Review: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read this book before you ever read a book. If you have already read books, don’t panic — there is still time to read this book before you read any more books!

Seriously, though, this is an excellent guide to reading well, a skill that has continued steadily to disappear in the years since Adler published this book. Too many Americans read the wrong books and/or read books in the wrong way, and Adler offers a great deal of practical guidance to get us back on the right track.

In addition to some helpful remarks on how to choose the right book and read it properly, Adler also breaks down reading into four types or stages: the elementary, the inspectional, the analytic, and the syntopical. He explains thoroughly what each is, why it is important, and how it is accomplished.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to a discussion of how to properly read books within various subject areas, including history, philosophy, science, and the social sciences. Adler applies his wealth of experience and knowledge in all of these subject areas to guiding our selections, our approaches, and our understandings.

I recommend this book for all readers. I especially recommend it for those who are responsible for teaching others how to read, including both parents and teachers. Don’t just read — read well!

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Augustine on language education

As infants cannot learn to speak except by learning words and phrases from those who do speak, why should not men become eloquent without being taught any art of speech, simply by reading and learning the speeches of eloquent men, and by imitating them as far as they can? And what do we find from the examples themselves to be the case in this respect? We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. For without knowing the names of any of the faults, they will, from being accustomed to correct speech, lay hold upon whatever is faulty in the speech of any one they listen to, and avoid it; just as city-bred men, even when illiterate, seize upon the faults of rustics. 

St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book IV, Ch. 3

Enuma Elish vs. Genesis

By far the best supplementary readings I can recommend in the wake of my most recent entry in our History of Christianity series are the Enuma Elish and (at a minimum) the first three chapters of Genesis. The Enuma Elish is a text, only (re)discovered in the late nineteenth century, which contains the Babylonian myth of creation. Almost from the point of its recent discovery it was recognized that this story was clearly in the same vein as and probably a source for the creation story in Genesis. The similarities are notable, to say the least. Even more notable, however, are the ways in which Genesis departs from the Enuma Elish in its vision of God, man, and world. Genesis, in a sense, de-mythologizes the story of the Enuma Elish, for example eliminating the idea of a cosmic battle between the gods. Perhaps the most remarkable way in which Genesis deviates from the Enuma Elish is in its vision of God’s relationship to man. In the Enuma Elish (Table VI) man is created to serve the gods by completing their labor for them; in other words, man is, in the vision of the Enuma Elish, created from the very first as a slave. The vision of man, his creation, and his purpose offered in Genesis is strikingly different. I’ll let you make the rest of the comparisons and contrasts for yourself.

The Enuma Elish is not especially lengthy and you can read the whole thing online at the Ancient Encyclopedia of History. They also offer a concise introduction and summary of the work.

The text of Genesis is, of course, widely available online and off. I recommend reading it at Blue Letter Bible as they offer several English translations and their language and interpretation tools are a great resource for further inquiry.

Those who want to go even deeper might enjoy taking a look at the Septuagint (Greek/Christian) text of Genesis in side-by-side comparison with the Masoretic (Hebrew/Jewish) version which is used in most English translations of the Bible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts of how these texts compare and contrast with each other in their ideas.

When talking seriously became rude

With us, the democratic assumption work more gently. It easily prevails by sheer force of numbers. Whatever is alarmingly different or superior is leveled off like the froth on the glass of beer. Go to the friendliest social dinner, and the conversation will run exclusively on current events and common experiences — so much so that after dinner the men and the women form separate groups and talk business in one, domesticity in the other. The correct mixture of passion and detachment about beliefs, which makes of conviviality something more than eating and drinking together, is less and less attainable. To speak of religion — which once furnished a common background of moral feeling and literary allusion — is widely considered the most pretentious bad manners. Even politics has lost its intellectual content and has become undiscussable except with hand grenades. The effort to avoid misunderstandings and offense reduces the pleasure to zero. One feels as if one were walking on eggs inside one’s brain. In short, talking seriously is as rude as making private allusions which only the members of the family understand.

Jacques Barzun, Begin Here, pp. 211-12

Theos in Greek and Christian philosophy

theos, the Greek word which we have in mind when we speak of Plato’s god, has primarily a predictive force. That is to say, the Greeks did not, as Christians or Jews do, first assert the existence of God and then proceed to enumerate his attributes, saying “God is good,” “God is love” and so forth. Rather they were so impressed or awed by the things in life or nature remarkable either for joy or fear that they said “this is a god” or “that is a god.” The Christian says “God is love,” the Greek “Love is theos,” or “a god.” As another writer [Georges M. A. Grube] has explained it: “By saying that love, or victory, is god, or, to be more accurate, a god, was meant first and foremost that it is more than human, not subject to death, everlasting. … Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we are gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were.”

In this state of mind, and with this sensitiveness to the superhuman character of many things which happen to us, and which give us, it may be, sudden stabs of joy or pain which we do not understand, a Greek poet could write lines like: “Recognition between friends is theos.” It is a state of mind which obviously has no small bearing on the much-discussed question of monotheism or polytheism in Plato, if indeed it does not rob the question of meaning altogether.

W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle, pp. 10-11