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A Guide to Reading the Great Books

by Mortimer J. Adler


The Reading of "Reading"

 - 1 -

 One of the primary rules for reading anything is to spot the most important words the author uses. Spotting them is not enough, however. You have to know how they are being used. Finding an important word merely begins the more difficult research for the meanings, one or more, common or special, which the word is used to convey as it appears here and there in the text.

You already know "reading" is one of the most important words in this book. But, as I have already sugggested, it is a word of many meanings. If you take for granted that you know what I mean by the word, we are likely to get into difficulties before we proceed much further.

This business of using language to talk about language—specially if one is campaigning against its abuse—is risky. Recently Mr. Stuart Chase wrote a book which he should have called Words bout Words. He might then have avoided the barb of the critics who so quickly pointed out that Mr. Chase himself was subject to the tyranny of word. Mr. Chase recognized the peril when he said , "I shall frequently be caught in my own trap by using bad language in a plea for better."

Can I avoid such pitfalls? I am writing about reading and so it would appear that I do not have to obey the rules of reading but of writing. My escape may be more apparrent than real, if it turns out that a writer should keep in mind the rules which govern reading. You, however, are reading about reading. You cannot escape. If the reules of reading I am going to suggest are sound, you must follow them in reading this book.

But, you will say, how can we follow the rules until we learn and understand them?  To do that we shall have to read some part of this book without knowing what the rules are. The only way I know to help out of this dilemma is by making you reading-conscious readers as we proceed.  Let us start at once by applying  the rule about find and interpreting the important words.

 - 2 -

When you start out to investigate the various senses of a word, it is usually wise to begin with a dictionary and your own knowledge of common usage. If you looked up "read" in the large Oxford Dictionary, you would find, first, that the same four letters constituted an obsolete noun referring to the fourth stomach of a ruminant, and the commonly used verb which refers to a mental activity involving words or symbols of some sort. You would know at once that we need not bother with the obsolete noun except, perhaps, to note that reading has something to do with rumination. You would discover next that the verb has twenty-one more or less closely related meanings, more or less common.

One uncommon meaning of "to read" is to think or suppose. This meaning passes into the more usual one of conjecturing or predicting, as when we speak of reading the stars, one's prm, or one's future. That leads eventually to the meaning of the word in which it refers to perusing books or other written documents. There are many other meanings, such as verbal utterance ( when an actress reads her lines for the director); such as detecting what is not perceptible from what is (when we asy we can read a person's character in his face); such as instruction, academic or personal (when we have someone read us a lecture).

The slight variations in usage seem endless; a singer reads music; a scientist reads nature; an engineer reads his instruments; a printer reads proof; we read between the lines; we read something into situation, or someone out of the party.

We can simplify matters by noting what is common to many of these senses; namely, that mental activity is involved and that, in one way or another, symbols are being interpreted. That imposes a first limitation on our use of the word. We are not concerned with a part of the intestinal tract, nor are we concerned with enunciation, with speaking something out loud. A second limitation is need, because we shall not consider—except for  some points of comparison—the interpretation, clairvoyant or otherwise, of natural signs such as stars hands, or faces. We shall limit ourselves to one kind of readable symbol, the kind which men invent for the purposes of communication—the words of human language. This eliminates the reading of other artificial signs such as the pointers on dials of physical apparatus, thermometers, gauges, speedometers, and so forth.

Henceforth, then, you must read the word "reading," as it occurs in this text, to refer to the process of interpreting or understanding what presents itself to the senses in the form of words or other sensible marks. This is not arbitrary legislation about what the word "reading" means. It is simply a matter of defining our problem, which reading the in the sense of receiving communication.

Unfortunately, that is not simple do do, as you would realize at once if someone asked: "What about listening? Isn't that receiving  communication, too?" I shall subsquently discuss the relation of reading and listening, for the rules of good reading are for the most part the rules of good listening, though perhaps harder to apply in the latter case. Suffice it for the present to distinguish reading from listening by restricting the communication being received to what is written and printed rather than spoken.

I shall try to use the word "reading" in the limited and special sense noted. But I know that I will not succeed without exception. It will be impossible to avoid using the word in some of its other senses. Sometimes I sha;; be thoughtful enough to mention explicitly that I am shifting the meaning. Other times I may suppose that the context is sufficient warning to you. Infrequently ( I hope ) I may shift the meaning without being aware of it myself.

