How To Read a Book

A fitting second post to my blog is a short summary of a great book by Mortimer J. Adler, ‘How To Read a Book.’   The reason being, a general contention of mine is that good readers are good thinkers and good thinkers think critically. So that it should follow that good readers should read and think critically.

Firstly though, I should probably answer the obvious question, what would possess me to pick up and read a book about how to read a book ?

Well fortunately, my need for this book didn’t stem from my lack of literal reading ability but from finding myself reading material and not having the real ability to recall the information shortly thereafter. Partly, I’d admit, was from boredom and background noise (tv, music, etc) but more concerning was my preparation for examinations. I would read, remember and write exams and then in a short few weeks forget 50% of what I just spent a week studying. And to boot, most of what I remembered were FACTS, or in otherwords, I wasn’t really increasing my understanding.

Remembering facts and key concepts and being able to regurgitate it on an exam is simple enough. And (un) proudly, I have/had no problem doing this. But from a greater perspective, was I really getting smarter? For lack of a better word, was I gaining wisdom? Now, how one actually defines wisdom is probably up to debate and interpretation but inverting the question and asking, WHAT IS NOT WISDOM?, is a little easier. For one, I know that wisdom is not simply knowing alot of facts.  This is where Alder’s book comes into importance in my life.

After reading Adler’s book, I realized that most of my reading was for information and not to gain understanding. According to Alder I broke the holy grail of reading. To him, the central purpose of reading is to gain understanding.  This distinction is the key difference between those who recite and those who understand. (for these purposes we’re speaking strictly about non-fiction). It should be noted however, that reading for information is a prerequsitite to understanding. But if you stop there, you become a ‘learned fool.’

Reading to understand requires you to stop and think, to reflect, and to make new connections. Often, and I can atest to this, it requires you to read multiple books, articles and other sources of information on the same topic before you really begin to understand a subject and make the necessary connections and draw your own conclusions. If you stick to one source of information, you will most likely draw your conclusion from the author.

Alder proposes that readers should keep four fundamental questions in mind:

1) What is the book about as a whole?

2) What is being said in detail?

3) Is the book true, in whole or part?

4) What of it?

I also like to keep in mind when I am reading the following:

1) which are verifiable facts and which are the author’s opinions. And why do I agree/disagree.

2) what questions do I have that the author has not addressed

3) how does what I learned relate to other concepts

Since reading Adler’s book and applying his novel concepts into my reading I have found the enjoyment level of my reading has increased thousand fold. The primary reason, I believe is I am no longer just reading for the sake of reading but increasing my understanding of the world around me. For about $20 CDN, I’d say it was a great investment that continues to pay dividends to this day and I encourage you to consider doing the same.


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