Book Notes:

How to Read a Book

Author:: [[Mortimer Adler]] and [[Charles Van Doren]]
Type:: Book
Tags:: #books #Note-taking #reading #cognition #knowledge #learning

Summary of technique

Don’t try to read a book for thorough understanding at the same time as you get a sense of the whole – go through once quickly, then return to dive deeper. Ask questions of the book as you read it, and build up a sense for yourself – in your own words – of what the arguments are and how they are constructed. Overall, be an active, demanding reader who engages with the text.

Notes

  • There is a difference between reading for understanding vs reading to increase knowledge
  • Wisdom vs knowledge?
  • If you read for understanding, “reading for information will usually take care of itself” (p.10)
  • “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” (p.11)
  • “Being informed is a prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.” (p.11)
  • Difficult to understand what a book is about as a whole at the same time that you try to grok each individual piece – better to skim first to get an overall sense, then return to a closer reading
  • Skimming the book helps you perform two tasks:
    1. Decide whether it is worth reading more thoroughly
    2. Get a sense for what the book is about
  • How to systematically skim a book:
    1. Look at the title page and preface
    2. Examine the table of contents
    3. Check the index
    4. Read the publisher’s blurb
    5. Look at the most important chapters, paying particular attention to summary statements in the beginning or end
    6. Flick through the pages and dip into the text here and there
  • Don’t try to understand everything on the first reading – just keep going. Understanding half a book is better than nothing, and it will help you a lot if you return for a second attempt.
  • Cf [[Don’t make your life hard]]
  • Books deserve to be read at different speeds
  • ““Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.” (p.39) #[[reading speed]]”
  • ““Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.” (p.43)”
  • Reading an abstract can help you determine whether a book is worth reading, but shouldn’t replace reading those that are worth it
  • To be a demanding reader, you must ask questions while you read, that you attempt to answer in the course of reading the book
  • The four main questions you must ask of any book:
    1. What is the 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?
  • Theoretical books teach you what, practical books teach you how to
  • You must be able to express what you have learned in your own words to be sure that you’ve learned it
  • [[Cf]] [[Feynman technique]]
  • cf [[Paul Graham]]'s idea of figuring out the answer the teacher wants rather than truly learning
  • Create a concise summary of each text in your own words, before you attempt a closer reading
  • Possible problems the author was attempting to solve with the book:
  • “Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve”
  • Theoretical problems
  • Does something exist?
  • What kind of thing is it?
  • What caused it to exist, or under what conditions can it exist, or why does it exist?
  • What purpose does it serve?
  • What are the consequences of its existence?
  • What are its characteristics properties, its typical traits?
  • What are its relations to other things or a similar sort, or of a different sort?
  • How does it behave?
  • Practical problems
  • What ends should be sought?
  • What means should be chosen to a given end?
  • What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order?
  • Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse?
  • Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that?
  • You need to understand how the author is using words to fully comprehend their point
  • E.g. Bourdieu’s use of capital went over my head in first-year sociology
  • The words that you are most confused by are often the most important ones
  • The path of resistance offers a clue to meaning #[[deliberate practice]] #learning
  • How to discover an author’s key terms
  • “The words that you are most confused by are often the most important ones”
  • The author places specific stress on them
  • Prior knowledge of the discipline or subject matter
  • The author argues with other authors about their meaning
  • It is impossible to entirely pull yourself up by your bootstraps – you must start from some leverage point
  • For reading, this is an understanding of most of the individual words used
  • Cf [[Noam Chomsky]]'s idea of [[universal grammar]]
  • You work on a book from the top down and the bottom up simultaneously, and meet in the middle: summarising the whole, then the parts; and understanding the words, the propositions, and the arguments
  • The most important thing to grasp: what is the author asserting or denying, and what are the reasons they supply for doing so
  • The ultimate aim of the speaker or writer is to [[persuade]] – everything else must serve this goal #persuasion #[[public speaking]] #writing
  • Some authors require a [[syntopical reading]] to fully understand
  • E.g. philosophy, social science
  • They may be leaving unsaid something from a previous work of theirs, or a sufficiently well-known text in their field that they feel it can be omitted
  • Three conditions for intelligent and profitable conversation:
    1. Acknowledge the emotions you bring to the conversation or that arise during it
    2. Make your assumptions explicit
    3. Attempt to be impartial and at least sympathetic to the other person
  • Great books usually sit in a chronology, influenced by those before them and influencing their successors
  • Should be possible to create a sort of genealogy of [[great books]], maybe using citations? #classics
  • [[Words]] have four aspects: spelling, grammar, meaning, and history
  • For practical books, ask:
  • What are the author’s objectives?
  • How does the author suggest achieving these objectives?
  • Do I agree with the author’s objectives?
  • Do I agree that the author’s method for achieving these objectives seems sensible?
  • The word fine in fine arts doesn’t come from refined or mean delicate, but derives from the Latin word finis, meaning end. #definition
  • Recommendation: read epic poems
  • The Iliad, The Odyssey, Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost
  • These are works that all of the other great writers have read, so they are useful to understand if only for that fact
  • “Should be possible to create a sort of genealogy of [[great books]], maybe using citations? #classics”
  • Read fiction (especially poems) straight through quickly before you try to pick them apart
  • History can never be truly objectively written, so it is particularly important to read multiple sources about an event or period if you want to truly understand it
  • History books (and books in general!) are important not only for their contents but also for how they have shaped thought and action since being written
  • When reading about current events, it is imperative to find out who is writing the account and what biases they have #[[fake news]]
  • What does the author want to prove?
  • Whom do they want to convince?
  • What special knowledge do they assume?
  • What special language do they use?
  • Do they really know what they are talking about?
  • Science is written for experts, so there is a huge niche to be filled by translating scientific knowledge into understandable terms
  • Particularly relevant for reading science and mathematics:
  • “Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve”
  • Improving the [[language]] used to describe a discipline is to improve the discipline itself
  • ““A thorough analysis of the discussion of a problem may provide the groundwork for further productive work on the problem by others. It can clear away the deadwood and prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough. Without the work of analysis, that might not have been possible, for the dimensions of the problem might not have been visible.” (p.314)”
  • [[Hippocrates]]’ view of [[medicine]]: it is the art of keeping people well, rather than curing the sick
  • What if we took this [[idea]] seriously, and people visited the doctor regularly to get advice on [[prevention]] of [[sickness]]/[[illness]]?
  • The Socratic style of instruction seems to be difficult to pull off elegantly, at least in written form
  • Aquinas’s philosophical style: the meeting of objections
  • Question
  • Wrong answers given
  • Arguments in support of the wrong answered supplied
  • Initial evidence against the wrong answers given (Aquinas often uses scripture quotations)
  • Author’s answer to the question
  • Author counters the wrong answers again
  • The amount of time you should devote to a given book probably follows a sharp [[power law]]

