Why You Should Read “How To Read A Book”

Cover of "How to Read a Book (A Touchston...

The other day my son saw me reviewing Mortimer Adler’s classic work on reading and said “that’s the dumbest title for a book I’ve ever seen. If you don’t know how to read one, how can you read THAT one?” Hard to argue with his logic – if by “read” you mean move through the book from beginning to end, understanding most of the words. If you can’t do that, obviously you can’t “read” any book. The problem was my son had not “come to terms” with the way the word “read” was being used by the author. One of the many skills I learned from this classic book.

Adler makes the distinction between being widely read and well read. Any kind of reading will do to move through lots of books from cover to cover but being well read means reading for understanding. His constant theme is that reading should move us “from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.” And reading for that result requires work. How To Read A Book outlines what that work is and how to do it.

Adler teaches four levels of reading, each of which builds on the other:

  • Elementary Reading– this is the meaning my son associated with the word “reading” when he made his comment. It is simply being able to understand the meaning of the words on the page and know what’s being said. Most adults are competent here in their native tongue but if you’ve ever learned a foreign language you’ve experienced a return to this level of reading for a while.
  •  Inspectional Reading– This is getting a feel for the book before reading it with more attention and care. It involves inspecting the sign posts in the book (Forward, Preface, Index, Chapter Headings and other divisions) as well as a cursory reading of large portions of the book. Setting us up to better understand the book when we read it in depth, this step also allows us to remove some books from our list before investing too much time in them.
  • Analytical Reading– This is the heart of Adler’s method. Most of the book is devoted to understanding this level. Analytical reading is moving through a book so that, in the end, you understand what the author said and determine if what he said is true. In short you move from “understanding less to understanding more.”
  • Syntopical Reading – This level of reading is concerned not with one book but with many books on the same topic. If I want to thoroughly understand something, especially something controversial, I must read about it from more than one author. Syntopical reading is the tool used to do that and Adler does an excellent job of showing us how to do it.

Other helpful things in the book are chapters on how to apply Adler’s method to various types of books (practical, philosophy, history, etc.) as well as a list of recommended “great books” for consideration. There are also some practice passages in the back so you can try using the tools taught in the book.

This is a foundational book for anyone passionate about reading. It should be read and re-read over the course of a reader’s life.

To help you get started with Adler, you can download an earlier version of the book for free as a PDF here. If you’d like an outline of the book to use as a reading aid, there’s an extensive one here and a more streamlined one here.

If you’d like to purchase a copy through Amazon, you can do so here.

Have you read Adler’s book? If so, what are your thoughts on its importance?

Are there other books you consider essential for readers?

10 Essential Works of French Literature for Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day. The day the French celebrate the storming of the Bastille prison – symbol of the French Revolution and of the birth of the modern French nation. In honor of the day, Emily Temple at Flavorwire has published a list of the 10 most essential works of French literature:

An Essential French Lit Reading List for Bastille Day

I have to admit, from this list I’ve only read Camus’ The Stranger. How about you?

If you’d like to get started on the list, you can download Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Stranger free as a PDF file here.

Choosing Paper vs. Electronic Books – 5 Questions to Ask

Book lovers have more options today than ever before. Gone are the days when the only choice was paperback or hardback. Now, we can add to those choices any number of ways to read electronically from a computer screen to a tablet to a dedicated e-reader.

One of the biggest decisions for me when purchasing a book is whether to buy an electronic version or a physical copy. My wife gave me a Kindle for Christmas a couple years back and I love it. I was skeptical at first given my love for the look and feel of ‘real’ books but I have come to rely on my Kindle and use it a great deal.

