How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading: Classifying a Book

I have been sharing parts of Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Simon and Schuster, 1972).

How to Read a Book: Marking your Book

How to Read a Book: Inspectional Reading

How to Read a Book: Series Index

This post will share points of what Adler and Van Doren call Analytical Reading. Analytical Reading is the third level of reading which Adler and Van Doren discuss in helping their readers understand the task of reading a book which involves more than simply decoding words but also understanding what is being read.

Use of quotation marks or use of block quotes (more than two full lines of a quote) mean I quote the authors directly and then I summarize their explanations of the rules. Brackets and bolds are mine. Italics are original unless otherwise indicated.

The first step involves the importance of classifying books. They write:

The first rule of analytical reading can be expressed as follows: Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read (60).

This can happen during inspectional reading (noting the Title, reading the Preface, Forward, and or Introduction, etc). Knowing what kind of book you are reading will affect how you go about in reading it. One will read a novel differently than one will read a play, an epic, a lyric, or an expository work. Is it a theoretical book or a practical one? , etc.

In the case of biblical studies, how one reads a commentary on John (for example) will be different then how one reads a more focused work on John such as the forthcoming one in the NSBT on the Trinity in John. Even in the Bible how one reads Genesis will be different than how one reads the Psalms, Proverbs or even the Gospels.

Once you have identified what kind of book you are reading the next two steps involve understanding the structure of the book, or the book’s “skeleton” as the authors call it. They call it “X-Raying a Book.” According to the authors a book worth reading will have unity and organization.

The second rule of analytical reading can be expressed as follows: Rule 2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

This means you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible. To say what the book is about is not the same as saying what kind of book it is. To find out what a book is “about” in this sense is to discover its theme or main point (75-76).

A book may be about Genesis but what is the author doing with the book of Genesis? What is the flow of his or her thoughts about the Genesis narrative and perhaps how it fits into the Pentateuch or the Biblical narrative overall (for example). This kind of thing helps us know what the book is about.

The third rule can be explained as follows: Rule 3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole (76).

A book is a complex unity and the authors argue,

You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many (77) [italics mine].

More important than simply identifying the main theme or point of the book is the ability to explain how and why you come to that conclusion and this is done through identifying the major parts of the book. For some books this is easy enough since good authors let their intentions be known straight away whereas others are not always as open about it.

Finally, (for this post)

Rule 4. Find out what the author’s problems were. The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers.

Most likely you will have figured this out if you have some what gone through rules 2 & 3. Even so, this is an important aspect of reading a book because often times the author of a book is seeking to answer one or more questions. For example in Richard Bauckham’s The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple one significant issue he deals with is whether or not the Johannine corpus reflects the story of the Johannine community or not. Read the book and you’ll get his thinking on the matter.

Welp, that’s it for now on the first stage of analytical reading. Happy reading!

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21 responses to “How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading: Classifying a Book

  1. Pingback: 3 Of A Kind » Blog Archive » How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading. pt 1.

  2. Commenting the first quotation:

    The “to read” after “begin” I interpret today as being equivalent to “to read analytically”. And “reading” to “analytically reading”.

    You must know what kind of book you are analytically reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read analytically.

    What do you think?

  3. Jether, that is fine. it’s a direct quote from the book but I see what you are saying. The point is knowing what kind of book it is, is part of the analytical process. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Roger, do you applied the rules to “How to Read a Book” to know whether the rules apply to it or not? I don´t think so…

    Brian, indeed?!

  5. Pingback: How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading, pt 2. « συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life

  6. Jether, I was simply agreeing with Roger in his comment about needing a book about how to read “How to Read a Book.” It’s a JOKE. He was being sarcastic. Hope this helps.

  7. “Jether, I was simply agreeing with Roger in his comment about needing a book about how to read “How to Read a Book.” ”

    I understood. I asked why you agree with this.

    BRIAN, did you applied the rules to “How to Read a Book” to know whether the rules apply to it or not? I don´t think so…

  8. Brian, if you (or anybody else) did not applied the rules to “How to Read a Book”, you don´t know whether the rules apply to it or not, you don´t know whether “How to Read a Book” is about how to read “How to Read a Book” (too) or not. By the way, the authors of the book think the rules apply to it, since the text used for the exercises at the third level of reading is the book itself (see Appendix B).

  9. That’s true, I did not apply the rules of How to Read a Book to this book nor is it reflected in my posts because it was not my intention to do so. My intention was to simply relay to interested readers of this insignificant blog aspects of “How to Read a Book.”

    If readers wish to learn more of the subject they can buy the book or check it out at a library and “read” it. Then, if they wish to apply the rules to the book itself (or any other book), they may do so. My suspicion is most will only do inspectional reading (if they don’t do it already) and then at best parts of analytical reading – otherwise most will not want to make that much effort to read a book in the manner Adler and Van Doren have prescribed.

    Does this help?

  10. Pingback: How to Read a Book: Index « συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life

  11. Pingback: Index: How to Read a Book « συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life

  12. Pingback: How to Read a Book: Marking your Book. « συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life

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