We book lovers and readers tend to take reading for granted. It is an activity we engage in everyday, for greater or lesser periods of time. Some of us read fiction, some of us prefer nonfiction and some of us enjoy mixing the two together. Some readers like to be challenged with complex plots, ideas or subjects. Others enjoy the escape of the paperback equivalent of a comic book. Reading is wonderfully diverse in its offerings to devotees.
No matter what type of reader you may be, you would benefit from exposure to “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Adler was one of America’s leading public intellectuals during the middle of the last century and this book, originally published in 1940, is still considered by many to be a classic. To Adler and Van Doren reading was, and is, a complex activity involving much more than recognizing and mentally linking words on a page.
They have identified four levels of reading here. First is Elementary Level, basically what a person is capable of after graduating from elementary school. Next is Inspectional Reading, or the art of systematic skimming of a book to get the necessary information needed within a limited amount of time. Third there is Analytical Reading, which is a deep and thorough reading when one has as no time limits to worry about. Finally they identify Syntopical Reading, describing it as a kind of comparative reading. In their words, “It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all.”
While the book explores and explains these levels of reading, it also goes into other areas, including how to read different types of books and how to use a dictionary properly. The key is that Adler and Van Doren take reading seriously. Adler was one of the driving forces behind the Great Books of the Western World, a 54- volume set published by Encyclopaedia Britannica. He helped set up a great books program at the University of Chicago. For Adler, effective reading was truly the key to learning, so important that advanced reading skills should be one of the teaching goals of high schools and colleges:
A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers.
So, what kind of reader are you? Are you a casual reader, or someone who really digs-in to a book to get at what the author offers there? Or does it depend on what type of book you’re reading? Do you feel your high school or college trained you to read effectively? And do you think e-readers will influence how people read in the future?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.