Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spring Reading Thing-Book Review: How to Read a Book

"Look, Alice is reading a book called How to Read a Book!"

This is just one of the many remarks folks made when they saw me read this classic guide to intelligent reading. Somehow, reading such a book seems odd to them. I, however, think there is a great need for doing so.

In How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler wrote about the insights into the problems of learning how to read, offered a much more comprehensive and better-ordered analysis of the complex art of reading, the flexible application of the basic rules to different types of reading and then the discovery of new rules of reading. Charles Van Doren later joined Adler as co-author in the work of updating, recasting and rewriting the book. It was first published in 1940 and went on to be a bestseller; translated into other languages such as French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Italian and now updated for the present generation.

There are four parts to the book. Part 1 talks about the art of reading and introduction to the four distinct levels of reading namely elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical reading. Analytical and syntopical reading are further explored in Parts 2 and 4. Part 1 also explains in detail the first level of reading (elementary) and second level of reading (inspectional). It also includes a chapter on how to be a demanding reader. This chapter interests me as it means reading as actively as possible. Good books whether fiction or non-fiction, deserve such reading. I also learned about the four basic questions any reader should ask when reading a book. One more thing that caught my attention in Part 1 is how to make the books my own. By that, I mean making marks intelligently and fruitfully, and some of the devices that can be used include underlining, making vertical lines at the margin, writing in the margin or at the top or bottom of the page, etc.

Part 2 deals with analytical reading. This section guides us to analyze and intepret a book. I've learned about pigeonholing a book; x-raying it; coming to terms with an author; determining the author's message; criticizing a book fairly; agreeing and disagreeing with an author; and aids to reading. The activity of reading does not stop with understanding what a book says, but must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. An important remark is made here regarding criticism. The popular misconception is supposing that to criticize is always to disagree. Agreeing, disagreeing, and suspending judgement are all acts of criticism. In a nutshell, outlining, intepreting and criticizing a book form the three stages of analytical reading. At this point, I would like to quote the author:

"Many readers, and most particularly those who review current publications, employ other standards for judging, and praising or condemning, the books they read--their novelty, their sensationalism, their seductiveness, their force, and even their power to bemuse or befuddle the mind, but not their truth, their clarity, or their power to enlighten."

Part 3 is rather interesting as it covers the approaches to different kinds of reading matter. This includes how to read practical books, imaginative literature (stories, plays and poems), history (biographies and autobiographies, current events and digests), science and mathematics (classical and popular science), philosophy, and social science. This section took away my fear in literature. I realize while non-fiction is vital for the conscious mind, fiction satisfies many unconscious as well as conscious needs. During my English Literature class many moons ago, I was taught to stop and look up difficult words in the dictionary whenever I see one as I read the assigned literary piece. This is precisely the problem and it was highlighted as the common mistake people make. After reading this section, I walk away enlightened and with a determination to explore further.

Syntopical reading, the fourth and highest level of reading is covered in Part 4. It is the reading of two or more books on the same subject. The five steps of syntopical reading are included in this chapter.

At the end of the book, there is a recommended reading list and also tests where we can measure our own progress in reading skils, comprehension and speed. To become well-read, one must know how to use whatever skills one possesses with discrimination. This means reading every book according to its merit (some worth reading well, some should only be inspected.) I will also heed its advice to tackle books that are beyond me because I will not improve as a reader if all I read are books that are well within my capacity.

I highly recommend this book (warning: the author can be a little long-winded at times) and would even make it a part of the school syllabus, if I am in the position to do so. It would have save much of the problem and phobia related to reading, particularly the reading of certain materials such as classic literature, history, etc.

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