Index: How to Read 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).  Here is an Index of the different aspect of Reading a Book I have so far.

Part I

How to Read a Book: Marking your Book

How to Read a Book: Inspectional Reading

Part II

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

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

How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading: Determining an Author’s Message

How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading: Criticizing a Book Fairly.

How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading: Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author.

How to Read a Book: Analytical Reading – pt 4. Criticizing a Book Fairly.

I hope to get back to finishing something I started…

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: Index (for all related posts).

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 post will focus on the section in which Adler and Van Doren discuss how to criticize a book (author) fairly.  Remember, reading a book is a conversation between the reader and the author.  It is not a direct two way conversation necessarily but the author is sharing his or her thoughts on a matter and you are listening to what is being said. Offering fair criticism is part of the conversation.  When reading a book, points of agreement and disagreement will arise.  How should you proceed in dealing with the disagreements? Any good book deserves an active reading and as part of the process of “reading” a book it is entirely appropriate to offer up some criticisms of the book just read.

No book is so good that it has no weaknesses or is free of criticism – part of the reading process is to note the positive and negative aspects of the book – a good book will have some of both, but hopefully more good than bad. This is called reading a book critically.  Not critically in the sense of intentionally looking for the bad but critical in the sense of noting the book’s strengths and weakness and not being afraid to point these out.

So how does one criticize a book fairly?

There are three general maxims when criticizing a book. The first is to suspend judgment.

Rule 9:

You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”

When reading a book an important point made by an author in which you will agree, disagree, or you will have to think about it.  What is important is that before you can agree or disagree one way or the other, you need to understand the argument of the author, this is called “listening.”

It reminds me of one of Covey’s rules “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”  This is important because it shows a couple things about the reader: teachability and maturity.  It is important to remain teachable and also mature in conversing with others on points of difference or disagreement.  It is easy to see that agreeing or disagreeing are parts of criticism but so is the act of suspending judgment. Suspending judgment according to the authors is taking the position that something has not been shown. It is saying you are not convinced or persuaded yet one way or the other but that you are open (143).

If you are not sure you understand then don’t proceed with a criticism until you do.  Hold off.  To say, “I don’t understand” is, of course a criticism but only after you have tried your hardest does it reflect on the book rather than on yourself (144).  Also, recognize too, that not understanding an argument may not be the author’s fault but that you need more time to think it through or to digest it.

Additionally, criticizing a book fairly will be hard to do if you haven’t read it all the way through.

The second general maxim when criticizing a book is avoid contentiousness.  This leads to Rule 10:

When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.

In other words: be fair-minded (145).  There is no point in winning an argument for winning’s sake, especially if you suspect you might be wrong.  This is important because it is easy to fall into the trap of needing to always be right instead of possibly learning something new, even the truth.  This need not be.  The problem is, however, “most people think that winning the argument is what matters not learning the truth” (146).  Denying truth for the sake of winning an argument speaks more about oneself than it does about the argument itself.  I think it’s called pride.  When it comes to reading a book what is most important is having a teachable attitude and a willingness to learn.  Adler and Van Doren state:

We are not saying that a reader should not ultimately disagree and try to show where the author is wrong.  We are saying only that he [or she] should be as prepared to agree as to disagree (147).

One should be willing to admit a point when he or she sees it.  Again, it is not about winning but about learning truth in humilty and maturity.

The third maxim is closely related to the second.  Where as the second maxim warned against disagreeing disputatiously, this one warns against disagreeing hopelessly

Thus rule 11 is as follows:

Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Again, disagreements will happen and that is fine (it’s part of human nature) – just be nice about it.  As we like to say in the church “be willing to agree to disagree.”  The problem again arises from one’s possible insistance that one be right or win an argument.  Perhaps this is where Rick Warren’s famous line comes in “It’s not about you.”  When reading a book or disagreeing with an author or another person, we need to remember “it’s not about you.”  When the focus in on us then we tend to lose reasonableness and become contentiousness in our disagreements. Don’t just disagree for no reason – give a reason for your disagreement(s).  Be reasonable and fair-minded.

