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    Quotables: How to Read a Book

    June 23, 2011 by Brandy Vencel
    How to Read a Book (A Touchstone book)
    How to Read a Book
    by Mortimer Adler


    You do not understand the book perfectly. Let us even assume…that you understand enough to know that you do not understand it all…

    What do you do then? You can take the book to someone else who, you think, can read better than you, and have him explain the parts that trouble you….Or you may decide that what is over your head is not worth bothering about, that you understand enough. In either case, you are not doing the job of reading that the book requires.

    That is done in only one way. Without external help of any sort, you go to work on the book. With nothing but the power of your own mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually life yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more. Such elevation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is highly skilled reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves. {pp. 7-8}

    Getting more information is learning, and so is coming to understand what you did not understand before. But there is an important difference between these two kinds of learning.

    To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth. {p. 11}

    The fourth and highest level of reading we will call Syntopical Reading. It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated.

    Another name of this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. {p. 20}

    Reading readiness includes several different kinds of preparation for learning to read. Physical readiness involves good vision and hearing. Intellectual readiness involves a minimum level of visual perception such that the child can take in and remember an entire word and the letters that combine to form it. Language readiness involves the ability to speak clearly and to use several sentences in correct order. Personal readiness involves the ability to work with other children, to sustain attention, to follow directions, and the like.

    General reading readiness is assessed by tests and is also estimated by teachers who are often skillful at discerning just when a pupil is ready to learn to read. The important thing to remember is that jumping the gun is usually self-defeating. The child who is not yet ready to read is frustrated if attempts are made to teach him, and he may carry over his dislike for the experience into his later school career and even into adult life. Delaying the beginning of reading instruction beyond the reading readiness stage is not nearly so serious, despite the feelings of parents who may fear that their child is “backward” or is not “keeping up” with his peers. {p. 24}

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    5 Comments

  • Reply Silvia June 29, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    I did not find it in the AO list, I read Why America’s Children Can’t Think, and it led me to this…
    That was a great book too.

    And I don’t think book clubs are crutches but boosters. I agree with your last statement. It all depends in the attitude we have. Are we reading the posts to not deal with the challenges of the book? Or are we genuinely partaking of the passion for the book, and getting new strength to conquer it.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Sounds like I chose a good book if Silvia and Sara are both reading it/have read it. 🙂 Of course, you can’t really go wrong by choosing to read off of the AO list!

    I go back and forth over whether or not book clubs should be considered crutches the way that Adler might have considered them so. On the one hand, club members *can* do the work for us, but on the other hand I think the love of the book is contagious, and the assistance we offer each other in book clubs seems to be a start down the road rather than the thorough, spoon-feeding sort of help we might receive by reading a commentary or taking a class, if that makes sense.

  • Reply Phyllis June 29, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Oh, I’m often guilty of this:
    “What do you do then? You can take the book to someone else who, you think, can read better than you, and have him explain the parts that trouble you.”

    I’d much rather read hard books with an online group than alone, and I need to work to be sure that I’m not trying to get them to do my work for me.

  • Reply sara June 24, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I’m about 1/2 way through this book. It is very thorough and well organized.

  • Reply Silvia June 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Wow. I remember how much Adler marked me. I enjoyed the quotes you picked, but the last paragraph pricked my heart! I did not remember he had written that piece.
    I do remember his stages or types of reading, and I agree, syntopical reading requires much from the reader.

    I believe you guys in the book club and previous ones are amazing syntopical readers.

    Let me tell you I’m in the middle of The Republic, Book 1, and I never thought I’d be laughing so hard and enjoying it in a broad sense, not analyzing or taking notes yet, just letting that dialectic (which is simply dialogues that work out definitions through questions), and the characters that participate in them, delight me.
    I’m with Willa, this book is not half as ‘difficult’ as many regard, at least read at a first level. And who would want to deconstruct it before loving it? Yeah, those professors in the halls who haven’t loved them first themselves or who think they need to build a bridge between them and the simple student, or who want to sell you a book or two.

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