Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 5

How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

This is my final post on Adler's book. I have enjoyed my third reading of it. I agree with the subtitle that it is a classic guide for intelligent reading. It provides the reader with the tools he needs to be an excellent reader. This post will look at the final two chapters of the book: syntopical reading and reading for life-long education.

Adler lists two reasons for syntopical reading: "knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question" and the second is "knowing which books should be read in a general way" (309). Analytical reading focuses on reading one book critically. Syntopical reading focuses on reading multiple books determined by the topic of research. The author states that both inspectional and analytical reading prepares one for syntopical reading. Inspectional reading seems to be even more important for a syntopical reading than an analytical reading.

Syntopical reading usually is done when writing a research report. You have a topic that must be researched. You develop a preliminary bibliography of twenty or more sources. You do not have the time to do analytical reading for all your sources. You are concentrating only on the sources that address your topic. You know which parts of your source that are relevant to your topic. The first thing to do is to review all the sources on your bibliography. You will give these sources an inspectional reading. Adler notes that the skilled reader "discovers . . . whether the book says something important about his subject or not" (315). If it does not, it is put aside. Once you discover the books that are relevant to your topic, you then read them syntopically.

The author lists five steps to do a syntopical reading:

The first part is to "find the relevant passages" that address your topic. In the second part you "bring the author to terms." Since the authors will be using different terms for the same topic, you must create the terms that will apply to all the authors. In syntopical reading, you are in charge, not the author. Adler states that the reader "forces" the author to use his terms instead of "the other way around." The third part is to "get the questions clear." The reader must create questions that help solve the problem. What are we trying to find out? What questions can help us solve our research problem? In part four the reader "defines the issues." What are the key issues of the research topic? How are these issues addressed by the sources? The last step is to "analyse the discussion." What are the different sources saying? Who agrees with whom? This seems to be similar to a literature review? The last chapter of the book speaks of a growing mind.

Adler states that if we want to grow as a reader, we will need to read books that will stretch us. They must be books that lie slightly beyond our capacity. The authors claim that reading purely for entertainment or information will not stretch you. You must read books that are above you and are read for understanding. The authors notes that these type of books will reward you in two ways. First, your reading skills will improve. Second, "a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself" (340-341). It will help you to grow in wisdom. In addition, the authors states that the mind is a muscle. A muscle requires exercise to grow. The mind can "atrophy if it is not used." The authors end their book with this encouragement: "Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also helps to keep our minds alive and growing" (346). I hope this short survey of this book will motivate you to read it.  


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 4

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Simon & Schuster, 1972. ISBN 0671212095

The first few posts looked at the first two levels of reading: Elementary Reading and Inspectional Reading. These two levels are to assist the reader to ask the first two questions: "What is the book about as a whole and What is being said in detail and How." The third level of reading is analytical reading and this is covered in part two of the book. This part includes seven chapters. It is the meat of the book. Analytical reading of a book will assist the reader to answer the other two questions that must be answered about a book: Is it true? Why does it matter. In addition, it will help the reader to know what is being said in detail and how.

Adler provides seven rules for analytical reading:

The First Stage of Analytical Reading
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
What is the book about? What kind of book is it? Is it history, philosophy, or science?

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
Why did the author write the book? What problem is he trying to solve?

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
You are creating your outline of the book. You are showing the overall structure of the book and how it supports the author's argument.

4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
Usually the thesis or the overall argument of an expository book is an answer to a research question.

The Second Stage of Reading Analytically
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
Not all of the words of a book are of equal importance. Finding the key words will help you to find the key terms of the book. Words and terms are not the same thing. A term is a word with special qualifications. The author usually specifies how he will be using a term. Adler says a term is a word used "unambiguously."

6. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
In rule five the reader looks for the key words to find the key terms used by the author. In this step the reader looks for the key sentences to find the important propositions of the book. Adler notes, "But the heart of his communication lies in his major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for so doing" (121). These are the propositions are claims made by the author.

7. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of sequences of sentences.
Basically, an argument "is a sequence of propositions, some of which give reasons for another" (129). In other words, a book is organized around its arguments. An argument is a set of reasons given to support an opinion.

8. Determine which of the problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
The author set out to solve a research problem. Did he solve it? What are the author's solution?

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading allows you to answer the second question: What is being said in detail, and how? The Third Stage of Analytical reading helps you critique a book fairly. It is not enough to just interpret the book. You must judje it or evaluate it in the next stage. Adler provides seven rules for critiquing a book. They are highlighted below.

A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book.
You must understand the book before you critique it.
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
You are not in a debate to win an argument. The reader must be willing to agree or disagree depending on the validity of the arguments and evidence provided by the author.
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
It is not enough to say I agree or disagree. You must be able to give reasons why you agree or disagree. Reading a book is like having a conversation with the author.

