Book Review: How To Read A Book – The Classic Guide To Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

howtoread
TheBreakaway
Zy Marquiez
February 8, 2017

“A man is known by the books he reads.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Read not to contradict and confuse; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
– Francis Bacon

This particular book is a book that helps you think better, shaper, more incisively.

At the behest of the author of Socratic Logic [review here], Peter Kreeft PhD, the following book was recommended.   Holding Kreeft’s opinion in high respect – and after doing some research into the book – getting this book seemed to be more than a safe bet.  In fact, it was much more than that.

How To Read A BookThe Classic Guide To Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren is a phenomenal book in various ways.  Not only does it ‘teach’ the reader how to read different kinds of books – by reading proactively, by rather reactively – but it also provides essential tools for the synthesis of other great – and more meaningful – pieces of literature.  However, it also features much more than that.

As a caveat, the authors make the distinction in the fact different type of genres should be read in different ways.  To say it another way, poetry, plays or even fiction will be ready drastically different from nonfiction books.  This is something that’s not taught to individuals for the most part, and sometimes we miss out because of it.

Adler and Van Doren cover an extensive set of tools for reader’s to learn and implement – if they so choose – in order to maximize one’s understanding of the information held within books.  The book features a wide ranging set of suggestions that build on themselves throughout the chapters that help the reader navigate all the way from the basics to the more advanced.

Without a doubt, the authors show the lengths to which proper reading can be taken too, as well as the depth that can be gathered by undertaking their advice.  As an avid reader and researcher, the information within the pages of this book have helped me considerably not only in pushing myself as a reader, but in understanding – and even merging – the depth and scope of information that is stated, as well as sifting out deeper implications when information isn’t obvious.

Furthermore, covered within How To Read A Book are topics such as inspectional reading, systematic skimming, problems in comprehension, ‘x-raying’ a book, coming to terms with the author, criticizing a book fairly, reading aids, how to read practical books, how to read imaginative literature, suggestion for reading stories, plays and poems, how to read history, how to read philosophy as well as much, much more.

Particularly of interest to me related to the above point was the topic of syntopical reading, which is what the authors call ‘The Fourth Level Of Learning’..  In laymen terms, syntopical reading is the ability to essentially synthesize information from various sources.  Since synthesizing information is a process carried out [or attempted too] on nigh a daily basis by myself, the information for me in this particular section was quite noteworthy.  Admittedly, some of it was already being done by me since one learns how to streamline various components of one’s learning when done long enough, but the book still offered more than plenty in this and many other areas.

A book like How To Read A Book should be an integral component in everyone’s education, and that is no overstatement.  In an age where cognitive decline of education continues unabated, it’s those that push themselves into the realm of self-teaching or autodidacticism that will breakaway from the pack.

This book should function as a foundational piece in a school curriculum, because, after all, a large part of what individuals learn comes via reading.

All of the suggestions in this book seep into most if not all books [or reading] in some way shape or form.  When carried out, this undoubtedly filters into an individuals’ everyday lives proportional to how much its concepts are used.  It’s sure helped me in such a fashion.  There really isn’t too many books out there that urge the reader to go beyond the conventional baseline understanding of data within books, but this book is certainly one of those precious few.

Appreciatively, the authors also make it a point to strive for a greater education as individuals, to seek to further one’s education beyond the bounds of modern schooling.  Mind you, schooling and education are not the same thing, which is an important distinction because what society gets in America nowadays – given that we have strewn away from classical education – is barely a facsimile of schooling, and in no way shape or form the true education of times past.  Authors like award winning teacher John Taylor Gatto’s in his landmark Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Dr. Joseph P Farrell & Gary Lawrence’s Rotten To The Common Core , and Charlotte Iserbyt, who served as the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, in her The Deliberate Dumbing Down Of America outline the deliberate dumbing down of America quite saliently, and these authors by far are not even the only ones talking about it.

In any case, at the end of the book the authors also thankfully feature a set of the greatest books of all time, and after having read the list it’s hard to disagree.  Having read perhaps a dozen or so of them, out of the more-than-one-hundred books recommended, it’s definitely something that’s worth considering.

Furthermore, the authors postulate that there exists specific books which fall into the category of what they call ‘Great books’, such as The Illiad, The Odyssey, Organon, The Republic, Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, et al.

