A Sea of Symbols
A review of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimor J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
We are surrounded in a seemingly never-ending array of symbols collected into a series of words, arranged into a series of paragraphs, and organized into a series of books, advertisements, signs, and many other different formats. These groupings of alphabetic symbols are indeed the legacy of the people who have inscribed them and their knowledge, wisdom, and memory are carried within them way beyond their moment of expiry. We are entertained by them, we are informed by them, and sometimes we read them and then have a new perspective of the world around us. But, in the face of so many types of books, the question does arise: do we truly know how to read?
Mortimor J. Adler and Charles Van Doren confront this question in their book, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, in great detail, especially placing emphasis on reading for understanding versus reading meters and for entertainment (though they do touch bases with each). To read is a “process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations” (Adler & Doren, pg. 28). And it is this definition that we shall use to elaborate on the many different types of reading given by Adler and Doren: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical, in order to express why this book is one that is worth every second of indulging one’s self in.
Elementary reading is the first level of reading in which the reader learns how to perceive the collection of symbols as words with potential meaning and not as foreign intelligible scribble (Adler & Doren, pg. 36). For example, learning the alphabet and how different letters sound when combined and how sentences can be arranged. If you had not learned this type of reading (primarily in elementary school), then you would not be able to read this very sentence.
It does not matter what a sentence may mean in elementary reading, but it does matter what it says in the most primitive sense (Adler & Doren, pg. 37). To elaborate: in the sentence “The dog wears a blue hat”, it does not matter why the dog is wearing a blue hat or to what reason the author stated such a thing, but that there is a dog wearing a blue hat. No further investigation needs to be done in order to understand what the sentence says because we are not investigating what the sentence means.
It is also evident in this type of reading that vocabulary is a critical essence in this type’s growth (Adler & Doren, pg. 45). If using the previous example, assume the sentence is now: “The canine adorns an azure fez.” If one had never heard of the words “canine”, “azure”, or even “fez”, then the sentence would be quite a mystery, especially if not given the context that the above example is being used here. The picture would not be there since the familiarity with the used words is not there. Like science and other fields, adapting to the vocabulary commonly used within these fields is essential to the path of understanding what is being said so that we can later inspect and analyze what it is being meant by these choices of words.
Inspectional reading is the second type of reading where readers both skim the book and superficially read it (Adler & Doren, pg. 51 & pg. 56). These two types of actions define what inspectional reading is and is an important distinction from the previous type of reading.
Skimming a book is a process in which one quickly gets a picture of what the book is going to be about. This can be done in a variety of ways but, as I would suggest, these ways should be combined to get a true idea of whether a book is meant to be read or to have a general understanding of what is happening before even fully reading it. This can be done by swiftly observing a book’s preface or title page, the table of contents and the index, any additional writing on the book such as promotional statements on a book cover, and the chapter names and what is said in a few here and there sentences within these chapters (Adler & Doren, pg. 52-55). All of this, done quickly, can provide a quick glimpse of what is going to be said within a book. It is not an exhaustive method, but is quite helpful for quick refreshers on a topic or to make a decision or whether or not to read a book.
Superficial reading is reading a book all the way through without ever halting for help because of things one may not understand (Adler & Doren, pg. 56). As conflict-filled as it it may sound, it is quite important as certain difficulties found within different types of books could be the perfect grounds for great discussions to be had and also to increase one’s own understanding by one’s own volition by following up with the third stage of reading.
Analytical reading is the third type of reading where a reader classifies the book they are reading, summarizes the point of the book, lists the order of things being said in the book, and identifies what the author had difficulty in expressing (Adler & Doren, pg. 79-112). It helps establish unity within a book, allowing arguments to be outlined, concepts to be related to one another, and gives a view of the book’s overall structure.
With proper analysis of each word in each paragraph, each paragraph in each chapter, and so forth, comes a road to increase one’s understanding. For example, if a book is hard to read given the author’s wording, “coming to terms” (Adler & Doren, pg. 116) with them and taking the time to relate certain words in context with others in order to understand the author’s definition of certain multi-faceted words can allow one to, from then on out, understand the unity of an author’s work and, therefore, have a firm grasp of what they are saying, what they are not saying, and potentially what could have been said. This gives one the ability to be at a higher level of understanding than before, making it so that the next book that is read can be analyzed in a more straightforward manner, as certain authors may speak in very similar terms as they engage in discussion, and to more fairly judge an author’s points.
The fourth type of reading is syntopical reading in where the reader reads a series of books, not just one, in order to observe these discussions made by a series of authors upon a certain matter of subject (Adler & Doren, pg. 328). In this type of reading, many relevant books must be read and be chosen in a such a way as to not waste time. Why pick up a Nutrition book when studying the history of Thermodynamics? Even then too, if studying a specific branch of Thermodynamics, it would be pointless to waste one’s time on unrelated sections of said book versus the ones where that section is stressed; thus, is why syntopical reading is quite different from the others.
Instead of stressing on what the author’s terms are, in syntopical reading, one must find related parts within the book in order to have the author’s terms unite with your own so that proper questions may be asked, all so that the overarching issue may be presented in a way that invites and observes a plethora of discussions (Adler & Doren, pg. 336-341). Using the above example, if the reader’s topic is of heat engines then they must find books with passages that pertain to heat engines and find points that agree with whatever overarching point they intend to address by stating the questions necessary to discuss further about the concept of heat engines. It could very well be defining what a heat engine is and inviting the reader to converse with what they could be used for by looking at pre-existing devices that use them.
However, as Adler and Doren state, the reader must at least attempt “to look at all sides and to take no sides” (Adler & Doren, pg. 344). It is not up to the reader to decide what is and what is not, but it is up to them to observe what other authors think of a concept and thereby translating it either to one’s self or to another through another book or a short piece of writing.
Ultimately, not all people read the same or read at all; likewise, not all interpret everything in the same way. The infinite sea of symbols that surrounds us all have their own meaning, especially when situated with different words by different people of different backgrounds. However, by at least attempting to strengthen the four types of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical, by practicing and reading relevant books to our own individual causes, we can get closer and closer to the truth that we have yet to find.
In essence, I believe How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is a must read as it gives, if at the bare minimum, a direction upon which to go if we are to read to transcend our understanding and how we may go about our business if we intended to not read in such a way. It is not a perfect book (none are truly so), but it invites discussion and suggests practice so that no matter what Adler and Doren say is true or false, we can at least approach the truth one step at a time by trying to unite the symbols that we pass upon our eyes every single day.
Adler, Mortimer Jerome, and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Simon and Schuster, 1972.