Sunday, April 7, 2013

How to Read a Book

    I picked a pretty different book this time around.  Oddly enough this book isn't in the realm of my typical subjects rather its a book about reading.  I received a number of odd looks from a few of my coworkers while reading this one.  I have to say I was a bit skeptical of the value of reading this book.  My girlfriend mumbled 'You're not going to read that book', but I've proved both of us wrong.  Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book was actually a pretty good read. The tone of the book is actually what kept me reading as it sounds as if Meryl Streep from Julie and Julia is narrating the book.  
    Interestingly enough, the book focuses on what has been defined as the highest level of reading or syntopical reading.  What I didn't realize is that before reading this book I had changed the focus of this blog to what I now refer to as a syntopical blog.  I suppose now might be a good time to actually explain what 'syntopical' actually means.  Syntopical reading is essentially the art of reading many different books in an effort to tie them together in a cohesive way.  Its about bridging the gaps between subjects, fields or theories. This type of cross pollination of ideas coupled with a deep understanding of many topics yields new discoveries and alternate ways to perceive the world around us.  There exists a book dedicated to helping the Syntopical reader adequately titled 'The Syntopic'.  The Syntopic (as explained in the book) is a book containing information ABOUT books that concern the most pressing issues and/or concepts of our time ranging from every major subject possible (at the time it was written).  The syntopic essentially lists the whereabouts of specific information on any given topic that has ties with the Human Condition.  What's cool about this is that if you want to understand a subject, this is a great place to start because the Syntopic lists the books that are considered fundamental to particular subject.  
    What I've realized is that most of our school curriculum is really a bastardization of the syntopic.  Our curriculum have been dumb down, simplified and neatly packaged for the masses.  I feel this is the reason for the miseducation of the masses.  If you want an individual to understand a subject then it might be important to start from the beginning.  I feel that many of the introductory books imposed upon young students are so dumb down that they fail to convey the real purpose of learning the subject at hand. How can one gain an understanding if one has no knowledge of the history or authors behind a subject?  
    I won't digress much further but I must say that this book made my Elementary education appear cheapened by the mass production of the education process.  I wish that I could have had a more personalized experience-- perhaps I'll be able to offer that to my children as such an experience could make a profound difference on the views, perceptions and ultimately happiness of one's life...
    "theoretical" means visionary or even mystical; "practical" means something that works, something that has an immediate cash return.  There is an element of truth in this.  The practical has to do with what works in some way, at once or in the long run.  The theoritical concerns something to be seen or understood.  If we polish the rough truth that is here being grasped we come to the distinction between knowledge and action as the two may have in mind."
    "In this connection, one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it.  When you find an author telling you how a particular word has been used by others, and why he chooses to use it otherwise, you an be sure that word makes a great difference to him."
        "I cannot refute you, Socrates, said Agathon: Let us assume that what you say is true.
            "Say rather, Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted."
        "It would be thought to be better"
    "(1) You are uninformed; (2) You are misinformed; (3) You are illogical-- your reasoning is cogent; (4) Your analysis is incomplete.

On the third stage of analytical reading...
  1. The First Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Finding What a Book is about
    1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
    2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
    3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
    4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve
  2. The Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Interpresting a Book's Contents
    1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his words
    2. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
    3. know the author's arguments, by find them in or constructing them out of sequences of sentences
    4. Determine which of his problems the author has solves, and which he has not, and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve
  3. Third Stage of Analytical Reading Rules for Criticisizing a book as a communication of knowledge
    1. Do not begin criticism until you have complted your outline an your interpretation of the book
    2. DO not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
    3. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make
    4. Special Criteria for points of criticism
    5. Show wherein the author is uninformed
    6. show where the author is misinformed
    7. show wherein the author is illogical
    8. show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete
    "The reason commonly given for the separation of these schools from the social science divisions is that the main purpose of such schools (in the pure sciences) is to train for professional work outside of the university, while the previously mentioned departments are more exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of systematic knowledge of human society, an activity that usually goes on within the university."
    "The multifarious and interrelated answers to this primary question constitute what we decided to call the general controversy about progress.  It is general in the sense that every author we studied who has anything significant to say about the subject takes sides on the various issues that can be identified within it.  But there is a special controversy about progress, which is made up of issues that are joined only by progress authors-- authors who assert that progress occurs.  These issues have to do with the nature of properties of the progress that they all, being progress authors, assert is a fact of history.  There are only three issues here, although the discussion of each of them is complex.  They can be stated as questions: (1) Is progress necessary or is it contingent on other occurrences? (2) Will progress continue indefinitely, or will it eventually come to an end of "pleateau out"? (3) Is there progress in human nature as well as in human institutions -- in the human animal itself, or merely in the external conditions of human life?
    Finally, there is a set of subordinate issues, as we called them, again any among progress authors, about the respects in which progress occurs.  We identified six areas in which progress occurs.  We identified six areas in which progress is said by some authors to occur, although other  writers deny its occurrence in one or more of these areas-- although never in all.  The six are (1) progress in knowledge, (2) technological progress, (3) economic progress, (4) political progress, (5) moral progress and (6) progress in the fine arts."
II.  Syntopical Reading of the Biblography Amassed in Stage I
  1.     Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not (consensus map)
  3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all o most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the queations explicitly or not
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.  You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or around authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors' views on matters that may not have been their primary concern
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.  More general issues should precede less general ones and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.
"There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body.  The body is limited in ways that the mind is not.  One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace.  By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will every be in fact many persons' bodies have begin to deteriorate by that time.  But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain.  The mind noes not stop growing at any particular age; only when the brain itself loses its virgo, in senescence, does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding...
    Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise.  And this is a terrible penalty, for there is evidence that atrophy of the mind is a mortal disease.  There seems to be no other explanation for the fact that so many busy people die so soon after retirement.  They were kept alive by the demands of their work upon their minds; they were propped up artificially, as it were, by external forces.  But as soon as those demands cease, having no resources within themselves in the way of mental activity, they cease thinking altogether, and expire."

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann