DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How to read a book – in 1972

Written by: on September 20, 2018

Having no recollection of reading a book on how to read a book, I realised that I had learned to read well by learning later in life (not so many bad habits). My regular education was a total disaster. I left school with no formal qualifications at all, and even though I could read, I had never read an entire book. After my conversion, I began devouring the Bible and then read extensively about the Bible by authors from different parts of the world. A little later I discovered Philosophy, and it was at that point that speed of reading and comprehension became a significant issue. Thirty years later, much of what I found in How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren[1], was what I had been taught orally by colleagues and mentors along the way, and what I have then taught to those starting out. However, I must say, it would have been an excellent book to read some decades ago; despite not being a ‘page-turner.’

Of all the material the book covers, the section on ‘Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter’[2] grabbed my attention. Though the title appears self-evident, it got me thinking about the lens through which I read any material in the first instance. My own worldview, prejudices, unconscious biases and hopes are as important as understanding the kind of written material I am focussing on. In part, this is tangentially addressed in the later chapter, “Syntopical Approach to Reading”[3] and the required dialectical strategy for researching differing views on the same topic.[4] Trying to read without judgement or prejudice is no easy thing. In fact, I’d hazard to suggest it’s near impossible without some serious intellectual self-critique.

Growing up in New Zealand meant my early education was formed from a very British perspective of History. I knew about Maori land wars, I knew about the Treaty of Waitangi and I was taught a great deal about various international wars and political history. However, in later years, as our country had to address the cultural failures and abuses of the past, I have found the need to relearn how to read anything about our history, culture and contemporary life as a multicultural community with a bicultural treaty. As I read different versions of our past, I am well aware that my early biases are at work. Inasmuch as I can analyse what I am reading, I am analysing from a specific framework. If I don’t allow what I read to critique and analyse my own perceptions, then no matter how erudite my multivariate analysis and synthesis may appear, it was flawed before I started. Adler and Van Doren make that point at the beginning of their book by referencing Alexander Pope who titled those who misread books as, “bookful blockheads”.[5]

Apart from the above exercise in navel-gazing about how I read, chapter 20 was most helpful. Syntopical reading draws together the different views, opinions and beliefs of different authors on a specific topic in such a way that that the researcher can articulate their own understanding with, and among, other commentators. The chapter offers a precise way to achieve the required end. However, this chapter is also an example of why the book needs updating. Take for example the following comment about the Syntopical Paradox.

“Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read.”[6]

In our era of Google Scholar, online university libraries and searchable academic databases, knowing what to read has been made easier. Instant access to reviews and summaries has transformed the way research is done. If anything, the book needs a chapter called “Reading Online”.

So, not my most enjoyable read, and I confess to not reading in the way the book suggests. So I guess, anecdotally, that implies I did not know how to read a book!

[1] Adler, Mortimer, and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classical Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone : Kindle Edition, 2011. Reprint Revised.

[2] Ibid, 186.

[3] Ibid, 301

[4] Ibid, 314-315

[5] Ibid, 10

[6] Ibid, 320

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

5 responses to “How to read a book – in 1972”

  1. Ha! I totally agree with you. This book should be required reading in the first years of high school. This would have saved a lot of frustration with the process of learning — at least for me.

    I grew up in the Philippines where the mode of instruction was rote. In my experience (K-12th) one memorized things to put on the test. Then one can conveniently forget everything after that. There was no comprehension or understanding required. So long as a student remembered the answers to put down on paper, he or she good for it. I didn’t see the point of education then. Had I been taught to read like Adler, my appreciation for learning would have matured me as a person much sooner.

  2. …a quick comment on the issue of bias. It’s true, it’s impossible not to be biased in our reading. It’s part of being fallen. But what helps me feel good about this predicament is that I must remain humble knowing that I could be mistaken at any at time. I try to take ideas seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously.

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    “Trying to read without judgement or prejudice is no easy thing. In fact, I’d hazard to suggest it’s near impossible without some serious intellectual self-critique.”

    This is certainly the challenge we face and is more intensified in our current culture. May the desire to do so and the process of learning how to do so more effectively, also help us grow in self-awareness and self-critique as those are imperative in good leadership. It sounds like personal transformation will be the journey we continue taking through this program. Learning to read ourselves analytically and come to a place of understanding may be the greatest skill of all.

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Agree with your “Reading Online” update comment. I have been using the app Hoopla to read some of our books and absolutely love it. However, though dated, this was a powerful read.

  5. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I said this on the chat this week but personal experience plays a huge role in the way we view everything and as you said particularly when it comes to our own history. As an American, I think we often times only think our history is the world’s history and need to learn how to read our history Syntopically as well.

    I agree that personal biases need to be acknowledged but at the same time, I think social location plays a key part in how we read anything. I think we need to be aware of it but not throw it all out as we read because we are dismissing who we are as if that is entirely possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *