How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading. pt 3 – Determining an Author’s Message

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: Analytical Reading. pt 1. Classifying a book.

How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading. pt 2. Coming to Terms with an Author.

This post will continue to share points of what Adler and Van Doren call Analytical Reading. Analytical Reading is the third level of reading which the authors 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 part of finding out what a book says invovles the process of coming to terms with an author by interpreting his key words.  The second part of finding out what a book says involves determining an author’s message or leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. How do we do this? For review here is the rule regarding terms:

Rule 5. Find the important words and through them, come to terms with the author (98).

Rules 6 & 7 related to determining an author’s message are expressed as follows:

Rule 6: Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain (120).

Rule 7: Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connections of sentences (note: not paragraphs) (120).

In relation to Rule 6 it is important to understand the difference between sentences and propositions.  Adler and Van Doren note:

Sentences and paragraphs are grammatical units.  They are units of language.  Propositions and arguments are logical units, or units of thought and knowledge…. Propositions are the answers to questions (117).

Backing up a bit, the author’s write: “A proposition in a book is also a declaration….He asserts this or that to be fact.  A proposition of this sort is a declaration of knowledge, not intentions” (114).  At the same time, propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons” (115).  We need to know why we should be persuaded to accept them.   Propositions and arguments are a set or series of statements related to the grounds or reasons for what is to be concludedSentences on the other hand merely help to express further aspects of the proposition or argument.

Of course, this does not mean the conclusion is true since one or all the premises that support the argument may be false.  Even so, we’re trying to figure out what is being said.

How to we find the important sentences and how do we find the propositions contained therein?  Adler and Van Doren write:

From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his [or her] whole argument rests ….the heart of his [or her] communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he [or she] is making, and the reasons he [or she] gives for so doing (121).

In other words the important sentences are the ones the stand out or jump off the page and say “Hey, I am important!”  Another clue to determining important sentences is found in the words that compose them.  Here is where marking important words comes in since often, important sentences contain important words

One other clue is that the words in the sentence will connect to the main argument of the book.  Also, don’t focus on the sentences that interest you but the ones that puzzle you.  The ones that are puzzling are often key to the author’s arguments.

Once the important sentence is found one must determine the propositions contained therein.  This is just another way of saying you need to know what a sentence means.  What is being said?  Here is where context will be important as context is always King in interpretation.  The sentences before and after will be key.  Also, you will know and understand the proposition when you can state it in your own words.  You need to be able to somehow in some way relate to the general truth of the statement being made – if not, you don’t know what is being said.

One example of this in biblical studies would be in understanding James’ assertion “faith without works is dead.”  If you can’t relate to this statement or explain it in your own words, you may have no idea what it means.  Sadly, not many people understand what this means as it is to be understood.

Adler and Van Doren assert:

If you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him [or her] to you, not thought or knowledge (126)…. Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought and knowledge (127).

We read books to interact with other people’s thoughts and to gain knowledge and understanding of a variety of things for a variety of reasons.  For example, we read the Bible to know God and be known by him.  But if we do not know what is being said in he Bible about God then we won’t be able to grow in our understanding of him.

Lastly, how do we determine the arguments being made by an author?  The following is a reformulation of Rule 7 stated above:

Rule 7: Find, if you can, the paragraphs in a book that state its important arguments; But if the arguments are not thus expressed, your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the propositions that compose the argument.

Some authors make this easy and some don’t.  St Thomas Aquinas make it easy as he puts forth his propositions at the beginning of each section and then expounds on the proposition.  However, not everyone does this so often we have to keep our eyes and pencils on the lookout for seemingly important sentences that would help determine an author’s argument.  The authors assert: “If a book contains arguments, you must know what they are, and be able to put them into a nutshell.  Any good argument can be put into a nutshell” (131).  Here Adler and Van Doren offer three steps to formulating the author’s argument:

In the first place, remember every argument must involve a number of statements…. In the second place, discriminate between the kind of argument that points to one or more  particular facts as evidence for some generalization and the kind that offers a series of general statements to prove some further generalization….  In the third place, observe what things the author says he must assume, what he says can be proved or otherwise evidenced, and what need not be proved becasue it is self-evident (132).

They go on to say:

Every line of argument, in other words, must start somewhere.  Basically there are two ways or places in which it can start: with assumptions agreed on between writer and reader, or with what are called self-evident propositions, which neither the writer nor the reader can deny (133).

Need a case of a self-evident proposition?  How about the first line of the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence? We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

There is an eighth rule in which the rules of analytical reading about terms, propositions, and arguments, can come to a head.  This eighth rule also governs the last step in the interpretation of a books contents by tying in the first stage of analytical reading (outlining the structure) and the second stage (interpreting its contents). It can be expressed as follows:

Rule 8: Find out what the author’s solutions are (135).

Find out what the solutions are?  This was covered in Rule 4 but these last three steps lead up to following through on that rule.  Rule 4 read as follows: 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.  Now that you have come to terms, determined the propositions, and figured out the arguments, its time to find the solutions!  Whoo-hoo!

Adler and Van Doren write: “When you have applied this rule (Rule 8), and the three that preceede it in interpretive reading, you can feel reasonably sure that you have managed to understand the book” (135). From this point on you are going to have a chance to argue with the author and express yourself.  More on that to come in the next post when we discuss how to criticize a book fairly!

That’s all for now folks!   Happy reading!

ps.  I hope these are helpful to someone as they take a lot of work to boil down to the basics and put together.  

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