The books we will read are mostly in the social sciences: economics, politics, technology, psychology. While they will all be accessible for the non-specialist, they nevertheless call on the thoughtful efforts of the reader.
With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting a few ideas set out by Mortimer J. Adler in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
The first edition was published in 1940, when radio was a mass medium. Adler asked: What is the value of reading in the age of radio? A second edition appeared in 1972, by Adler and Charles Van Doren, and asked: How should people read books, when so much information is received from television? Today, in the age of the Internet and smartphones, Google and Twitter, with information rarely more than a click away, the questions of how, why and what we read are more pertinent than ever.
How to read
- Adler and Van Doren set out four questions for the reader to keep in mind. I paraphrase them here:
- What is this book about? What is the leading theme of the book, and how does the author develop the theme in an orderly way with subthemes or topics?
- What is being said, in detail, and how? What are the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message?
- Is this book true, in whole or in part? Do you accept the assertions and arguments of the author? Why or why not? Knowing what the author is saying is not enough – you must make up your own mind.
- What of it? If the book has informed you and enlightened you, what follows, either in terms of actions or behaviors?
The first two questions are important for all readers to keep in mind, but our discussions will focus mostly on the third and fourth.
The third question, on truth, touches on the most important elements of critical thinking. It asks the reader to actively engage the material and to bring his or her independent thinking to bear. Some further questions include these:
- Do you accept the assertions and arguments of the author? Why or why not?
- If the assertions are based on examples, are the examples fair? If they are based on evidence, is the evidence valid?
- What has the author not said? Are there counter examples? Can the same evidence be used to reach different conclusions?
- If the claims are valid in this setting (for this company, this industry, this country, this situation) do they also hold in other settings?
The fourth question – so what? – also leads to useful questions, and speaks to the eventual practical nature of the book:
- What are the practical implications of the author’s points?
- How can we put into effect what we have learned?
- How can we translate greater knowledge and understanding into results?
Asking whether we accept what is presented as true, and what we might do about it, are the questions we will come back to again and again.
As we do so, Adler and Van Doren stress the importance of “suspending judgment.” Before discerning whether you agree with the author, it’s vital to understand fully what is being said – and that calls for having an open mind. Suspending judgment is especially important for the books we will read, which fall under the broad category of social science. While most books we will read are quite accessible, and not esoteric or specialized, they also run a risk, since “you as the reader are likely to have some view of the matter your author is considering.” If we are not careful, opinions can become prejudices, which prevent us from absorbing fully what is said.
Hence the need to “check your opinions at the door,” to open our minds and suspend judgment. Adler and Van Doren say: “Though it may not be obvious at first, suspending judgment is also an act of criticism. It is taking the position that something has not been shown. You are saying that you are not convinced or persuaded one way or the other.”
I urge you to take a thoughtful and discerning approach while reading these books. Open your mind and suspend judgment while trying to understand what the author is saying, and then to apply your faculties of judgment to think for yourself, accepting what you find valid and calling into question what you do not.