How to Read a Book: A Book Review

How to Read a Book

Finally finished my copy of How to Read a Book, the seminal guide to critical reading. Though published in 1940, How to Read a Book remains as relevant as ever. Adler and Doren are adept instructors, their advice for intelligent reading both erudite and accessible. For the bibliophile or literati aspirant, How to Read a Book will make a valuable addition to your reference library.

Adler and Doren’s approach to deconstructing a text primarily rests on active reading.  For them, in reading there is a clear relationship between effort and reward: the more we engage, the more we understand; conversely, the less we participate, the less we grasp the author’s meaning:

Though, strictly speaking, there can be no absolutely passive reading, many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive. Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it. The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgement from the court. On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like a catcher in a game of baseball.”

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put into motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit or catch. The analogy with reading and writing is almost perfect. The thing that is written or read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.”

There is one respect in which the analogy breaks down. The ball is a simple unit. It is either completely caught or not. A piece of writing, however, is a complex object. It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little to what the writer intended to the whole of it. The amount the reader ‘catches’ will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved” (Adler & Doren  5-6).

Adler and Doren’s argument is essentially this: books have much to offer us but only in proportion to how much we’re willing to work for them. The skilled reader-through his active engagement-will deepen his understanding and broaden his viewpoint of the world. Like a ruthless prosecutor, he interrogates the text and-by asking it questions and demanding answers- he gains something from his reading. The idle reader gains nothing but perhaps a few hours wasted. In order for a book to become a part of you, Adler and Doren contend, you must put forth the effort.

Though I’d call myself an avid reader, sometimes I feel I amass-as Sylvia Plath would say-very little of what I read.  For anyone who wishes to ponder loftier matters of philosophy or read (and actually understand) the canonical works of Dante or Shakespeare, How to Read a Book is an indispensable resource. Adler and Doren offer practical tips that can aid any level of reader, from the most sophisticated to the beginner. I found their “Four Basic Questions” incredibly useful as a general guide to tackling a text and especially liked how they refined this approach for specific kinds of texts in subsequent chapters. Part III is entirely dedicated to outlining these methods for different subject matter and includes discussions on reading everything from mathematics and science to lyric poetry and imaginative literature.

At times, Adler and Doren tend to over-explain the obvious, making certain chapters needlessly tedious. At others, they unfairly prioritize one subject over another (their chapter on philosophy, for example, is nearly twice as long as their chapter on imaginative literature. You’d think more people would need help navigating the complex labyrinths of plot and character). But despite these shortcomings, How to Read a Book remains a must-have for those who want to be better critical readers.


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