I figured a good way to kickoff this reading project would be with "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles Doren. I will start with some of the main takeaways from the book and provide my own edited version of their strategy for how to read books. Then I will discuss their suggestions on how to criticize a book properly. I will wrap up with a discussion of their ideas and which parts I will be adopting for this blog.
If you are just looking for an elevator pitch, check out my goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3514592882
I've been a slow reader all my life. In grade school, I would see my friends reading gigantic fantasy novels and they would be turning the pages at a speed incomprehensible to my still smooth-brain grade-four self. I remember feeling suspicious that someone could consume the information that fast... and a little frustrated that I certainly couldn't. Since those days, I still wonder whether I was just a sucker for wasting so much time when I should be "skimming" my readings -- whatever that means. This book helped me understand that different types and speeds of reading and when to employ each. Here are some of the main points I picked up on.
If the text is challenging, on the first read through, don't dwell on passages you don't understand. Keep moving and once you have an understanding of the greater picture, it will often make sense. A great example of when this would be useful is in reading Shakespeare.
Many people believe it is desirable to read faster, full stop. The authors argue that many people need to read certain texts slower, to allow for contemplation and absorption of the ideas. Other times, it may not even be necessary to read every word. Make sure you know what kind of book it is and pace accordingly.
To read faster, don't read the words in your head, but rather scan over the sentence quickly and let your brain (spookily) determine the essence of the sentence. This works better than I thought it would.
Also to improve speed, place a finger or thumb next to the line you're reading so your eye immediately goes to the correct spot on the next line.
For technical readings, first invest in properly understanding the glossary. Experts often have their own meaning for keywords.
Avoid commentaries and wikis until you have made up your own mind.
**write in the margins.** The authors felt very strongly that reading a book is a sort of dialogue. The author has had their turn and now you ought to respond. This allows you to grapple with arguments and connect ideas from different pages (or even books).
Below is a modified version of their strategy, made by picking, choosing and combining their ideas to fit my reading goals. If you're studying a single or a few texts in depth, I'm confident you could find the unchanged strategy online.
determine what kind of book it is (novel, history, science, memoir etc.)
**Pigeonhole:** Spend the minimum amount of effort required to be able to summarize the author's argument in a sentence or two. To do this, read the title, the table of contents, sub headings, emphasized text and the index (the most overlooked). Confirm that you want to read this text.
**X-Ray:** Now that you have committed, write a list of the major parts of the books and how they relate to each other.
Read the book from start to finish and jot down the arguments that fill in the outline you made for number 3.
Understand the "unity" of the book by asking what question the author was trying to solve with this book.
Evaluate their arguments to determine whether their overall conclusions are supported. Did they solve their problem?
What I found most interesting was not actually how to read a book, but rather how to criticize a book you've already read. Here's what they had to say:
For starters, do your best to not be "contentious". Not all books are written by philosophical scholars and if you are committed to finding a defect (however small) you will likely succeed and miss the point of the book.
More importantly, there are only four different ways of disagreeing with an author (philosophy majors may be familiar) you can claim that:
I believe their model of criticism is simple yet powerful. Having them categorized invites the critical reader to be specific and think more deeply about their critical ideas. For example, if a reader were to say the author is misinformed, it inherently prompts them to complete the thought and explain precisely how they are misinformed or else the criticism will not be taken seriously. I am going to adopt this system for future blog posts. I will call it **the Four Failures**.
I think that although their systematic approach to reading would be excellent for extracting every drop of information from a single or a few books (in which case I would recommend it). Because my goals are to gain heuristics (backed up by powerful arguments) to help understand the world, I am trying to survey a large number of books. My goal does not require so much structure, but rather requires important ideas to be read, understood rigorously, and noted. When I make these notes, I try to condense the information as tightly as possible, because it forces me to have a high level of understanding (interestingly, some AI systems are based on this principle).
Although I am not adopting their reading method verbatim , I am going to be using several of their ideas. I would recommend their strategy for anyone attempting a deep dive into a text. And lastly, I did not disagree with the book per se, I only found that the signal to noise ratio level (ironically, one of their covered topics) was too low. I would not recommend this book, a summary/blinklist of the strategy will do.