Be stout, gentle reader, for you are just beginning. What has gone before is just preliminary to finding out the even narrower sense in which the word "reading" will be used. We must now face the problem which the first chapter indicated. We must distinguish between the sense in which you can read this book, for instance, and are now doing so, and the sense in which you may learn from it to read better or diferently than you now can.

Notice that I said "better" or "differently." The one word points to diffrence in degrees of ability, the other to a distinction in kinds. I suppose we shall find that the better reader can also do a different kind of reading. The poorer can probably do only one kind—the simplest kind. Let us first examine the range of ability in reading to determine what we mean by "better" and "poorer."

 - 3 -

One obvious fact shows the existence of a wide range of degrees in ability to read. It is that reading begins in the primary grades and runs through every level of the educational system. Reading is the first of the three R's. It is first because we have to learn to read in order to learn by reading. Since what we have to learn, as we ascend in our education, becomes more difficult or complex, we must improve our ability to read proportionately.

Literacy is everywhere the primary mark of education, but it has many degrees, from a grammar-school diploma, or even less, up to a bachelor's degree or a Ph.D. But, in his recent commentary on American democracy, called Of Human Fredom, Jacques Barzun cautions us not to be misled by the boast that we have the most literate population in the world. "Literacy in this sense is not education; it is not even 'knowing how to read' in the sense of taking in quickly and correctly the message of the printed page, to say nothing of exercising a critical judgement upon it."

Supposedly, gradations in reading go along with graduations from one educational level to another. In the light of what we know about American education today, that supposition is not well founded. In France it is still true that the candidate for the doctor's degree must show an ability to read sufficient to admit him to that higher circle of literacy. What the French call explication de texte is an art which must be practiced at every educational level and in which improvement must be made before one moves up the scale. But in this country there is often little discenible difference between the explication which a high-school student would give and one by a college senior or even a doctoral candidate. When the task is to read a book, the high-school students and college freshmen are often better, if only because they are less thoroughly spoiled by bad habits.

The fact that there ie something wrong with American education, so far as reading is concerned, means only that the gradations have become obscure for us, not that theydo not exist. Our task is to remove that obscurity. To make the distinction in grades of reading sharper, we must define the criteria of better and worse.

What are the criteria? I think I have already suggested what they are, in the previous chapter. Thus, we say that one man is a better reader than another if he can read more difficult material. Anyone would agree, if Jones is able to read only such things as newspaper and magazines, whereas Brown can read the best current nonfiction books, such as Einstein and Infeld's Evolution of Physics or Hoben's Mathematics for the Millions, that Brown has more ability than Jones. Among readers at the Jones level, further discrimination may be made between those who cannot rise abouve the tabloids and those who can master The New York Times. Between the Jones and the Brown group, there are still others measured bythe better and worse magazines, better and worse current fiction, or by nonfiction books of a more popular nature than Einstein or Hogben, such as Gunther's Inside Europe or Heister's An American Doctor's Odyssey. And better and Brown is the man who can read Euclid and Descartes as well as Hogben, or Galileo and Newton as well as Einstein and Infeld's discussion of them.

The first criterion is an obvious one. In many fields we measure a man's skill by the difficulty of the task he can perform. The accuracy of such measurement depends, of course, on the independent precision with which we can grade the tasks in difficulty. We could be moving in circles if we said, for instance, that the more difficult book is one which only the better reader can master. That is true, but not helpful. In order to understand what makes some books more difficult to read than others, we would have to know what demands they make on the skill of the reader. If we knew that, we would know what distinguishes better and worse readers. In other words, the difficulty of the reading ability, but it does not tell us what the difference is in the reader, so far as his skill is concerned.

The first criterion has some use, nevertheless, to whatever extent it is true that the more difficult a book is the fewer readers it will have at any given time. There is some truth in this, because it generally the case that, as one mounts the scale of excellence in any skill, the number of practitioners diminishes: the higher, the fewer. Counting noses, therefore, gives us some independent indication of whether one thing is more difficult to read than another. We can construct a crude scale and measure men accordingly. In a sense, that is the way all the scales, which employ reading tests made by the educational psychologists, are constructed.

