An Inspectional Read
How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren was very foundational and somewhat elementary on the subject of reading and good reading skill. The content could be divided into two categories: basic understanding of reading (part one) and the practices of how to be a good reader (part 2). The remainder dealt with the application of two.
As the author breaks down the basic understanding of reading (part one) he makes some great observations. He likens active reading to baseball, “the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.” He likens authors to pitchers. I find his perspective spot on as well as accurate view of the subject. The ideology of writers being superior to the reader, but the reader’s responsibility to overcome the inequality is a unique perspective as well. One in which I agree. The best summary statement on the subject is: “Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher. We can only do successfully if we know how.” Although I do not disagree with Adler on the statement, I do however think that for some or many this process of learning “how” is innate with no need for instruction or explanation.
The four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, synoptical are relatively self-explanatory. The idea of “reading readiness” in the elementary level is well defined. Although a bit remedial, the process of “skimming” was accurate in systematizing the subject. The best advice given was: “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.”
Active reading was an interesting concept. I found it to articulate the responsibility of the reader is to “demand” something from the reading, in order to be “repaid for the reader’s effort given.” I find this to be “the” goal in reading. I do not tend to read for entertainment, but for learning. The idea of demanding from the book knowledge for my effort is the litmus test for me. When it comes to this particular book, I found it wanting. I felt it over explained a simple subject matter. I felt it could have been explained in a fourth of the allotted pages. It was correct in content, but unnecessary in length.
The four basic questions a reader asks of a book, is a good mental framework or exercise to process through any book in which the reader is attempting to learn. “How to make a book your own” found on pages 48-51 is a practice in which I whole heartily agree and do. I agree that “marking” makes the book yours.
The subject of “analytical” level of reading, I found to be exhausting. Although I did not disagree content or the author’s perspective, I did find the depth to be unnecessary. It was a minutia of detail that I found over complicated. I also found the “x-raying a book” to be unnecessary work and effort. I am a veracious reader; by involving the work depicted my reading would drop by 40%. Most of the analysis is reflexive like breathing is to thinking. It is very automatic.
The only portion of analysis that I found useful was how to correctly criticize fairly. I agree that it is a copout to state that “I do not understand” or that a book is “not understandable” unless you have earnestly tried. However it is the responsibility of the author to make the material understandable. As well there is etiquette of how to agree and disagree with an author. I found the guidelines given to be fair and needed, because it creates a baseline in which to judge and weigh a given book. I like the fact that Adler makes this a “two way street.” It is not either the author or readers sole responsibility. Rather it is a “both and” situation. If a writer writes well on a desirable subject matter it is not his or her fault of a poor reader. However, if indeed the material has been earnestly read and is found wanting, that is the responsibility of the writer. It is a “free market” view that I whole heartily endorse. With this in mind I do not feel this book to be poorly written but rather unnecessary.
In my opinion part 3 is just an application of parts 1 and 2. Again, I do not find it incorrect or poorly written, but just not useful. Therefore it is more like a dictionary, useful here and there as a point of reference. However, not something I am going to desire to digest from start to finish.
In conclusion, I found this reading to be correct but unneeded. Almost like an exercise to check off. I found very little use or value. I found myself tempted to do a lot of “inspectional reading.” The value for me was a few tweetable quotes and a finished assignment.
 Doren, Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van. How To Read A Book. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1972. p.5.
 IBID, 18.
 IBID, 45.
4 responses to “An Inspectional Read”
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Are you sure you feel Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book, How to Read a Book, cannot be beneficial or useful to you beyond Chapter 10, “Criticizing a Book Fairly?” In all probability you will not ever have to digest this whole book from start to finish. The book addresses reading skills on four different levels, for different purposes, and for persons with different reading skills. If you can extract any material from this book as a point of reference, that is a good thing. Consider this question: How can this book enhance my reading and research skills in the DMINlgp program?
Hey great to hear from you.
The example that I thought was really great was the one relating to skiing. You have to apply all the little phrases and things that are said to you at the beginning instruction. You may not know how or when to apply them until you learn to ski but they are valuable.
I concur that “speed reading” the book was something that I felt encouraged to do and stopped off and the numbered or highlighted parts to gain what the author was saying. It is something that I have already developed over the years to read for content.
Looking forward to Hong Kong.
Aaron I’m with you thinking the book could easily accomplish its purpose with far fewer pages. I do think the mind set the authors would like to create within readers is a good one. I would love to have all of the rules and questions integrated into my subconscious so that I engaged every book with these skills active.
Wow Aaron, great summary of the book. I find your blog helpful in making sense of the various parts of the books. Your critique makes me wonder in what context the authors were writing this book. Like you, I think the same outcomes could have been done in a much shorter time. But then I pause, and wonder how much is that opinion based on our current context where we want things so quickly.