There are only three reasons for disagreeing with an author and a fourth reason for delaying judgment:

B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

12. Show where the author is uninformed.
To say the author is uninformed you are saying he is lacking important knowledge that is relevant to his argument.
13. Show where the author is misinformed.
In this situation you are saying the author is incorrect. There is something faulty about his knowledge.
14. Show where the author is illogical.
In this case the reader is faulting the author for some type of logical fallacy.
15. Show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete.
This point argues that something is missing in the author's claim. He has not solved all the problems he purposed to solve or there are problems in his handling of evidence and objections.

Adler and Doren does a good job in providing the reader with tips or rules on reading an expository work analytically. In the next section of the book they show how to apply analytical reading to different kinds of books: philosophy, fiction and literature, history, science, and social science.




Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 3

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren.

Chapter five, "How to be a Demanding Reader," is the last chapter of part one. It is meant to prepare the reader for the meat of the book, how to read a book analytically. The title of the chapter refers to active reading. How to stay awake while reading. Adler thinks the reader can stay awake by asking the text questions. He list four questions that every reader need to answer while reading a book.

1. What is the Book about as a Whole?

What is the main point of the book. What is the one point the author is trying to get across. This could be the thesis of the book or the one question it is seeking to answer. This could be found in the preface, introduction, and conclusion of the book.

2. What is Being Said in Detail, and How?

How is the book structured. The table of contents can help the reader here. What are the main ideas and arguments of the book.

3. Is the Book True, in Whole or Part?

The first two questions must be answered before answering this question. You must understand what the book is saying before you can judge whether it is true or not. You must make up your own mind about the book. It is not enough to know what the author thinks.

4. What of it?

What are the implications of the book. Is what the author saying significant or not? Does it matter?

The rest of the book discusses these four questions in more detail.

The second part of chapter five shows "how to make the book your own." This is done mainly through marking up the book. Marking the book and asking the book questions will help you to be an active reader. Marking up the book will help you to have a conversation with the author. Adler notes, "Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author" (49). You are paying the author the highest compliment you can pay him.

There are many ways to mark up a book. Adler just gives some he likes, but the reader can use them or select other ones he might like. Here are some of Adler's recommendations:

1. Underlining--of major points; of important or forceful statements.

I have a tendency to underline too much. How do you know what are the important points of the book before you have read it through? Maybe, the pre-reading will help here.

2. Vertical Lines at the Margin--to emphasize a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underlined.

3. Star, Asterisk, or Other Doodad at the Margin--to be used sparingly, to emphasize the ten or dozen most important statements or passages in the book.

4.Numbers in the Margin--to indicate a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument.

Arguments are used to support the major claim of the book. A book can be outlined by the arguments it makes.

5.Numbers of Other Pages in the Margin--to indicate where else in the book the author makes the same points, or points relevant to or in contradiction of those marked here.

In some sense, you are making your own index of the point. You can use "CF" or some other symbol.

Circling of Key Words and Phrases. This is similar to underlining.

Writing in the Margin, or at the Top or Bottom of the Page--to record questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raises to your mind; to reduce a complicated  discussion to a simple statement; to record the sequence of the major points right through the book.

Both front pages and back pages of the book can be used to make additional notes. You can create your own outline on the table of contents.

The author lists three kinds of note-making. First their are notes about the structure of the book, how it is organized. These are mostly discovered in the inspectional reading. Inspectional reading can help you with the first two questions, but not the last two. The type of notes you take reading analytically is more about the concepts of the book. A third type of note-taking occurs when reading syntopically. You are taking notes on the conversation that is occurring between multiple books.



Saturday, March 7, 2015

Who are our Heroes?

There is a popular song that says all my heroes are cowboys. Another one says tells mommas not to let their sons be cowboys, but to be doctors and lawyers instead. I enjoy country music and like watching westerns, but my heroes are not cowboys. My heroes are people of faith, virtue, and intellectual excellences. One of my heroes is Father James V. Schall. He was a professor of Government at Georgetown University for 35 years. He retired in December 2012 from teaching. He now lives in a Jesuit retirement home and continues writing. When asked about retirement, he replied that retirement did not mean to "stop doing anything." I have read many of Schall's books over the years and I am sure I will continue to read them in the future.

One thing that have puzzled me over the years is his warning about the Great Books. His recent comment in a review of Fesar's Scholastic Metaphysics made sense to me. Schall notes, "It is not so much that anything is wrong with studying 'great books.' We need and want to know what they contain. But by themselves, they contradict each other. So without a foundation in philosophy itself, students of 'great books' ended up in relativism with no real way to understand and defend the truth of things." It is because of my reading of Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, Josef Pieper and Father Schall that I have this foundation in philosophy which keeps me from being captured by relativism.