The authors also postulate that only 1% of the millions of book out there – if not less – fall within this category of ‘Great Books’.  What makes this particular category of great books so unique?  That the gems of knowledge contained within these books and growth the reader will attain will not only be extensive, given the depth and immensity of the concepts within the book, but these books will teach you the most about reading and about life.  Moreover, regardless of how many times one reads these books, they are so profound and demanding of the reader that one will always learn something from them.

If you appreciate books, reading, classical education, or are striving to demand more from yourself or even plan on building a home-schooling curriculum, GET THIS BOOK!  This book really is for everyone.  Educated minds have great foundations, and this book helps lay those foundations in an ironclad manner.

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Breakaway Ruminations #3 – The Power Of Curiosity

imagination7
TheBreakaway
Zy Marquiez
January 26, 2017

“The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.”
– Edmund Burke

” People function better when they’re engaged and curious.”
– Tom Dotz & Tom Hoobyar, NLP – The Essential Guide

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
– Albert Einstein

For the individual, curiosity is indispensable.  Without curiosity, the individual finds itself without the compass through which they would plot their journey in life.

In life, curiosity serves multiple purposes.  Curiosity is the path through which we achieve truth, but also the path where we unleash imagination.  Ultimately, one cannot strive for truth, if one cannot search for it.  And one cannot search for truth, if one is not inherently curious.  Conversely, imagination, on the other hand, cannot be employed if one’s intrinsic curiosity is dull at bay.  How can one imagine, if one cannot wonder?  How can one wonder, if one is not curious?

This is why it’s imperative to foster curiosity at every turn, for it will yield amazing results.

Who better to learn about being curious, then children?

Children are amazing beings; they always wonder what’s possible.

If you spend enough time around them you will notice children will do the most random, unexpected, delightful, or at times downright bewildering things.

However, it’s reasonable to argue that most persistent thing a child will do when they reach that age is to ask why.  This is because questions, to children, are natural.  They cannot know the world without inquiring; they inherently realize this.  How else can one attain knowledge, but by figuring things out?  How else can one attain knowledge, but by employing curiosity?

Curiosity is to questioning, as clues are to solving crimes.

Every person that has interacted at length with a child will eventually run into questions of all types.

In fact, as a quick sidebar, not long ago, got into a very mindful and lengthy conversation with my friend’s daughter who was 11 or so.  This young kid had more curiosity than any other adult that has interacted with me for a long time.  It was rapid fire consistent questioning that you never get in adult life, and not aimless either.  There was incisive purpose to the questions throughout.  Every question built on the previous one; everything was as precise as it could be.  It was quite refreshing.  It’s a pity most people seem to merely have the facsimile of curiosity, rather than the actual trait.

As people grow older, this type of passion for curiosity and questioning is siphoned for many reasons and nigh doesn’t exist in adulthood in rare instances.

As adults, many tend to live life within the lines, never seeking life, or answers beyond societal-imposed boundaries.    Adults, or even adolescents for that manner, tend to have a different type of curiosity – a downgraded type of curiosity.  Adults tend to settle for the superficial answer.  And what’s worse, superficial answers barely even scratch the surface, and by their very nature are unable to get to the heart of issues.

Children, on the other hand, employ curiosity like precisely aimed arrows, which is their attempt to ascertain the world around them.  Moreover, just because they hit bullseyes doesn’t mean they will quit either.  If anything, they get more courageous, as if someone just told them there’s no limit to the amount of sugar they can have.

Children’s relentlessness for knowledge coupled with focused inquisitiveness helps hone the type of curiosity that gets to the heart of the matter.

Why is this?

In How To Read A Book [Review Here], Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren speak about very issue:

“The child is a natural questioner.  It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult.  Adults do not lose the curiosity that seems to be a native trait, but their curiosity deteriorates in quality.  They want to know whether something is so, not why.  But children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia.”[1][Bold Emphasis Added]

Children, like detectives, will not be stopped until they achieve the answers they seek.

However, although children are inherently curious, by adulthood, that curiosity has morphed into something else, something more static and less malleable.  Why such a change?

