5 Steps to Make the Most of Your Reading
It is a pleasure to introduce James Sia as a guest author here at the Society of Honor. He brings the wisdom of youth to the blog, something that we of many years may at times fail to appreciate.
James resides in Mindanao and has been following our discussions for some time. The subject matter of his article is extraordinarily important. Reading. I hope you enjoy the post. JA
by James Sia
“Have any of you read How to Read a Book?”
This was the question our English teacher asked in class some years back, and I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. It turned out that the funny-sounding book did exist, and was authored by American academics Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Unfortunately, I styled myself as being a seasoned reader, and assumed I had no need for such a book; I was a lot more self-assured and foolish back then, you see. It was only after I suffered through my philosophy classes and the tons of readings that came with them that I came to this awful realization: maybe I haven’t really mastered reading as a skill.
Thankfully, I remembered the book with the silly title, got myself a copy, and began to read it. I discovered that all along, I have been reading philosophical texts and other serious works as I would a novel or a travel guide – which is wrong. I might have finished my first book at a very young age, but in the years that followed since then, what I’ve actually been doing was scan my eyes across page after page and hope that eventually something sticks and takes root. That might have worked for The Little Prince and The Three Musketeers, but Plato’s Republic, Dostoyevsky’s novels and others like them are a completely different ball game. Long story short, had it not been for How to Read a Book, yours truly would have gotten frustrated and quit exploring works by the great thinkers a long time ago.
A great and worthwhile book, according to Adler and Van Doren, “is the kind of book you should seek out if you want to improve your reading skills, and at the same time discover the best that has been thought and said in our literary tradition.” They are referring to the Western literary tradition, but we here in the Philippines have been under the Western sphere of influence for so long it’s now an inseparable part of our identity. We might as well learn from the best works of that canon and grow stronger in mind and in spirit – as individuals and hopefully as a people, too.
So how does one go about reading such books? How to Read a Book offers plenty of advice, all of them good – I urge you to buy a copy, especially if you want to take your reading to the next level. Meanwhile, here is my understanding of their method:
- Know what kind of book you’re reading. Is it prose or poetry? Fiction or nonfiction? Practical or theoretical? Social science or satire? History or moral philosophy (or both)? Et cetera. Knowing the genre of the work you’re about to read will inform you on the approach you should take as you delve deeper into it. For example, you can’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as you would a cookbook – it’s a crude example, but you get my drift.
- Go through the table of contents, and quickly skim through the book. For you to better understand what a book is all about, it helps to take a look at how it’s structured. Examining the table of contents will give you a preview of the concepts and ideas discussed in the book, as well as their progression. Hopefully, the book you are about to read is well-ordered. “A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts,” write Adler and Van Doren. Personally, I have found that it also helps to skim through the book, quickly looking for key statements and frequently-occurring terms while skipping huge chunks of the text, to give you a feel of the work and to help you get more comfortable with it before you really go to work on it.
- Take notes if you have to. You may mark the book and write in the margins – but only if the book is indeed your property, and not borrowed from the library or someone else. Otherwise, use a notebook. Making notes is a good way to bring ideas “between the lines” to the forefront, plus you get to stay alert and focused as you read. If you have a more serious motive for reading a book – say, for your dissertation – then you ought to make even more detailed notes complete with an outline, definition of terms, summaries, your personal annotations, etc.
- Make sure you understand what the author is saying. If you’ve put a lot of effort into taking careful notes, then determining the author’s message should be easier for you at this point. Some texts can be troublesome, though – most notably philosophy. “Philosophers are notorious for having private vocabularies,” the authors write. Some philosophers redefine certain words, like Paul Tillich did when he took an everyday word like “faith” and defined it as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” Other thinkers prefer to coin new terms for their concepts. I’m using philosophy as an example here, but special terms pop up in other genres too. And it’s not just terms that can be difficult – be on the lookout for confusing statements and puzzling arguments, too.
- Arrive at your own conclusions about the book. The authors regard reading as “a kind of conversation” – now that you’ve arrived at the end of the book, and have done everything you could to understand it, you may now “talk back” to the author. Do you agree or disagree with the work? What are your reasons for doing so? Is it because a certain concept was not well-explained? Or perhaps the book’s conclusion does not follow from its premises? And so on. Different principles apply to other genres: for instance, a work of fiction might be badly written, or have glaring plot holes. In any case, make sure you understand the work before you criticize it. When it comes to disagreeing with a book (and I believe this also applies to interactions other than reading), Adler and Van Doren admonish thus: “When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously and contentiously.”
Adler and Van Doren have more to say in How to Read a Book, such as tips on reading specific genres such as history, science and mathematics, and imaginative literature – the method I’ve described above does not have to be applied to every text you read, just the ones that truly matter to you. While the authors had the great books of the Western canon in mind first and foremost, their advice also applies to works from Eastern traditions such as our own and many others. You can also apply some of the tips to much lighter reading such as blog posts and news articles, too. How to Read a Book is a must-have and must-read for lovers of books and lifelong learners.