Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How to Read “How to Read a Book”

Written by: on September 8, 2016

I am working under the following assumptions: those who venture to read this blog post are intelligent people; perhaps they have even read the book I review here. For whatever reason you have happened onto this post, welcome! Mortimer Adler’s classic 1940 book, updated with Charles Van Doren in 1972, guides the reader through a systematic method in how to gain increased understanding through reading. A reader of a book and an author of that book participate equally in the giving and receiving of information; like a pitcher and a catcher, their skills converge (5-6).

As a foundation for beginning a new program of learning, How to Read a Book provides a practical structure to critically wrestle, not just with a single book, but with books, authors, and terms. Levels of reading the text offer questions we ask of the author(s) along the way: The Elementary level considers the mechanics of reading; the Inspectional level encourages pre-reading or skimming to ask yourself, ‘might this book be helpful for me?’ In the Analytical level, the reader poses critical questions to understand the author: What are the author’s issues? Is this book true, in whole or part? So what? Finally, at the Syntopical level, the reader looks at a wider library of texts so as to do comparative reading on a topic (17-19).

great books

In order to criticize a book as a communication of knowledge, the reader must first understand the author. Only then can the reader show that the author is uniformed, misinformed, illogical, or presenting an incomplete analysis (162).

According to the authors’ own expectations of a practical book, “nothing short of doing solves the problem” (189). As such, I gained an understanding of how to quickly skim this book to ascertain what would be helpful to me, with the aim of “add[ing] something to the book to make it applicable in practice. [The reader] must add his [sic] knowledge of the particular situation and his judgement of how the rule applies to the case” (190). This seems like the next logical step to reading a practical book such as this.

The authors have crafted a well-designed method to effectively read books. From the standpoint of a doctoral student in a global studies program however, I find two significant shortcomings in their text. The first shortcoming is their denunciation of the aphoristic style of philosophy as “not as important as the other four [styles]” (278). The aphoristic style, that is, short, pithy wisdom sayings, are, according to the authors, most commonly found in “the wisdom books of the East.” As part of a globally connected world however, this style should not be disregarded or considered unimportant today. Perhaps when the text was originally published and then revised, the Western world could ignore the East. But that is to the detriment of everyone. Aphoristic philosophy is also extremely prevalent in social media today, with meme phrases and limited-character tweets dominating our conversations. To ignore this style of philosophy limits the world in which one lives and understands.

The second substantial deficiency of the text resides primarily in the recommended reading list of Appendix A, but to a greater degree, in the selection of books which the authors consider “worth your while to read” (337, cf 164, 170-171). The authors desire for the reader to “discover the best that has been thought and said in our literary tradition” (337). Besides their own admission of the omission of texts by eastern authors (339), their proposed great book list ignores all non-white male authors of the West, and nearly all female authors (George Eliot and Jane Austen are the two exceptions). Within a very brief timespan, and limiting myself to Western authors prior to the twentieth century, I easily came up with many plausible additions, to this list that would fit those categories: WEB Du Bois, Frederick Douglas, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Booker T Washington, Langston Hughes, Teresa of Avila, Emily Dickenson, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the list can go on.

While I fully understand that the purpose in this book (and this assignment) is to understand how to read a book, I cannot fully show that I have read this book in the “proper” manner (according to the text itself) without acknowledging that the authors themselves have left an incomplete analysis (162). To give them credit, the dated context in which they wrote (and revised) the text was an era spotlighting Western, male authors. Perhaps my critique is more directed to the publishers who released the 2013 edition I am currently holding. Due to the continued evolution of cultures throughout time, I daresay it is high time to not only reissue the text, but revise it once again.

About the Author

Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

8 responses to “How to Read “How to Read a Book””

  1. Wow! Looks like a thorough critique of the book. Informative and thought provoking……

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Great critique Katy! The fact that you used the authors own system to make your argument, makes your argument all the stronger. There is no question that the book is dated. You’re point on aphoristic philosophy is intriguing and makes the point, as does the absence of “all non-white male authors of the West, and nearly all female authors” in Appendix A. Really great observation! Makes me wonder how the authors would approach the subject if they were writing this today? Enjoyed reading your post.

  3. Mary Walker says:

    Katy, thank you for being honest and pointing out several deficiencies this book. I know that you probably are already a good reader – your critical thinking skills show that.
    I noticed the limited number of authors that were not WASP. I guess we can excuse Adler and Van Doren somewhat because of the time in which they lived. I, too would like to add to the list of great authors.
    I think we all agree that the book contained valuable insights into reading at many levels. I look forward to your other reviews very much!!

  4. Chip Stapleton says:

    Katy, thanks for this…. I noticed the same, but dismissed as it was as expected based on the time in which it was written. That is a reasonable enough explanation for what they include, but not really for why I felt comfortable ignoring it.

    It does seem like a simple addendum to the appendix would address this.

    Thanks again.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    I appreciated you analysis. I must admit that I had to go and look up “Aphoristic Philosophy.”
    I agree with the others here that the authors missed an opportunity to introduce readers to Frederick Douglass, Lorraine Hansberry, Watchman Nee, Sun Tzu, or even Confucius.

  6. Lynda Gittens says:

    I’m with Stu, Aphoristic Philosophy, stunted me. I can see that you are going to increase by vocabulary (smile).
    You did an intense critical review of the book. I believe they were long winded in areas to increase the number of pages and short winded on reading resources. Thank for point them out.

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Wow Katy what a way to provide a critical review of the book. I found it very interesting. I agree that it was limited in its worldview understanding of authors and literature. Your “other authors” list is awesome! I have read the works of WEB DuBois, Frederrick Douglass and many others. 🙂

  8. I really appreciate your critique of the authors’ seeming dismissal of non-western literature styles/authors and female authors. I guess it is telling that I am so used to this type of disregard that it only registered as a small annoyance rather than a key issue for me. Hopefully I will become more sensitive to this during this program.

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