Stages of analytical reading

  • Stage 1: rules for finding what a book is about
  • Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  • State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
  • Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve
  • Stage 2: rules for interpreting a book’s contents
  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
  • Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  • Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
  • Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve
  • Stage 3: rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge
  • Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book (do not say you agree or disagree until you can say “I understand”)
  • Cf [[The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People]] rule about seeking first to understand, then to be understood
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  • Demonstrate that you recognise the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make
  • Special criteria for points of criticism
  • Show where the author is uninformed
  • Show where the author is misinformed
  • Show where the author is illogical
  • Show where the author’s analysis or account is incomplete
  • This is only grounds for suspending judgment on the whole, not for disagreement

Syntopical reading

  • You must read far more books that you end up needing, or order to know where the boundaries of the subject matter are
  • Plan for ‘wasted books’ #redundancy
  • This is why good note-taking is invaluable, because then even books that were ‘wasted’ for the current investigation can still prove useful in the future – and you have your notes to remind yourself of them at that time
  • Create a tentative bibliography by consulting whatever sources you can and seeking advice from experts
  • Start with a breadth-first search by inspecting all of the books on your initial list
  • Don’t read any of them analytically until you have inspected all of them
  • Your aim is to discover whether a book says something important about the subject you are aiming to read syntopically about
  • Don’t proceed from inspectional to analytical reading – proceed to syntopical reading
  • ““In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.” (p.308)”
  • ““When you read a book analytically, you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.” (p.309)”
  • Syntopical reading aims at synthesis and summary, as objectively as possible
  • Fiction is a difficult source to rely on, due to the possibility of so many interpretations
  • Paradox: you need to know what to read in order to read syntopically, but unless you have read syntopically, you don’t know what to read!
  • Authors’ solution: the [[Syntopicon]]

