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

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: Analytical Reading. pt 1.

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.

This next stage of analytical reading concerns the idea of coming to terms with an author. This begins the second stage of Analytical Reading for finding out what a book says.  The authors write, “Unless the reader comes to terms with the author, the communication of knowledge from one to the other does not take place. For a term is the basic element of communicable knowledge” (96).

I’ll go in reverse from the authors and state the next rule and then explain what the authors say about “words” and “terms.” The authors say this rule applies more often to “expository” works.

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

What is meant by coming to terms with an author? According to Alder and Van Doren, “A term is not a word – at least, not just a word without further qualifications” (96). The idea is that because words often have varying nuances it is important to find and locate the important words and then try to understand what the author means in using that word.  In other words, as some say, “It all semantics.”  It’s like Christians trying to talk with Mormons.  We tend to use a lot of the same words but often with different meanings. VERY different meanings.

So, as Adler and Van Doren say, terms are the basic element of communication.

For the communication to be successfully completed, therefore, it is necessary for the two parties to uses words with the same meanings – in short, to come to terms (97).

A term then, “is a word that is used unambiguously” (97).  It is used in such a way that everyone is on the same page about what is being said.

If we go back to the conversation between a Christian and a Mormon, it would need to be established as to what exactly is meant by the name “Jesus” or rather, who exactly is “Jesus”? Christians and Mormons are often not speaking of the same person. So, unless they come to terms with each other, confusion and or deception will result. There are plenty of examples to be sure. This one will suffice. I am not willing to debate this issue. Any comments attempting such will get deleted.

The importance of this rule, that is, coming to terms with an author, relates to the interpretation of a book’s contents or message. We want to know what the author is talking about [italics mine]. What important words is he or she using and how is he or she using them?  How do these words contribute to the author’s attempt to communicate his or her message?

So, how do we find these important words and understand what the author means by using them? Of course not all words an author uses are important, just the ones used in a special or particular way.  Here are a few quotes for consideration:

An author uses most words as men [sic] ordinarily do in conversation, with a range of meanings, and trusting the context to indicate the shifts (101).

From your point of view as a reader, therefore, the most important words are those that give you trouble (102).

You discover some of the important words by the fact that they are not ordinary for you (103).

Every field of knowledge has it own technical vocabulary [ie., jargon] (104).

The relatively small set of words that express an author’s main ideas, his leading concepts, constitutes his special vocabulary (105).

….any other word whose meaning is not clear is important to you (105).

How does one find out what the meanings are? ….The answer is that you have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand (107). [IOW: Context is King in Interpretation.]

[Once the meaning is understood, a word becomes a term].

You should not forget that one word can represent several terms.  One way to remember this is to distinguish between the author’s vocabulary and his terminology.

That’s all folks! Coming to terms with an author simply means to know what he or she is doing with big words. This can be important especially in biblical and theological studies.  One book to consider getting to help with all this is Grenz, et al. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. (IVP, 1999). There is also the Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies (IVP, 1998), the Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek, (IVP, 2001), and the Pocket Dictionary for the Study of Biblical Hebrew, (IVP, 2003).  Use of one or more of these tools could be quite useful for “coming to terms with an author.”

There is also Walter Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Academic, 2001) that can be quite useful in understanding big theological words, concepts, themes, etc.  It also has people and places too.  I personally think everyone should at least have this one.  A Basic Bible Dictionary would also come in handy as well.

One last thing. These terms are ones you want to mark in some fashion be it underlining, highlighting, circling, or some other means useful for you. You may also want to keep a glossary of sorts in the back of the book on the blank pages at the end, if there are any and list any terms you want to remember or need for future reference. This would be in keeping with what Adler and Van Doren have been saying about “how to read a book.”

I hope this is helpful.

Happy Reading!

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

  1. just popping in to let you know i am following your series. your summaries are much more helpful than the book was. i tried to read it on three separate occasions but finally gave up as the style was too dry.

  2. Pingback: How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading. pt 3 - Determining an Author’s Message « συνεσταυρωμαι: living the crucified life

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

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