The point about knowing the difference between knowledge and personal opinion has to with being able to discern the nature of an argument and the points presented.  Too often personal opinons (unsupported judgements) about an argument presented (in this case, a book) are simply denials of truth and facts.  Other times is is simply a situation of inequalities of knowledge or prejudice.  The point is in the need to find a way to resolve the disagreement.  Be sure you know the argument and its basis before disagreeing – seek first to understand, then be understood.  If you don’t yet understand – suspend judgment.  If after seeking to understand an argument still isn’t clear – then be willing to offer up a disagreement in a respectable manner in an attitude of teachability and maturity.  There is very little of this occuring in the current discussions of the present election season – myself included.

To conclude: To be fair-minded one must learn to suspend judgements, avoid contentiousness, and seek to resolve differences based on actual knowledge and not mere opinons.

Seems simple enough – now to actually do it.

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.  

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!

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!

How to Read a Book: Inspectional Reading

In my last post on how to read a book, I shared ideas on marking in a book and some possibilities to consider from Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. (Simon and Schuster, 1972).  

According to Adler and Van Doren reading occurs on four different levels: Elementary Reading, Inspectional Reading, Analytical Reading, and Syntopical Reading. These levels reflect multiple readings of one book.  Each level reflects increasing levels of reading ability and is increasingly demanding in terms of how involved one is in the reading of a book.  Each level is also dependent upon the level preceding it.  

Elementary reading is basically learning to read – going from non literacy to literacy – from not being able to read at all – to being able to do basic reading.  

This post will share basic points on Inspectional Reading – There are two levels of Inspectional Reading.  One involves the systematic skimming of a book or what is called pre-reading (Inspectional reading I).  The second involves a superficial reading of a book (Inspectional reading II).  I am not going to go into too much detail but instead give the basic rules and perhaps one sentence expounding the rule.  If you want to know more, then you’ll have to consider purchasing the book.  

Inspectional Reading is most useful for two things: deciding if you want to purchase a book for further reading and/or to learn of its contents and basic thesis in a relatively short period of time, perhaps anywhere from a minute or two to not more than fifteen minutes of skimming, to aid in your decision to purchase or not.  This is also incredibly helpful for deciding if a book is helpful for research projects of various sorts and also for papers.  In the matter of maybe 15 minutes to a half hour one could have the majority of books one will want to use for a paper or other research project.  Using this method will help eliminate useful books from books that will not be useful for your purposes.  In other words, it saves a lot of time.  

Rules for Inspectional Reading I

  1. Look at the Title Page and, if the book has one, at it’s Preface.  Read each quickly to note the subtitles and other indications of the basic scope or aim of the book.  This would answer the question: what is the book about?
  2. Study the Table of Contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure.  The table of contents are designed specifically for this purpose.  
  3. Check the Index.  Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and the kinds of books and authors referred to.  [Books on Biblical Studies and or Theology typically have an Authors Index, a Subject Index, and a Scripture Index for consideration].
  4. If the book is a new one with a dust jacket, read the Publisher’s blurb.  The blurb is not just fluff for marketing but often an author’s attempt at a concise summary of the books contents.  At this point you may already have enough information and have made a decision as to if the book will be useful to you or not.  If you decide to keep looking the actual skimming of the book now begins
  5. Look now at the chapters that seem pivotal to [the Book’s] argument.  Read the summary statements at the beginning and end to further your knowledge of what the book is about.  
  6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that.  Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for sings of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter.  Also, do not fail to read the last two or three pages of the book to know its conclusions.  

Rules for Inspectional Reading II:

Superficial reading is basically reading a book through once without stopping much to ponder its contents but instead reading through to understand its basic structure and flow.  Pay attention to what you can understand and don’t worry about what you might not understand just yet – you’ll get back to that later. Just press on! 

That’s it folks!  That’s the basics of Inspectional Reading.  Now you can run off to Barnes and Noble, Borders Books or your favorite local Christian Bookstore and grab a few used books (they are rarely new since others have already touched them and flipped through them, maybe even marked in them) and find a chair some where and do some inspectional reading!  

Happy reading!  

How to Read a Book: Index