Having said that, there are still some times when I choose to purchase a physical book instead of the e-book. Here are the questions I ask when making that decision:

  • Will I need to flip back and forth in the book as I read it? This is usually the case when books include charts or other graphics that must be referenced again and again as you read. For example, I purchased Buy-Don’t Holdby Leslie N. Masonson as a physical book because the trading strategies he outlines are illustrated with charts that need to be continually referenced for a complete understanding.
  • Will the book be used primarily as a reference? Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theologyand Strunk & White’s The Elements of Stylewere both purchased as physical books because I keep them at my desk and want the ability to easily thumb through them for things I need when writing or preparing to teach. (Though I must admit I have an electronic copy of Grudem’s book as well that is sometimes useful)
  • Is the book cheaper in physical form? As odd as it seems, some books are actually less expensive as ‘real’ books than as electronic downloads and when you’re an Amazon Prime customer it makes no sense to pay more for the electronic copy when you can get the physical copy for less with free shipping.
  • Will I be reading or studying the book in a group? This is not a hard and fast rule but unless everyone in the group is using an e-reader, I find it easier to stay in sync with the group with reading assignments, referencing quotes during discussions, etc. if I have the physical book.
  • Do I just like the book better in physical form for some reason I can’t otherwise explain? My Bible is this way. I have numerous electronic versions of the Bible but I read, study and teach from my leather bound study Bible. I just like it better.

What are some of the criteria you use to decide in what format to purchase a book?

Do you ever buy both the electronic and the physical version of the same book?

“Write it Right” by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce-1
Ambrose Bierce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist, writer, literary critic and satirist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most famous work is the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which is set during the American Civil War, a war in which Bierce served as a First Lieutenant on the Union side.

He is also at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the literary world. Bierce disappeared without a trace just after Christmas, 1913 during a trip to Mexico. To this day no one is certain what happened to him or when he finally died.

In his day, Bierce was considered a master of the English language. He composed “Write it Right”in 1909, sub-titled “A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults” to, as he says, “teach precision in writing.” Known for his wit and sometimes biting criticism, Bierce was a stickler for the precise and correct use of words.

His ‘blacklist’ gives us a glimpse of English usage at the turn of the last century. Some of the things he considers capital offenses would hardly generate a parking ticket today, while others have maintained their status as grammatical felonies up to the present.

In many of the items on the list, we see Bierce’s wit on display:

Badly for Bad. “I feel badly.” “He looks badly.” The former sentence implies defective nerves of sensation, the latter, imperfect vision. Use the adjective.

Alleged. “The alleged murderer.” One can allege a murder, but not a murderer; a crime, but not a criminal. A man that is merely suspected of crime would not, in any case, be an alleged criminal, for an allegation is a definite and positive statement. In their tiresome addiction to this use of alleged, the newspapers, though having mainly in mind the danger of libel suits, can urge in further justification the lack of any other single word that exactly expresses their meaning; but the fact that a mud-puddle supplies the shortest route is not a compelling reason for walking through it. One can go around.

Here are a few other of my favorites:

Fix. This is, in America, a word-of-all-work, most frequently meaning repair, or prepare. Do not so use it.

Got Married for Married. If this is correct we should say, also, “got dead” for died; one expression is as good as the other.

Mistaken for Mistake. “You are mistaken.” For whom? Say, You mistake.

Seldom ever. A most absurd locution

Self-confessed. “A self-confessed assassin.” Self is superfluous: one’s sins cannot be confessed by another.

And of course my all time favorite and personal biggest language pet peeve:

Unique. “This is very unique.” “The most unique house in the city.” There are no degrees of uniqueness: a thing is unique if there is not another like it. The word has nothing to do with oddity, strangeness, nor picturesqueness.

For those who want to see Bierce’s entire list, the book can be downloaded free here at Amazon as well as here in several different formats at Project Gutenberg.

Why Do Old Books Smell?

If you’re a book lover, you know the smell. That musty aroma that greets you when you enter a used book store or the book section of your local thrift store. But why do old books smell? In this short video, Richard from AbeBooks answers that question.

As Richard says, some people hate the smell of old books, others love it. I tend to like it because I associate it with something pleasant – books.

What about you?