Before cracking the spine of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's classic How to Read a Book, I had considered myself a good reader because I was naturally speedy, yet capable of retaining and synthetizing nearly all of what I had read. After reading Adler & Van Doren, I sat around thinking, "Entire new vistas of ignorance have stretched out before me! How smart I am to know that!"
If you have not yet read How to Read, pro tip: See the movie Quiz Show before you read, so the experience of reading the book can be gilded by the golden luster of Ralph Fiennes at the apex of his attractiveness. That will make passages like "Both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as anticipations or preparations for syntopical reading" seem a lot more beguiling.(At left: "I've got your anticipation for syntopical reading right here." [swoon])For those of you who don't really see a need to heed the advice "Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintaine throughout" -- and why should you? -- let me break down why this book is worth wrestling with: Because it teaches you how to cheat like a pro.
1. Read the preface, paying special attention to any subheads or other typographically distinct elements. Decide where this book is likely to fit in your mental library.
2. Read the table of contents. This is your mental map to how the book is structured and where you're likely to end up by the book's end. The more detailed the table of contents, the better your mental map will be.
3. Read the index. Note well what topics are included, and to what extent. How specific or precise are individual topics? If there's a topic with a ton of specific subtopics broken out underneath it, you know what you'll be returning to, again and again. If there are specific terms defined or called out, flip to the first instance to see how it's defined.
4. Read the publisher's blurb or dust jacket description to see what someone else wants you to think this book is about.
5. Determine which chapters seem to contain the most "meat" of the book, based on what you noticed in the preface, the table of contents and the index, with a seasoning of what the sales pitch for the book is. Once you've figured out those chapters, read a page or two in each to see if the chapter starts off with what it wants to say, or if it ends with what it wants to say.
6. Read the epilogue or afterward.
And after all that, you'll have a working idea of what the book is about. You can either fake knowledge of it at a party, or you can actually go through and start reading as an "active" reader. This overachieving type approaches the book through a prism constructed by four questions: What is this book about as a whole? What is being said in detail to support this whole and how is it being said? Do I think this book is true or is it fundamentally dishonest in some way, in whole or in part? Why is it important that I read this?
Reading Adler & Van Doren was a vital part of learning how to do research and read critically, something that came in handy during school and after. What is striking about the book now is how it treats reading as a completely immersive activity, one in which the reader sinks into a private reverie for long, uninterrupted stretches. In this day and age, that conceit feels as quaint and incomprehensible as a primer on how to iron poodle skirts.
In re-reading How to Read, I enjoyed teasing out the cultural artifacts and assumptions from the useful cognitive framework the authors devised.
Especially chewy in this day and age is the plangent conclusion to the book:
Television, radio, and all the sources of information and amusement that surround us in our daily lives are ... artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because they require us to react to outside stimuli. But the power of these stimuli to keep us going is limited.[...]Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.
It would seem that even in 1972*, there was grave concern over our collective ability to pay attention to something and to be nourished by what we consumed. The digital distraction effect isn't new. Paying attention has always been a challenge -- only the nature of the challenger has changed.* This book was originally written in 1940, but revised and expanded in 1972.