Steps of syntopical reading

  1. Finding the relevant passages
  2. Inspect the books again
  3. Read with the ultimate aim in mind: how can the book serve your current investigation?
  4. Bringing the authors to terms
  5. Set your own terms and translate the books into them
  6. Getting the questions clear
  7. Does the phenomenon or idea we are investigating exist? What is its character?
  8. How do we know about the phenomenon, or how does the idea manifest itself?
  9. What are the consequences of the above?
  10. Defining the issues
  11. Be careful to ensure that the authors you compare are answering the same question
  12. Analysing the discussion
  13. ““The truth, then insofar as it can be found – the solution to the problem, insofar as that is available to us – consists rather in the ordered discussion itself rather than in any set of propositions or assertions about it.” (p.314)”

Quotes

  • “The tremendous pleasure that can come from reading [[Shakespeare]], for instance, was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, As You Like It, or Hamlet, scene by scene, looking up all the strange words in a glossary and studying all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never really read a Shakespearean play.” (p.37)
  • “Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.” (p.39) #[[reading speed]]
  • “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.” (p.43)
  • "In other words, you must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them, and indeed any of them, well. But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts." (p.54) #knowledge #skills #habits
  • Cf [[The Art of Learning]]
  • ““The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.””
  • “The multiplicity of the rules indicates the complexity of the one habit to be formed, not a plurality of distinct habits.” (p.55)
  • “It is hard to learn to read well.” (p.55) #difficulty
  • “A term is the basic element of communicable knowledge.” (p.96)
  • Cf [[The Selfish Gene]], Dawkin’s definition of a gene
  • "teaching will not avail unless there is a reciprocal activity of being taught" (p.99) #education #teaching
  • Yin/Yang approach to [[mastery]]: studying how to become a better reader will make you a better writer #learning #skills
  • “Propositions and arguments are logical units, or units of thought and knowledge.” (p.116)
  • “Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. [[Wonder]] is the beginning of [[wisdom]] in learning from books as well as from nature.” (p.121) #confusion
  • “The reader has an obligation as well as an opportunity to talk back.” (p.137)
  • "The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging." (p.137)
  • "The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical." (p.139)
  • “the only profit in conversation, with living or dead teachers, is what one can learn from them… you win only by gaining knowledge, not by knocking the other fellow down” (p.145) #argument #debate #knowledge #rhetoric
  • “No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.” (p.147)
  • "Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions." (p.153)
  • Pointless to argue about [[assumptions]], by their very nature
  • “The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most of our colleges, but what they did read, they read well.” (p.164)
  • Cf [[Nassim Taleb]]'s [[Lindy effect]] principle about what to read
  • “On the whole, it is best to do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help; for if you act consistently on this principle, you will find that you need less and less outside help.” (p.167) #advice #self-help
  • “The good reader of a story does not question the world that the author creates – the world that is re-created in himself… ‘our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.’” (p.208) #fiction
  • “The essence of tragedy is time, or rather the lack of it.” (p.221)
  • “it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something.” (p.233) #history
  • “If we are interested in humanity, we will tend, within reasonable limits, to read any book partly with an eye to discovering the character of its author.” (p.241)
  • "Scientific objectivity is not the absence of initial bias. It is attained by frank confession of it." (p.252) #bias
  • “We are not told, or not told early enough so that it sinks in, that [[mathematics]] is a language, and that we can learn it like any other, including our own.” (p.254)
  • “School itself, perhaps, dulls the mind – by the dead weight of rote learning, much of which may be necessary. The failure is probably even more the parents’ fault. We so often tell a child there is no answer, even when one is available, or demand that he ask no more questions. We thinly conceal our irritation when baffled by the apparently unanswerable query. All this discourages the child. He may get the impression that it is impolite to be too inquisitive.” (p.265)
  • “Plato himself had apparently no philosophical system, no doctrine – unless it was that there is no doctrine, that we should simply keep talking. And asking questions.” (p.274)
  • “In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.” (p.308)
  • “When you read a book analytically, you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.” (p.309)
  • “The truth, then insofar as it can be found – the solution to the problem, insofar as that is available to us – consists rather in the ordered discussion itself rather than in any set of propositions or assertions about it.” (p.314)
  • “A thorough analysis of the discussion of a problem may provide the groundwork for further productive work on the problem by others. It can clear away the deadwood and prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough. Without the work of analysis, that might not have been possible, for the dimensions of the problem might not have been visible.” (p.314)
  • “The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used.” (p.336)