How to Read a Book – Chapter 1

Source Text: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

This text, published in 1940 and again with revision in 1972, was recommended to me by another friend as a useful supplement to embarking on an extended journey of reading. I’m including my thoughts on the work here as I read it alongside the core books of my makeshift canon.

The Activity and Art of Reading

Adler is a plain, clear writer. He creates an approachable pace in his work, yet still delivers his thoughts with sufficient density to keep an eager and curious reader hooked. He views reading as submission to tutelage, a strictly hierarchical experience through which one learns a greater understanding of the world by gleaning it from the intention of the author. In this way, Adler holds the author to a very high standard, requiring him to be superior to his readers so that he may have something useful to impart. It’s clear that Adler is conscious of the way that this ideology will inevitably be used to scrutinize his own work, and he takes great pains in attempting to become the very exemplar author which he lauds.

Adler also draws a distinct dichotomy between facts and understanding, and imagines the first and second types of reading as the respective increases of each on the part of the reader. In distinguishing these, he warns of the sophomore. The sophomore is widely but not well read, and has turned himself into a literate monster of misunderstanding by failing to comprehend many great books. Even worse, he has failed to realize that he has not comprehended them, and combines the ignorance of an unread person with the confidence of one who is learned.

In describing reading as the method through which an individual gains understanding from another, Adler rightly understands that there must be an external method of generating understanding, which he calls ‘discovery.’ Otherwise, the limits of human understanding could never be expanded. Exploring this, he defines discovery as the process of ‘reading’ the natural world and deriving new understanding from it. In this way, he posits that no understanding is invented. It is either derived from the world or another individual, both of which require thinking as the mechanism of action. To read and gain understanding, one must think.

I’d be curious what Adler has to say about false understanding, or conflicting understandings which derive from two disparate readings of the same world, but I think that would stray a little further into philosophy than this book intends to wander — at least during the introduction.

At the end of the chapter, Adler contrasts reading with listening to a spoken lecture. He defines the primary difference as the presence of the teacher in a lecture environment, as opposed to her absence when reading a written text. In a classroom environment, one’s question is likely to be answered if asked, whereas in reading one must search the text in order to derive the answers to his questions. In this way, Adler offers reading for understanding as a useful tool for the autodictact, whom most of us leaving the ‘theme park’ of school are inevitably destined to become. Beyond that, he circumstantially reassures me that an audiobook is an acceptable equivalent to a printed text — seeing that both share the characteristic absence of the author. With that in mind, I’ll hang on to my Audible subscription, secure in the idea that focus and thought are the keys to understanding both in ‘reading’ and ‘listening.’