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How to Read a Book. Turns out, I had no idea.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

It’s a book I hesitated to buy. A book on how to read a book? Come on. I got this.

But people far smarter than I recommended it.

Kevin Kelly mentions it on his selections for the Manual for Civilization. Maria Popova has it listed on her Brain Pickings piece – 9 Books on Reading and Writing.

I clicked BUY NOW.

Structurally I thought it would be a step-by-step guide.

Step 1 – Open the book. Step 2 – Don’t use a highlighter. That sort of thing. Instead it’s broken into topics. Essays on how to read specific topics and genres.

Examples include:

How to Read History

How to Read Philosophy

And the chapter I started with: Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems

Adler and Van Doren’s argument for reading quickly surprised me.

The first piece of advice we would like to give you for reading a story is this: Read it quickly and with total immersion. Ideally, a story should be read at one sitting, although this is rarely possible for busy people with long novels. Nevertheless, the ideal should be approximated by compressing the reading of a good story into as short a time as feasible. Otherwise you will forget what happened, the unity of the plot will escape you and you will be lost.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. By: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, pgs 212,213

I’m a slow reader. I’m looking to absorb every character in detail. Adler and Van Doren suggest we’ll remember who’s important:

We should not expect to remember every character; many of them are merely background persons, who are there only to set off the actions of the main characters. However, by the time we have finished War and Peace or any big novel, we know who is important, and we do not forget. Pierre, Andrew, Natasha, Princess Mary, Nicholas- the names are likely to come immediately to memory, although it may have been years since we read Tolstoy’s book.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. By: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, pg 213

They argue this is also true for incidents. We should trust the author to flag what’s important:

We also, despite the plethora of incidents, soon learn what is important. Authors generally give a good deal of help in this respect; they do not want the reader to miss what is essential to the unfolding of the plot, so they flag it in various ways. But our point is that you should not be anxious if all is not clear from the beginning. Actually, it should not be clear then. A story is like life itself; in life, we do not expect to understand events as they occur, at least with total clarity, but looking back on them, we do understand. So the reader of a story, looking back on it after he has finished it, understand the relation of events and the order of actions.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. By: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, pg 213

A book can lose your attention because it’s not clear in the beginning. I fumbled through the first chapter of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, not sure what was happening. I kept on though. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Adler and Van Doren on the importance of finishing a book:

All of this comes down to the same point: you must finish a story in order to be able to say that you have read it well.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. By: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, pg 213

With that, I’m going to give this reading quicker idea a go. Starting with Patrick Rothfuss‘s Name of the Wind.

I’ll report back.

Keep reading.

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