how to read a book, point #1


I’ve been reading Mortimer Adler’s famous book, How To Read A Book.   This invites jokes, I know.   If you don’t already know how to read a book, how in the world are you going to read the book that tells you how to do it?

That question is answered, more or less, in the first part of the book when Adler tells us that books can, in fact, teach us to understand that which we did not understand before.  Even though books are passive, they can do more than merely impart knowledge.  Adler tells us that the most important sentences in any book are those that we do not at first reading understand.  If we understood every bit of the book on first reading, the book has done nothing for or to us.  We knew and understood as much going it as we do after finishing the book.  What the intelligent reader does when confronted with passages that are opaque to him is search the book – the parts of it he does understand – for clues of the meaning of those parts that were at first unclear.   What came before that might help us to understand the writer’s words here?  What meanings, given the context of the sentence or paragraph can we dismiss or rule out?

We enter into a kind of search or even conversation with the book as a whole and eventually we begin to come to terms with the writer.  We begin to see, bit by bit, what the writer meant in those passages that were at first unclear.  And we come away from the book not only with more information, but more understanding.

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