Archive for the ‘Mortimer J. Adler’ 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

Master a Book and Become a Peer of the Author

November 24, 2007

A good book deserves an active reading.  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.

There is a tendency to think that a good book is above the criticism of the average reader.  The reader and the author are not peers.  The author, according to this view, should be subjected to a trial only by a jury of his peers.

There is a certain truth here, of course, but there is also a good deal of nonsense about the impeccability with which books are thus surrounded, and the false piety it produces.  Readers may be like children, in the sense that great authors can teach them, but that does not mean they must not be heard from.

It is true that a book can enlighten its readers, and is in this sense superior to them, should not be criticized by them until they understand it.  When they do, they have elevated themselves almost to equality with the author.  Now they are fit to exercise the rights and privileges of their new position.  Unless they exercise their critical facilities now, they are doing the author an injustice.  He has done what he could to make them his equal.  He deserves that they act like his peers, that they engage in conversation with him, that they talk back.

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

An alphabetical arrangement is a cowardly retreat …

November 11, 2007

An alphabetical arrangement of anything is a cowardly retreat from an intelligible ordering of the material.

— Mortimer J. Adler

It may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live

November 10, 2007

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

There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was. Radio and especially television have taken over many of the functions once served by print, just as photography has taken over functions once served by painting and other graphic arts. Admittedly, television serves some of these functions extremely well; the visual communication of news events, for example, has enormous impact. The ability of radio to give us information while we are engaged in doing other things — for instance, driving a car — is remarkable, and a great saving of time. But it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the more active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements — all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics — to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.


For related blogs see:

Good books are over your head

November 6, 2007

Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not.  And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level.

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

You become a better reader (writer, runner, cook, etc) by reading (writing, running, cooking, etc)

November 4, 2007

Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules.  This is the way the artist of craftsman in any field differs from those who lack his skill.

Now there is no other way of forming a habit of operation than by operating.  That is what it means to say one learns to do by doing.  The difference between your activity before and after you have formed a habit is a difference in facility and readiness.  After practice, you can do the same thing much better than when you started.  That is what it means to say practice makes perfect.  What you do very imperfectly at first, you gradually come to do with the kind of almost automatic perfection that an instinctive performance has.  You do something as if you were born to it, as if the activity were as natural to you as walking or eating.  That is what it means to say that habit is second nature.

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

Learn how to learn from books

November 3, 2007

For those of us who are no longer in school, it is necessary, if we want to go on learning and discovering, to know how to make books teach us well.  In that situation, if we want to go on learning, then we must know how to learn from books, which are absent teachers.

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

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

Reading and writing … (baseball) catching and pitching

November 1, 2007

The reader (of a book) is much like the catcher in a game of baseball.

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching it.  The pitcher is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball.  The catcher is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it.  Both are active, though the activities are different.  If anything is passive, it is the ball.  It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch or catch.  The analogy with writing and reading is almost perfect.  The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.

We can take this analogy a step further.  The art of catching is the skill of catching every kind of pitch – fast balls and curves, changeups and knucklers.   Similarly, the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.

It is noteworthy that the pitcher and catcher are successful only to the extent that they cooperate.  The relation of writer and reader is similar.  The writer isn’t trying not to be  caught, although it sometimes seems so.  Successful communication occurs in any case where what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader’s possession.  The writer’s skill and the reader’s skill converge upon a common end.

Admittedly, writers vary, just as pitchers do.  Some writers have excellent “control”; they know exactly what they want to convey, and they convey it precisely and accurately.  Other things being equal, they are easier to “catch” than a “wild” writer without control.

There is one respect in which the analogy breaks down.  The ball is a simple unit.  It is either completely caught or not.  A piece of writing, however, is a complex object.  It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little of what the writer intended to the whole of it.  The amount the reader “catches” will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved.

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