Archive for the ‘author’ Category

Testing your understanding of an author’s words

February 22, 2008

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read.  Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant?  Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?  To imagine a possible case is often as good as citing an actual one.  If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.

Propositions do not exist in a vacuum.  They refer to the world in which we live.  Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought or knowledge.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Read a book to receive knowledge, not just words

February 19, 2008

Here’s a test to see if you understood something that you read: “State it in your own words.”

If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means.

Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words.

If you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge.  You know his words, not his mind.  He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Misty Profundity

December 1, 2007

We’ve all had this experience: you are listening to someone talk and think, “Wow, this is really profound, albeit vague, stuff”, and then later, while reflecting on it, you realize “That was a bunch of crap.” Alfred North Whitehead states this situation nicely:

“It is a safe rule to apply that, when an author writes with a misty profundity, he is talking nonsense.”


Here’s a related blog: A Test of “Profound Statements”

The person who says he know what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks

November 2, 2007

It is an old saying that you have to “read between the lines” to get the most out of anything. The rules of reading are a formal way of saying this. But we want to persuade you to “write between the lines,” too. Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading.

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he know what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation: the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren