Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Read A Book by Mortimer Adler

The first sentence of How to Read a Book says, “I have tried to write a light book about heavy reading. Those who take no pleasure in knowing and understanding should not bother to read it.” He was, in fact, saying, “Read this if you dare. Wimps not welcome!” How could I turn down a challenge like that?!

It soon became clear that this was not a “light” book in the common sense of the word. Adler humbly concedes that his book is easier to read than the heavier books he is promoting, but he also points out that understanding takes effort and he definitely wants the reader to make some effort. He contends that “All books become light in the proportion that you find light in them.”

Part One was sprinkled with juicy quotes on the importance of reading and required little exertion on my part. In Part Two Adler gives three steps for getting the most out of what you read. Keep in mind that his emphasis is on classic non-fiction, called the “Great Books” because they contain the important ideas that have been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of written language. Plato, the Bible, Aquinas, Darwin and Newton are a few examples of “must-read” works. A limited amount of fiction works are included such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville and Dickens.

The second and third parts of the book are heavy and didactic, but I kept reading out of sheer stubbornness. If you’ve read my profile you know I consider myself somewhat of a book snob, but to Adler I’m a total amateur. According to him any baby can read for pleasure, but someone who reads to learn and be changed will have to pay a much higher price. Of the 131 important books listed in the 1939 edition I’ve read only six! Adler wrote that he put the list in the book reluctantly because too often students read through it and consider themselves “educated”. He emphasizes that it would be better to read a few of these books well rather than all of them poorly. Although I wasn’t completely converted from classic fiction to the “Great Books” list I have decided to occasionally branch out from my usual fare. I’ve even marked six titles to add to my reading list over the next two years. Hopefully Adler would approve.

Two notes of interest: First, Adler’s emphasis on paying attention to repeated words and phrases seems elementary to the experienced reader, but I can tell you that that particular method of “deeper” reading (sometimes called inductive study) became life-changing to me as I learned to read the Bible that way. Second, I found a slightly updated version of the "Great Books" and was thrilled to see my two favorite authors (Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Brontë) included this time around. One list is here.

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

Thank you,

Max Weismann