How to Read a Book – Part 1

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

By Alison Solove

There is a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon riddle about a moth that ate words. Like a thief, he stole a man’s words and swallowed them. He wasn’t any wiser because of what he had taken.

The answer to the riddle is pretty obvious. A moth that ate words is a bookworm.

But that riddle also has something to teach all of us about the way we read. No one wants to be a mindless insect. There is no sense in merely “consuming” the words on the page. We have to read intelligently, really engaging with a book’s content and ideas. Medieval monks were even encouraged to ruminate when they read—digesting the material over and over again like a cow chewing its cud.

That’s all well and good. But intelligent reading can be a tall order. For many of us, it’s hard enough to sit down and read a book, let alone ruminate on one. We might be discouraged by how difficult it is just to understand one of the great books. We might be startled by how easily distracted we are. Or we might have bad memories of an English teacher that tried to get us to see things in books that we really aren’t sure were there.

No matter how uncertain you feel about your ability to read intelligently, take heart. As a member of Well-Read Mom, you have already taken the first step to becoming an intelligent reader. You have committed to reading great books that help us grow as women, Christians, and human beings. You’re reading books that really do have a depth of meaning that is well worth the effort of intelligent reading.

To learn to ruminate, we’re going to take advice from the twentieth century’s greatest guide to intelligent reading: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.

Adler divides all reading into four types: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. According to Adler, elementary reading answers the question, “What does the sentence say?” If you are a member of Well-Read Mom, you have probably mastered this first level of reading.

The second level of reading, inspectional reading, is really more of an approach to a book than a level of reading. You might call it “pre-reading” or “systematic skimming.” Inspectional reading is a tool that can empower you to approach the material you’re reading with more thoughtfulness and foresight, ultimately helping you better comprehend and analyze. An inspectional reading of a book shouldn’t take more than five or ten minutes.

Adler’s book focuses more on inspectional reading for non-fiction, but it can be a valuable tool for novels, too:

  • Read the title (including the subtitle, if there is one) and the preface. Read the blurb on the back of the book or inside cover of the dust jacket. What is the book about? Why is it important?
  • Take a look at the copyright page. When was the book published? Where? What do you know about the historical context of the book?
  • Note how the book is organized. If there is a table of contents, read through the chapter titles. If not, flip through the novel and take note of divisions into volumes, parts, or chapters. Notice how many pages the novel has. As you read, use this information to track your way through the book.

When you start with an inspectional reading, you aid comprehension with a strong impression what a book is about. An understanding of what other people have gotten out of reading a great work is a wonderful way to learn from and participate in our own, rich cultural tradition.

Analytical reading is act of ruminating on a book. It requires concentration and focus, so don’t be surprised if you can only do it for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time to start. Set aside a time and place to read where you will not be disturbed. Remember that making time to read is not self-indulgent—it develops your intellectual, mental, and spiritual health.

Check back next week to learn about the last two types of reading!