Adler: How to Read a Book
Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren are to be credited for showing the activity of quality reading to be an art, a science, and a skill. They have produced an outstanding and thorough work on techniques, levels, and types of reading that has become a classic model for informing serious readers throughout the generations.
In Chapter 8, “Coming to Terms with an Author,” the authors attest to the efficacy of gaining the greatest comprehension of a book through the process of “finding its important words, identifying their shifting meanings, and coming to terms.” This is understandably a necessary step in the process if one can endure the tedium of reading a book in this fashion and time is not a factor. Realistically, this appears to be a cumbersome way to understand a book and the time element could be a big factor for many people in dissecting a book this way. But, this has been a tried and proven methodology over decades and probably once the technique is mastered, it will become second nature and will not have to be intellectualized.
The demands Adler and Van Doren place on the reader is noteworthy. For them, it is not enough for the reader to merely understand what the author conveyed, but the reader has the right and the responsibility to engage the book critically with the author. The reader is in the position to do this when the author has successfully enabled the reader to understand the book, and the reader becomes a semi-peer of the author. But, Adler and Van Doren caution that in critical judgment, “The reader must know how to judge a book, just as he must know how to arrive at an understanding of its contents.” Ultimately, making a judgment and taking a position is incumbent upon the reader, to agree, disagree, or suspend judgment. The reader must be able to give reasons for critical judgments of agreement or disagreement that can be supported or defended by evidence. Readers are advised to be open-minded concerning the resolution of judgments of disagreement.
It is interesting that the authors’ recommended reading list is comprised only of authors in the Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books. These are the only works they deem worthy of mention for repeated reading to become a better reader, expand one’s mind, or for continually deriving fresh insights, wisdom, and new revelations about oneself and the world. They acknowledge the cultural-literary bias in their selection by the statement that, “We are not particularly knowledgeable outside the Western literary tradition. . . . There is something to be said for knowing your own tradition before trying to understand that of other parts of the world.” This line of thinking is unprofitable because it specifically rules out the wealth of wisdom in the greatest of all books, the Holy Bible, as a valuable resource. Overall, the book has the potential of being an effective tool for the conscientious reader and researcher.
Adler: How to Read a Book