Part of this is the stamping out of imagination from public schooling, and part of it is propaganda.  How can propaganda play a part?  Ponder, haven’t we all heard, “Curiosity killed the cat”?  If that’s not propaganda, nothing is.  It’s a statement made to slam down curiosity, as if it’s a gnat to get rid of in one swift blow.  Translation: don’t ask that, don’t’ do that, don’t’ go there.  One might as well say, “Live within that box, and don’t dare move beyond it.”  It’s emblematic of living in fear, except it chains curiosity to the box.

Unfortunately, corralling curiosity can have detrimental side effects.  Without curiosity, individual learning within the boundaries of the world gets stultified, and we settle for ready-made answers [provided by others, rather than arrived through by personal insight] rather than journeying through the mysterious, and adventuring through life in search of the unknown.

And it is within the unknown that the lessons of life reside.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft, in his introduction to Philosophy via Plato’s Apology, writes in his Philosophy 101 by Socrates, and encapsulates the above issue best:

“…Socrates loves the unknown rather than fearing it.  That is almost the definition, the essence of a good learner.  Children who at an early age are punished for exploring the unknown will find it hard later to trust their own curiosity and will prefer the safety of the known, like scared rabbits afraid to come out of their comfortable holes.  Children who have been encouraged to question and explore the unknown are reward for doing so, will make good students, make many discoveries, and be happy doing so. The unknown is to them not like poison but like food.”[2][Bold Emphasis Added]

The unknown shouldn’t be feared.  In fact, it should be welcomed.  It’s an opportunity for growth; an opportunity to test knowledge, character, insight.

Moreover, a child’s inherent curiosity – or for that matter, everyone’s curiosity – should be encouraged constantly.  How else is an individual to foster creativity, and help imagination bloom if without not curiosity?

And even though children can at times go a little overboard with questions, questions still remains the best avenue for curiosity to be employed, which undoubtedly leads to finding the truth, which is what questions are about.

Regarding this, in The Imaginative Argument [review here], Frank L. Cioffi states the following:

“A very fundamental human act undergirds and empowers this activity of arguing for truth.  It’s one that you see in children all the time, one that might even be annoying: the relentless asking of questions.  Just as a child might ask again and again, “why?” until the parent finally shushes him or her with a “Because that’s the way it works,” or “Just because.  Now leave me alone!” so you as thinkers and writers should be asking question upon question…You should ask questions that will help you understand, assess, contextualize, make sense of a given situation, a given idea, text, or topic.  And these questions should reach outward – “What do others say?” – at the same time that they should delve within: “How do I feel about this?”  Questioning allows you to open yourself to possibilities – an action that characterizes genuinely creative thought.”[3][Bold & Underline Emphasis Added]

When one ruminates about it, when children question, they are little philosophers, for they seek the truth.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the questions children ask, are vitally more important than what most realize.

In fact, the questions children ask – that stem from the curiosity children feature – are not as far-fetched and unimportant as they may seem at first blush.

In fact, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren even go as far as comparing the questions children ask to great philosophical books:

“…we do want to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children askThe ability to retain the child’s view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain is, is extremely rare – and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.

“We are not required to think as children in order to understand existence.  Children certainly do not, and cannot, understand it – if, indeed, anyone can.  But we must be able to see as children see, to wonder as they wonder, to ask as they ask.  The complexities of adult life get in the way of the truth.  The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions – simple once they are stated, vastly difficult beforeIf we are to follow them we too must be childishly simple in our question – and maturely wise in our replies.”[4][Bold & Underline Emphasis Added]

Thus, in the child-like simplicity of asking questions one may embark on a voyage of curiosity that might contribute something phenomenal to our understanding.  How else is an individual, be they a child or an adult, going to breakaway from the conventional stultification of life and gravitate towards something more intriguing, and more profound?

Knowing this we must be constant in our resolve, and impervious in our creative thoughts as we foster curiosity.

Then, and only then, do we have any chance to arrive at the answers that could truly change your life.

Perhaps, just perhaps, next time we talk to a child or have a genuine conversation with an adult we could remember that the next question you’re asked might just teach you something you’ve never known before.

An 11-year-old’s curiosity changed my life.  When the last time a child’s curiosity – or anyone’s curiosity for that matter – changed yours?

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Sources & References:

[1] Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How To Read A Book, pg. 264.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Philosophy 101 by Socrates, pg. 54.
[3] Frank L. Cioffi, The Imaginative Argument, pg. xvi.
[4] Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How To Read A Book, pg. 265.