The second criterion takes us further, but is harder to state. I have already suggested the distinction between active and passive reading. Strictly, all reading is active. What we call passive is simply less active. Reading is better or worse according as it is more or less active. And one reader is better than another in proportion as he is capable of a greater range of activity in reading. In order to explain this point, I must first be sure that you understand why I say that, strictly speaking, there is no absolutely passive reading. It only seems that way in contrast to more active reading.

No one doubts that writing and speaking are active undertakings, in which the writer or speaker is clearly doing something. Many people seem to think, however, that reading and listening are entirely passive. Nowork need be done. they think of reading and listening as receiving communication from someone who is actively giving it. So far they are right, but then they make the error of supposing that receiving communication is like receiving a blow, or a legacy, or a judgement from the court.

Let me use the example of baseball. Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the giver here in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver  in the sense that  his activity terminates it. Both are equally active, though the activities are distinctly different. If anything is pasive here, it is the ball; it is pitched and caught. It is the inert thing which is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object  common to the two activities which begin and terminate the process.

We can go a step further with this analogy. A good catcher is one who stops the ball which has been hit or pitched. The art of catching is the skill of knowing how to do this as well as possible in every situation. So the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible. But the reader as "catcher" is more like the fielder than the man behind the plate. The catcher signals for a particular pitch. He knows what to expect. In a sense, the pitcher and catcher are like two men with but a single thought before the ball is thrown. Not so, however, in the case of the batter and fielder. Fielders may wish that batters would obey signals from them, but that isn't the way game is played. So readers may sometimes wish that wiriters would submit completely to their desires for reading matter, but the facts are usually otherwise. The reader has to go after what comes out into the field.

The analogy breaks down at two points, both of which are instructive. In the first place, the batter and the fielder, being on opposite sides, do not have thesame end in view. Each thinks of himself as successful only if he frustrates the other. In contrast, pitcher and catcher are successful only to the extent that they co-operate. Here the realtion of writer and reader is more like that between the men on the battery. The writer certainly isn't trying not to be caught, although the reader may often think so. Succesful communication occurs in any case where what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader's possession. The writer's and reader's skill converge upon a common end.

In the second place, the ball is a simple unit. It is either a completely caught or not. A piece of writing, however, is a complex object. It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little of what the writer intended to the whole thing. The amount  the reader gets will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he excutes the different mental acts that are involved.

Now we can define the second criterion for judging reading ability. Given the same thing to read, one man reads it better than another, first, by reading it more actively, and second, by performing each of the acts involved more successfully. These two things are related. Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. Hence, the man who can perform more of these various acts is better able to read.

 - 4 -

I have not reallytold you what good and bad reading are. I have talked about the differences only in a vague and generala way. Nothing else is possible here. Untill you know the rules which a good reader must follow, you will not be able to understand what is involved.

I know of no short cut by which you can be shown  now, clearly and in detail, what I hope you will see before you have finished. You may not see it even then. reading a book on how to play tennis may not sufficient to make you perceive from the side lines the various shades of skill in playing. If you stay on the side lines, you will never know how it feels to play better or worse. Similarly, you have to put the rules of reading into practice before you are really able to understand them and competent to judge your own accomplishment or that of others.

But I can do one thing more here which may help you get the feel of what reading is. I can distinguish different types of reading for you.

I dicovered this way of talking about reading under the dire necessity which a lecture platform sometimes imposes. I was lecturing about education to three thousand school-teachers. I had reached the point where I was bemoaning the fact that college students couldn't read and that nothing was being done about it. I cluld see from their faces that they didn't know what I was talking about. Weren't they teaching the children how to read? In fact, that was being done in the very lowest grades. Why should I be asking that four years of college be spent primarily in learning to read and in reading great books?

Under the provocation of their general incredulity, and their growing impatience with my nonsense, I went further. I said that most people could not read, that many university professors I knew could not, that probably my autidnce cound not read either. The exaggeration only made matters worse. They knew they cound read. They did it every day. What in the world was this idiot on the platform raving about? Then it was that I figured out how to explain. I doing so, I distinguished two kinds  of reading.

The explanation went something like this. Here is a book, I said, and here is your mind. The book consists of language written by someone for the sake of communicating something to you. Your success in reading is determined by the extent to which you get all that writer intended to communicate.

