Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wednesday Commonplace: On How to Read a Book

So, over on the Forum, there is a group of us slowly working our way through Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book.
Yes.  There is a book about how to read books.    
Why?  That's what my husband wanted to know.   Most of us learn the mechanics of reading by the time we are 7 or 8 years old, right?  Why on earth do teenagers and adults need a book about how to read?  In the first chapter, Adler offers this:
"But it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.  Perhaps we know more about the world that we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good.  But knowledge  is not as much a prerequisite  to understanding as is commonly supposed.  We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few.  There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding."
"Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it.  The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgment from the court.  On the contrary the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball."
"Getting more information is learning and so is coming to understand what you did not understand before.  But there is an important difference between these two kinds of learning.  To be informed is to know simply that something is the case.  To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different and so forth."
"Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning.  One must also use one's senses and imagination.  One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed."
~Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (Revised and Updated Edition)
So it turns out that 'reading' is more than decoding the letters you see on the page.   It goes beyond a form of entertainment or a means of gathering information (although those are legitimate uses of the skill of reading in their own way.)  What is particularly in view here is the idea of reading for UNDERSTANDING -- reading in order to really know things beyond what we see on the surface.  As he points out in my first quote above, in our modern era we are often bombarded with facts and information through television and the internet.  Our modern standardized-test driven education system also emphasizes gaining facts and information at the expense of true understanding.  We live our lives at a harried, frenetic pace, jumping from one activity to another.  With all of this, we are losing our ability to think and imagine and understand.  To Know.  This is why so many of us literate adults are in need of learning "how to read a book."
I've still only read the first chapter (we're taking it slow and easy in our Forum book discussion group), so I have yet to see how Adler fleshes out these ideas.  As I read this introductory chapter, however, I couldn't help but think that this is exactly what Charlotte Mason was after as well.  So many of her pedagogical ideas point to this end of reading in order to understand.   She encouraged the use of living books which give us material to put our minds to work on – books that are not mindless entertainment or lists of facts.   Narration is a tool that facilitates 'active reading' (as Adler puts it).   For Charlotte Mason the onus to learn fell squarely on the student to wrestle with the text for himself, not on the teacher to predigest and spoon-feed it to him.   She encourages developing the habits of thinking and imagining and picturing what one is reading about in "the mind's eye".   And the end of all this active reading?  To develop the whole person – body, mind, and spirit – and produce a student who not only knows all those things necessary to life but who CARES.
From the beginning of our homeschooling journey, I was drawn to a literature based model of some sort.  At the time, that was because I thought that reading 'real books' was certainly more interesting (read: more entertaining) than textbooks and worksheets.  The further we travel on this journey, however, the more I see just how much benefit there is in basing our education upon the best books. 


  1. As I was reading through the quotes you posted, I thought...narration! I think if our children learn narration, they may not need this book later on. I'd be interested in what methods the authors recommend to achieve these goals.

  2. Yes, I'm curious too. I saw CM all over the first chapter, though! Interestingly enough, this book is scheduled to be read slowly across AO Years 7-10, which was the impetus to discuss it over there.