This is Part 2 of a 3 part post. You can read Part 1 here.
In 1940 Mortimer Adler (who later started the Great Books Foundation to encourage common folks to read uncommon books) and his friend Charles Van Doren published the first edition of a now-classic book entitled How to Read a Book. In it they gave advice on how to read books in general, and they discussed the best ways to read different types of books.
In the book they say that there are four approaches to reading a book: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. In elementary reading we read the words. Inspectional reading is what you might have done in high school or college. You skim the book to get the basic ideas, but you don’t try to absorb all of the ideas in the book. In analytical reading, on the other hand, you try to get as much out of the book as it has to offer – including insights about why the author wrote the book, about the way the author wrote it, and about why the author wrote the book in that manner. Syntopical reading is something that authors and professors may do. They read multiple books on a subject and learn as much as they possibly can.
Inspectional reading and analytical reading are the two methods that most of us need to know about. In fact, I suspect that most people read books somewhere in between the inspectional and analytical approaches.
The following guidelines, which come from their book and other sources, can apply to the types of reading that most of us will generally do:
- Decide what type of book you want to read. If it is a novel, you will most likely be able to read it quickly. If it is a technical book or a book with complex ideas, you will have to read it slowly in order to understand and absorb all of its information and ideas.
- Begin by reading the publisher’s description of the book and the blurbs on the back of the dust jacket if there is a dust jacket.
- Read the title page and the table of contents.
- Check out the index (if it has one) to get a feel for what the book covers. If you see items in the index that interest you, take time to look at a few of them to see if the author covers what you might want to know about them in a way that will satisfy you. For instance if you want to know more about Shakespeare’s Henry V, see where the author discusses it, read a paragraph or two, and decide if the author’s style and the information about the play satisfy your needs.
- Leaf through the book and read a paragraph or two on random pages as you do so. Does the author’s writing style appeal to you?
If you decide that you want to read the complete book after following the above suggestions, the ideas below may help you to get the most out of your reading experience:
- If the book is a simple book to read and understand, read it as quickly as you can comfortably do so.
- If the book is difficult to understand, read it once quickly. Even when you get to ideas or sections that are difficult to understand, keep reading. Don’t let footnotes, unfamiliar words and such slow you down on this first complete reading.
- Read a difficult book a second time, but take time to understand the complex ideas and to look up the meanings of words you don’t understand.
- There are many free websites that offer detailed information about popular books. They include Cliffsnotes, SparkNotes and LitCharts. Use those sites to increase your understanding of what you have read. You might even read a chapter or section, and then read the synopsis/analysis of that portion of the book on a website before you continue. That way, you will maximize your understanding of the book you’re reading while its ideas are fresh in your mind.
- We read lots of novels with long introductions in my Reading the Classics Book Club. I’ve developed the habit of reading the introductions after I read the books. Since the introductions usually contain detailed information about characters in the novels, the introductions make more sense to me after I’ve learned who they are and what parts they play in the books. Also, I don’t want to know in advance about plot twists.
- Read with a marker and a pen beside you. Highlight important words, sentences, and paragraphs. Write notes in the margin, and take notes on what you read so that you have a synopsis of the work by the time you finish it.
- If you feel uncomfortable defacing a new book, consider buying a used copy of the book you intend to mark up – or a paperback instead of a hardback.
- Consider both paper books and e-books. Each has advantages and disadvantages. I like the feel of a paper book, and my eyes don’t get as tired when I read paper books. E-books sometimes lack the illustrations that you will find in the paper version. E-books can be read on many devices, highlights and notes are more accessible on them, and most e-book devices allow you to instantly access the meaning of any word you highlight. However, if the device’s battery runs down, you’ve got to stop reading.
- Don’t feel that you have to complete every book you begin. Follow the advice of author and librarian Nancy Pearl concerning how many pages to read before you determine whether or not you want to continue reading. First, subtract your age from 100. If you are 40 years old, the answer is 60 (100 – 40 = 60). Read that many pages, then decide. Also, she claims that she only finishes about one in twelve of the books she starts.
- If you find that you are wasting your time part way through a book, put the book down and find another that interests you. The appeal of any book we pick up depends on a number of factors including our mood, our age, the events going on in our lives, and our reading habits. Moby Dick may not appeal to a high school student whereas The Catcher in the Rye may seem like the most wonderful book ever written. At age 50, the reverse may be true. If you have just lost a loved one to cancer, The Fault in Our Stars may bring back too many sad memories. Read it later or simply mark it off your future reading list.
Audio books are popular with many people including the visually-impaired and those who travel a lot. You can get audio books on CDs and wirelessly on tablets and smartphones these days. Many cars are equipped with Bluetooth (or a jack for an external device) so you can listen to the audio book that’s on your smartphone or tablet through your car radio.
Here are some internet articles that you should also consider:
In “How to Read a Book” Jeremy Anderberg talks about Adler and Van Doren’s book.
At oxfordtutorials.com you will find an outline of Adler and Van Doren’s book.
And for those of you who are squeamish about defacing books, an article from The New York Review of Books written by author and educator Tim Parks, might ease your consciences, and encourage you to read with discernment.
Part 3 of “What to Read and How to Read It” will discuss how to read different types of books and how to find books that you will enjoy.