the front and back endpapers, and so on. No; I cannot bring myself to do that.]

Aside from bookstore browsing (or Amazon browsing, to the extent that works), my version of inspectional reading, of novels, it to read the first 2 or 5 or 10 pages of any new novel that comes into the house… especially if it’s an author unfamiliar to me.

More recently, in the past year, I realize that I have begun what they call syntopical reading, if not quite as ruthlessly as they describe. That is, I’ve compiled a tentative bibliography on this blog of books addressing the very broad issues of cosmology, evolution, the mind, religion, morality, psychology, the future, all issues I need to examine at least broadly to understand how ideas of science fiction inform them. I have a parallel project of identifying key SF works, in some objective (not cherry-picking) fashion.

And so coincidentally, before coming across HOW TO READ during book rearrangement last week, I’d concluded that I need to do a sort of ‘inspectional’ reading of all those nonfiction titles on my bibliography. It might 10 years to read them all analytically (or syntopically), but inspectional readings might be finished in a few months, to cull the set down to those that directly apply to my project.

And one reason I read the Jo Walton book described in previous post, is as one of several complementary strategies for compiling an SF bibliography for that same grand project. Another, in progress, is paying close attention to Gary K. Wolfe’s “Great Courses” course in How Great Science Fiction Works. And another step, which I hadn’t actually realized was relevant to this relatively more recent project, when I began it many years ago, is the completion of

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