Let the Reader Understand, Part 1

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

– Francis Bacon

Reading is perhaps one of the most significant activities a human can do. The capacities for language, rationality, and imagination are some of the characteristics that set mankind apart from other animals, and reading is one of the best way to cultivate those characteristics. It is even more important for Christians, because we believe that God wrote a book, thereby endowing the activities of reading and writing with a certain dignity and seriousness, and placing any who read that book under an obligation to understand it correctly. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren have written a great book entitled, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. In it they give 15 rules for analytical reading of Expository books to help readers answer the four basic questions that all demanding readers must ask. Expository books are books written to communicate knowledge primarily in a propositional way; these rules do not apply directly to imaginative literature, however there are some equivalent rules for that genre as well which will take form the substance of a later post. Before proceeding to the rules, two qualifications must be made, first, many books are not worthy of this level of reading, the reader must read each book according to its merits; second, these rules describe an ideal performance of analytical reading which is the measure of achievement, such an ideal cannot always be reached but gives readers a goal to strive for and directions on how to proceed.

Four basic questions the demanding reader asks:

1. What is a book about as a whole?

2. What is being said in detail, and how?

3. Is the book true, in whole or part?

4. What of it?

First Stage in Analytical Reading: Rules for finding what a book is about.

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.

Rule 2: State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

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.

Rule 4: Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

Second Stage in Analytical Reading: Rules for interpreting a book’s contents.

Rule 5: Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

Rule 6: grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

Rule 7: Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

Rule 8: Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Third Stage in Analytical Reading: Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge.

A. General maxims of intellectual etiquette.

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.”

Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.

Rule 11: Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

B. Special criteria for points of criticism.

Rule 12: Show wherein the author is uninformed.

Rule 13: Show wherein the author is misinformed.

Rule 14: Show wherein the author is illogical.

Rule 15: Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

These rules will help the one who implements them to become a closer reader of texts, that is, to become more proficient at truly discovering what the author’s intended meaning was and how to respond appropriately to that meaning.


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