Monday, September 23, 2013

REVIEW: Belisarius - "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler

Perhaps ironically, one of the books that I have most enjoyed recently is simply called "How To Read A Book" by a man named Mortimer Adler. Perhaps this book is a useful one to consider, too. As it can be a hard book to find (it was written during the '40s or '50s), I'll try to give the Cliff Notes version:

Adler gives several levels for reading a book:

  1. Pre-Reading: a fast review to decide if a book deserves more careful reading. Read the preface and the table of contents; run through the index quickly looking for familiar and unfamiliar terms; flip through the bibliography. You can actually "drain" a book of major concepts in a short period of time this way.

    You then go to a kind of systematic skimming, flipping through and reading a few paragraphs here and there, and then turn to the very end and read the author's summation of the book.

    Adler believes that this whole process of "pre-reading" should take between thirty minutes and an hour at the most. At the conclusion, you should decide if you want to take your valuable time to read the book in its entirety. Most books will not survive this filtering process, in my frank opinion. There are just too damn many good books out there and too little time to read them for one to screw around with a substandard book. I just put them on my shelf and leave them there.
  2. Superficial Reading: A fast reading which is designed to avoid getting bogged down in technical jargon or superficial detail. Skip the parts that are difficult or poorly written and reserve the right to terminate the whole exercise if it becomes tedious. A writer who cannot articulate his thoughts in a coherent manner does not deserve your attention, unless this is the only possible book to read on the subject in question. That does suck and it does happen.

    If the book gets through this and you think it is worth going through the harder, more technical spots in detail, you have the next level...
  3. Analytical Reading: if superficial reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a severely limited time frame, analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. This level is reserved for those great, timeless works that are trily deserving of being studied in great depth. Lots of notebook paper and supporting research material goes with this level of reading.
  4. Syntopical (also called "Comparative") Reading: at this level, you are interested in an entire subject to the point where you will create your own bibliography and goes through a compare/contrast analytical-level reading process between the books on your list. This can literally take a chunk of a lifetime and is reserved for those couple of subject areas in which you want to become an expert.

NOTE:  My sincerest gratitude to Belisarius for his kind permission in letting me archive his review. Posted to TPI circa 2005.



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