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Read: How to Read a Book

I believe you can get an idea on how to write well by reading. Not just by reading the “right” books that set an example, that provide you with a blue print for your own writing, but also by reading well.

Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book is a guide for reading well. Their main lessons are maybe to ask a certain set of question that your reading of a book, any text really, should answer and that every text deserves its own speed of reading. Some texts should be read carefully, slow, repeatedly. Other texts should be read fast, cursorily, or not at all.

The meat of the book covers analytical reading that should lead to answers to four crucial questions:

  1. What is book about as whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

and provides a set of 15 rules or recommendations that help in the process to discover the answers and judge the text. This is considerably more detailed than my own two guiding questions so far:

  1. What is this about?
  2. So what?

The book has a little bit too much meat, it tries to convince and justifies every little recommendation. This leads to some repetitions. (There were moments when I was reminded of Monty Python’s The Holy Hand Grenade.) Nevertheless I did not dare to skip any part. This is one of the books that deserve to be read well. (See http://sachachua.com for a nice visual summary and http://www. farnamstreetblog.com for a longer discussion of the book’s content.)

It deserves to be read well for some of the hidden gems that do not necessarily (only) relate to reading well. My attention was in particular caught by:

Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive. There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading.

This is so true, in fact, that a better way to make the distinction clear is to call instruction “aided discovery.”

Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment- He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught.

Needless to say, How to Read a Book will make it onto my students’ reading list.