Saturday, June 27, 2015

Adler's How To Read a Book

At one time reading was regarded an untainted virtue, later it was seen that it did us no good unless we read good books, and now there is a dawning consciousness that even if we read good books they will benefit us little unless we read them in the right way. But even where this consciousness has been felt, little attempt has been made to solve the problem systematically. Leisurely discourses, pretty aphorisms, and dogmatic rules have been the forms in which the question has been dealt with. Such conflicting adages as "A good book should be read over and over again" ; and "The art of reading is the art of skipping," are not  very serviceable. The necessity of some sort of orderly treatment is evident.
Henry Hazlitt Thinking as a Science

There are some books that are just difficult to get into. You try, find it isn't working, give up, retry at some later point in the future only to give up once again having not advanced much further. This has happened to me with Peter Straub's Ghost Story, which is supposed to be a fine book scare-wise, but I have not got past the Chowder Society's second or third mention. It has also happened to me with Adler's How to Read a Book. After more than a decade and a half of having it on a bookshelf and pulling it interminently to take a look at the list of recommended great books at the end, I decided to take one more crack at it and see if I could finish it this time around and get something worthwhile out of it.

In this latest attempt I now see why I had failed before:  The title itself had been misleading me all this time. Where I expected some quick set of rules, Adler instead makes a large scale exposition of the state of reading  and education and the way to revert it by great book reading. So in reality How to Read a Book is more like three books in one: a) poor education; b)rules for nonfiction; and c) guidelines for imaginative literature and the great books. By accepting it as it is, I finally got over the hump.

Now, this may only aply to the 1940 solo edition which is the one I've got.  There are in reality two versions of this book under the same title, the 1940, on which I'll center on and the more readily available 1972 refurbished edition with Van Doren. Not until I began writing this post I became aware of this.

The focus of this book are books that are for instruction, deliver an exposition and are Great in the sense of aligning themselves to the Ideas of the Great Conversation, as opposed to those books that are for entertainment, delight or are shallow.

I had also another reason for reading this book which was to learn a bit more about the philosophy of The Great Books of the Western World of which we talked about last time and of which Adler is an editor. With more berth than Hutchins allows himself on The Great Conversation Adler takes a more leisurely pace getting his point across. This takes the form in the Education/Great books/Rules triad, the latter being the core of the book. If one is approaching How to from the perpective of Education or that of the Great Books, the longish first part (now finally) makes sense.

The rules proper don't start until deep into the book and these are heavy duty. These in a sense require the reader dissect the reading material (ie. a Great book) forwards and backwards, minutely so, and put it all back together. Adler's explanations are a bit circomlocuted, but does make himself clear by the time he wraps up each point. What would have been great would have been an example to illustrate parts or the whole process with a sample text and to be sure what Adler expects from the reader and text. We don't have such in this tome. As far as I know the closest we get to hands-on examples is in the relatively obscure book General Introduction to the Great Books.

In the second section of the last chapter contains nonetheless a model reading group and ways to conduct it. This is motivating to say the least. Even more because the pontential richness of the Great Books can be drawn the most by discussion.

The final section projects a society where its citizens and state officials work in symphony with the Great Books. A society where force, charm and ease of word don't sway the minds, but reason. Editorially, I regret that as of late we have undemocratically moved away from such ideals mainly through fear. We've let our true liberties be impinged. As long as this continues, they win.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It assumes you can already concentrate in the first place, so there's no help there. You either read as he asks or you don't ; though at the very least you get a sense of what you are missing.

Instead of trying the rules full force on the inmensity Great Books proper (a gargantuan task, no doubt) why not give them a go with shorter, easier, and still 'great' books? Of these we'll talk next time.


This all sounds right and well but, and I may be wrong on this, the point on which Adler's great book reading as a solution for America's education woes hinges on is, ironically, not quite sound.

Ch VI. p101
Today's public was educated in the schools of yesterday and today; it cannot be expected to demand that the schools to change tomorrow. It cannot be expected to make demands if it does not know intimately, as a matter of its own experience, the difference between real education and all the current impostures. That "if" gave me the clue. Why couldn't it be made a matter of people's experience, instead of their having to rely on hearsay and all the crosscurrents of talk among disputing experts? It could. If somehow out of school and after it, people generally could get some of the education they did not get in school, they might be motivated as they are not now, to blow up the school system. And they could get the education they did not get, if they could read. Do you follow this reasoning?
No, not really.


"Know of their own experience": 'k'
"Make demands": 'd'

∴ k→d

Ok this is hairsplitting. I'm still sold on his general idea, but I had to call him on this one.


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