Father Schall was recently interviewed in the National Review online. He made some interesting comments about the world, his life, and works. He thinks that the "elimination of all non-Muslim peoples from what are called Muslim lands is part of the overall vision of Islam." He thinks thinking about Islam is fuzzy. This is because of "unclarity about what Islam is. He states, "Some desperately, in spite of evidence, hold that it is a simple religion of peace." Others read the history of Islam and see it is a religion of jihad. Muslims are caught in this contradiction.

In this interview he speaks of his book, The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and its Pleasures. He says that the book is a defense of the short essay. He has always been "fascinated, with how much you can put in such a short space." Schall is great both at writing the light, short essay and also writing the longer, more serious essay. The book's title refers to intellectual pleasures. Schall notes, "I have often been struck by Aristotle's teaching that the activity of knowing is itself a pleasure, perhaps our highest pleasure, in which all other pleasures take their order. The pleasure of knowing, it has always struck me as both a student and a professor, is at the heart of education and through it of life itself." It is interesting that Schall makes this point because Thomas Aquinas made the same point in my reading in the Summa this morning. Isn't this a new idea that there is pleasure in learning. Learning has its own rewards. I have experienced this many times. Schall in his review of Feser's book notes, "In Feser's little 'manual,' we have the seeds of something great, the realization that, on philosophical grounds themselves, the scholastic tradition in the heritage of Aristotle and Aquinas is in fact the newest thing in academia." In other words, the permanent things are never out of date.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 2

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

I am a Librarian and I create all the electronic records for the items we put in our collection. Several weeks ago we received a book from the Director of the Florida Baptist Historical Society to put in the collection. I always examine the item quite closely as I create an electronic record for it. I was amazed at how the reader of that book had marked up the book. One could see that he was a skilled reader. He had special passages underlined. He had questions in the margins. He had replies to the book. I could tell that he was having a running conversation with the author of the book. It was quite amazing. The reader of this book was a skilled reader of books. That is the kind of reader I want to be.

Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book teaches the reader how to become that kind of reader. In chapter four, he describes the second level of reading--inspectional reading. You have to have achieved the elementary level of reading to read at this level. The elementary level is basic literacy. The skill you obtain in elementary school. Adler states that there are two types of inspectional reading. Level one is "systematic skimming or pre-reading" (32). I magine this situation-- you have a book before you, but you do not know if you want to read it or not or you do not know if it needs to be read analytically. You think it might. Second, you do not have a lot of time to "find this out" (32). What you do is skim the book or pre-read it.  Adler notes, Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading. Secondly, skimming can tell you lots of other things about the book, even if you decide not to read it again with more care" (32).

Adler provides tips on how to do this skimming. First, "look at the title page and, if the book has one, at its preface" (32). The title page and preface can tell you a lot about the book. It can tell you what the book is about and the reason for writing it. Second, "study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book's structure" (33). The table of contents can give a picture of the structure of the book, how it is organized. Third, check the index of the book. See what are the key topics discussed in the pages. You want want to read some of the pages marked in the index. Fourth, if it has a dust jacket, read the publishers blurb. This information is often provided by the author. After these four steps you should know a lot about the book already. You can now look at the chapters that seem important or crucial. Read any summary statements, like in the beginning of the chapter and end of the chapter. Read the introduction of the book and the conclusion of the book if the book includes these items. For the last tip Adler notes, "Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that" (35). You probably do not want want to spend more than one or two hours to do an inspectional reading. When you have finished you will be able to answer your two questions: Do I want to read this Book? and does this book require an analytical reading?

The second level of inspectional reading is called "superficial reading." This has to do with reading a difficult book for the first time. Many have experienced of reading a difficult book and getiing bogged down without being able to finish it. What happens is that we get stuck on things we do not understand. Adler thinks that in thse cases it is best to give the book a quick read. We do not know to try to understand what we do not understand immediately, concentrating on what we do understand. Here is Adler's rule: "In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away" (36). For example, when I first started reading Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica I understood maybe half of what he was talking about. I just kept reading. Every time I read it I understand a little more.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 1

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. 426 pages.

It is always interesting the comments I get when reading Adler's How to Read a Book. This morning I carried it with me to the doctor's office. I do not mind waiting as long as I have a book in hand. I have had some of my best reading experiences while waiting on appointments in doctor's offices.

As they called me to the back this morning the nurse noticed my book. She was puzzled that I was reading a book on How to Read a Book. She knew that I am a librarian and a college teacher. I wonder what was going through the mind. She asked me if the title was a play on words. I told her it wasn't. She continued to be puzzled. I explained that it was about higher reading levels. When most people think about learning to read, they think about what you do in the early grades in elementary school. The focus of Adler's book is not on this type of reading.

How to Read a Book was first published in 1940. The copy I am reading is the revised edition. I have read the book atleast two times before. I have to confess I enjoy reading books that will help me to be a better reader. The better reader I am, the more I can get out of a book. Reading is one of the ways I can continue growing intellectually and other ways.

