Online Great Books–How To Read a Book (1)

How To Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren was the first book assigned to our seminar group. (The first seminar last week covered the Online Great Books Handbook, and was devoted to various housekeeping matters related to the online apps that the program uses.) It is the book we cover before we dive into The Iliad by Homer. This first post will cover the first four chapters of Part One of the book, which introduces the concept of different levels of reading.

  1. The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
    Elementary reading has four stages of its own:
    • Stage one–sometimes called “reading readiness”, it is where the child learns skills that prepare the child to read, from physical readiness (for example, making sure whether the child need corrective lenses in order to see the words on the page), intellectual readiness (for example, learning phonics and how letters correspond to sounds and combine to form words), and personal readiness (being able to sustain attention, follow directions, etc.)
    • Stage two–children start learning to read very simple materials, and the child experiences how the words on the page can unlock meaning in the mind.
    • Stage three–children start to learn to read for different purposes in different contexts (corresponding to the various subjects the child is taught)
    • Stage four–children start to assimilate their reading experiences into a worldview, where they can understand both the similarities of concepts in different pieces of writing, and the differences between the views of different writers on the same subject. The child is usually a young teen by this point, and is able to starting to do research on a theme or topic.
  2. The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
    There are two types of inspectional reading:
    • Inspectional Reading I: Systematic skimming or pre-reading–you read the title page, study the table of contents to see the overall structure of the book, check the index to show the range of topics covered, read the publisher’s blurb to get the main points of the book. Then look at the chapters from the table of contents that seem to be pivotal to the argument, and reading the summary statements either at the opening or closing pages of the chapter. Finally, look at the last two or three pages of the book because that will often contain the summary of the main points of the book
    • Inspectional Reading II: Superficial reading–especially for works that are more challenging, don’t stop to try to understand the meaning of every word, or to read footnotes or references. Remember, this is in preparation for the next stage and it will help to get a broad outline in your head before you go on to the Third Level of Reading.
  3. The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading–in this level, you are going beyond reading for information, and trying to gain an understanding not of what was said, but what the other author meant and why the author came to those particular conclusions. This constitutes the majority of How To Read A Book, so I won’t try to outline this here.
  4. The Fourth Level of Reading: Synoptical Reading–this comes from reading several books about a single topic and is the final goal of the Great Books program, to put together in one’s mind the intellectual fabric of Western Civilization, to see how the various authors represents the various threads in that fabric and how they are woven together.

When reading this summary, I realized that it is helpful not only for those reading books in English, but for those of us who like to study foreign languages. I am trying to study for the Spanish proficiency test called DELE at the intermediate level, and to do that I need to improve my reading comprehension. I realized what I was trying to do was go from the elementary level of reading right into the analytical, which meant I felt I had to understand every word of a text. But How to Read a Book showed me the importance of the second level of reading, inspectional reading. Now when I approach a passage of text in Spanish, I just plow right through and skip words I don’t know. Then I go back, underline the words I don’t know, and try first to understand them in context. Only if I am stumped will I go to a dictionary and look up the word. This is an important skill if you are a student because you don’t have the TIME to do analytical reading when you are taking a test.

Reading about the four levels of reading outlined above made me think of a science fiction work by Samuel Delaney called Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, where one chapter deals with the subject of reading. In the book, the beings in this far-off future are all wired cybernetically to a future version of the Internet called General Information, and have the ability to “read” books by having the contents impressed almost instantaneously upon their neural nets. In such a future, what would it be like to learn how to go from being totally illiterate to being able to read at the four levels of reading outlined above–in the space of less than a hour? That will be the subject of the next post…

Published by Jerome Rowley

I am a multilingual professional who has worked in the manufacturing and insurance industries. I am interested in Integral Theory and its application to various issues that put the globe at risk.

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