In the last post, I listed the four levels of reading described by Mortimer Adler in his book How To Read a Book. These four levels are:
- Elementary Reading–basic mastery of what the author is saying
- Inspectional Reading–understanding the main points of what the author is saying
- Analytical Reading–gaining an understanding of what the author meant (the context)
- Synoptical Reading–gaining an understanding of an idea across the works of several authors
As I was reading the difference between analytical reading and synoptical reading, I remembered a science fiction novel I had read decades ago called Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. In this novel of the far future, mankind has spread to other stars and has encountered other beings that are sapient, such as a race of intelligent spiders. In the future, people are fitted with hardware in their brains that allows information to be downloaded directly into their neural nets in a future version of the Internet called General Information.
The first part of that novel is set on a planet where General Information is outlawed, because the government does not want its people accessing dangerous ideas like freedom. The novel follows the life of one man, named Rat Korga, who is sent to the Radical Anxiety Termination institute to have his brain circuitry altered so that he can became a slave and no longer have to deal with the burdens of a free will. At some point during his tenure as a slave at a research station, he is kidnapped by someone who wants him for his special ability he gained because of the procedure, which is an ability to rapidly read ANY book within a matter of seconds.
Although the General Information technology is forbidden on this planet, there is a bootleg variety which allows one to download information at a rapid pace from electronic versions of books if one is wearing a special glove which transmits the contains of the books to the brain. Normal people on this planet can use this technology and read one book every ten minutes, but she has learned that people like Rat Korga who have had this special procedure done on their brains can absorb the information in a single book in 1.32 seconds. So she wants to have him read a carton of books and explain their contains to him so she learn what’s in them without having to take the trouble of reading them herself.
The fascinating part of the narrative for me was the experience written in first-person style of what it was like for someone like Rat Korga to go from being totally illiterate to being able to fully absorb the contents of an entire book in a matter of seconds, essentially skipping to the third level of reading.
The first book The Nu-7 Poems contained the collected poems and fragments of an engineer named Vro Merivon. Rat was so amazed by being to suddenly understand the words and the images used as metaphors to describe highly abstract mental processes. He was so surprised that he dropped the book cube back into the carton, and went to retrieve it so he could read it again. He picked up instead a cube containing The Mantichorio, an epic narrative describing a fantasy world where winged monsters fought in red-walled caves and foaming black rivers.
Almost as a side thought, he realized after reading the book that the poet Vro Merivon had rewritten more than a dozen phrases from The Mantichorio into poems contained in her collection The Nu-7 Poems. He then reads another cube, and another, and he rapidly understands not just their contents, but the connections between all the works. In other words, he is starting to read synoptically as well, the fourth level of reading. In the pages of his book, Samuel Delaney shows us a portrait of the protagonist’s opening up to the mental worlds described in its books, and creating a worldview formed by not just by the books themselves, but their interactions in his mind which recreate the world’s culture.
Of course when reading the novel for the first time back in the 1980s, I enjoyed the fantasy of what it would be like to be able to read a great book in 1.32 seconds, but now in starting to read the books in the Online Great Books, I am recreating, albeit in a lot slower form, the mind-blowing experience that Rat Korga had on that planet in the future described by Samuel Delaney. I hope, in the years to come, to be able to refer mentally to the books in my pocket like grains of sand, connected in my mind in a new constellation of their own called Western Civilization.