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.