How to Read a Book includes four parts. Part one describes four different levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Major portions of the book are dedicated to the last two levels of reading. The elementary level reading is what is taught in elementary school. Inspectional reading is how to decide what a book is about by skimming the contents, Analytical reading and syntopical reading are higher level reading skills where the reader can critically engage the book. Syntopical reading is reading more than one work on a topic and being able to synthesize the major ideas consistently.

Adler defines the art of reading as follows: "the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from the outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading" (8). In other words, the reader with their mind can take a book that they do not know about and apply certain skills to it, they will increase their understanding of the subject that the book is about.

Adler speaks of different goals of reading: to entertain oneself, to acquire information and to increase one's understanding. Reading for entertainment is to read purely for pleasure. If we wanted to we could distinguish between lower and higher pleasures. For example, higher pleasure would be a book that required work to understand what Its about, like a classic work like Homer's Illiad versus reading a current bestseller. Reading for information is reading newspapers, magazines, or daily nes on the web to gather facts. In these sources the reading level will be at a basic level and the reader should not have a problem understanding it. Reading for understanding is when a person "tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader" (9). How to Read a Book emphasizes reading for understanding. It is meant to teach you how to read books at a higher level. It is meant to give you the skills to be a better reader that you will be able to read the type of books that will increase your understanding.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Translated from the French by Mary Ryan with a new foreword by James V. Schall, S. J. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.  266 pages. ISBN 0-8132-0646-4

About twenty years ago I observed that one can pursue an education with just a little amount of time. The reason for the observation was a friendship with an older man who was retired. This friend had a stroke, so he was unable to work. It was mainly the left side of his body that did not work well. My friend was able to get around quite well and do most things he needed to do. My friend spent a lot of time watching television and listening to the radio. In addition, he spent much of his time in conversation with others. He was also a caring person who would give his last shirt to a stranger. One day I observed that if my friend would spend as little as 30 minutes a day reading in the library that after thirty years doing this he would be well educated. I am often saddened that many people after finishing their college education spend little time after pursuing an education. An education cannot be acquired in for years of college, it requires a lifetime.

This brings me to a gem of a book that confirms my observation. The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges was originally published in French in 1921. It was translated into English by Professor Mary Ryan in 1946. The edition I read was a reprint in 1998 with a new foreword by James V. Schall. The book is based on a letter Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote to a brother John. In this letter he described Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge. Father Sertillanges inspired by this letter produced a classic book on how to cultivate the intellectual life. His book is both inspiring and practical. He shows you how to organize your life to pursue the intellectual life. He shows the practical decide by showing how with as little as two hours a day or less, the reader can pursue the life of the mind. He inspired the reader by arguing that the intellectual life is a calling and vocation. In addition, he shows how the intellectual virtues are connected into the moral virtues.

The Intellectual Life includes nine parts: "The Intellectual Vocation," "Virtues of a Catholic Intellectual," "The Organization of Life," "The Time of Work," "The Field of Work," "The Spirit of Work," "Preparation for Work," "Creative Work," and "The Worker and the Man." This book will provide the tools and know-how on how to cultivate the life of the mind and the spirit. It shows how this can be done in the midst of life's of family responsibilities and a regular job. I can affirm the author's conclusions because I have actually implemented them in my life. This book actually encouraged me in my pursuit of the spiritual life. This book can be read in little segments as little as fifteen minutes a day.

A review I read listed four lessons form the book. The first lesson: "Recognize the intellectual life as a calling." This idea is very encouraging to me. I believe God has called me to an intellectual life. To pursue this calling I need to organize my life to fulfill this calling. The academic life and Christian faith is compatible and can be lived out in the daily routines of life. The second lesson is to "submit your intellectual pursuits to truth." Sertillanges writes that we must "submit not only to the discipline of work, but to the discipline of truth. This submission is the binding condition for communion to truth" (130). We must submit self to truth. We must not let ego or selfish desires interfere with the pursuit of truth.  Another point made by the author is that all areas of knowledge is connected. Learning does not occur only in reading books, but in conversations, observation, and reflective living. The third lesson: "Understand the intellectual life requires considerable discipline." We must prepare a place for concentrated study. We must be consisted in going to this place on a regular basis. I set aside early mornings before work to do my reading. The last lesson is to "remember the goal of the intellectual life is virtuous character." It is interesting that Sertillanges says that "the true springs up in the same soil as the good: their roots communicate" (19). This book shows the connectedness of character and the life of the mind. Our character influences our sight. In addition, the author notes that "the man is the finished work," not what he writes.

The Intellectual Life is highly recommended for those who need guidance on pursuing the intellectual life. It is a book for everyone who desires to continue learning their whole life. It is both inspiring and practical.