Now, as you go through the pages, either you understand perfectly everything the author has to say or you do not. If you do, you may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding. If, upon effortless inspection, a book is completely intelligble to you, then the author and you are as two minds in the same mold. The symbols on the page merely express the common understanding you had before you met.

Let us take the second alternative. You do not understand the book perfectly at once. Let us even assume—what unhappily is not always true—that you understand enough to know that you do not understand it all. You know there is more in the book than you understand and, hence, that the book contains something which can increase your understanding.

What do you do then? You can do a number os things. You can take the book to someone else who, you think, can read better than you, and have him to explain the parts that troubled you. Or you can get him to recommend a textbook or commentary which will make it all plain by telling you what the author meant. Or you may decide, as many students do, that what's over your head isn't worth bothering about, that you understand enough, and the rest doesn't matter. If you do any of these things, you are not doing the job of reading which the book requires.

That is done in one way only. Without external help, you take the book into your study and work on it. With nothing but the power of your mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one understanding more. Such elevation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves.

Thus I roughly defined what I meant by reading: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The operations which cause this to happen are the various acts which constitute the art of reading. "How many of these acts do you know?" I asked the three thousand teachers. "What things would you do by yourself if your life depended on understanding something readable which at first persual left you somewhat in the dark?"

Now their faces frankly told a different story. They plainly confessed that they wouldn't know what to do. They signified, moreover, that they would be willing to admit there was such an art and that some people must possess it.

Clearly not all reading  is of the sort I have just described. We do a great deal of reading by which we are in no way elevated, though we may be informed, amused, or irritated. There would appear to be several types of reding: for information, for entertainment, for understanding. This sounds at first as if it were only a difference in the purpose with which we read. That is only partly so. In part, also, it depends on a difference in the thing to be read and the way of reading. You cannot gain much information from the funny sheet or much intellectual elevation from an almanac. As the things to be read have different values, we must use tham accordingly. We must satisfy each of our different purposes by going to the sort of material for each. More than that, we must know how to satisfy our purposes by being able to read each sort of material appropriately.

Omitting, for the present,, reading for amusement, I wish to examine here the other two main types: reading for information and reading to understand more. I think you will see the relation between these two types of reading and the degrees of reading ability. The poorer reader is usually able todo only the first sort of reading: for information. The better reader can do that , of cousre, and more. He can increase his understanding as well as his store of facts.

To pass from understanding less to ounderstanding more, by your own intellectual effort in reading, is something like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I certainly feels that way. It is a major exertion. Obvilusly, it would be a more active kind of reading, entailing not only more varied activity but more skill in the performance of thevarious acts required. Obviously, too, the things which are usually regarded as more difficult to read, and hence only for the better reader, are those which are most likely to deserve and demand this type of reading.

Things you can comprehend without effort, such as magazines and newspapers, require a minimim of reading. You need very little art. You can read in a relatively passive way. For everyone who can read at all, there is some material of this sort, though it may be different for different individuals. What for one man requires no or little effort may demand genuine exertion from another. How far any man may get by expending every effort will depend on how much skill he has or is able to acquire, and that is somehow relative to his native intelligence.

The point, however, is not to distinguish good and bad readers accoring to the favors or deprivations of birth. The point is that for each individual there exists two sorts of readable matter: one the one hand, something which he can read effortlessly to be informed, because it communicates nothing which he cannot immediately comprehend; on the other, something which is above him, in the sense of challenging to to make the effort t understand. It may, of course, be too far above him, forever beyond his grasp. But this he cannot tell until he tries, and he cannot try untill he develops the art of reading—the skill to make the effort.

 - 5 -

Most of us do not know what the limits of our comprehension are. We have never tried our powers to the full. It is my honest belief that almost all of the great books in every field are within the grasp of all normally intelligent men, on the condition, of course, that they acquire the skill, necessary for reading them and make the effort. Of course, those more favored by birth will reach the goal more readily, but the race is not always to the swift.

There are severalminor points here which you must observe. It is possible to be mistaken in your jedgement of something your reading. You may thing you understand it, and be content with what you get fron an effortless reading, whereas in fact much may have escaped you. The first maxim of sound practice is an old one: the beginning of widson is a just appraisal of one's ignorance. So the beginning of reading as a conscious effort to understand is an accurate perception of the line between what is intelligible and what is not.

I have seen many students read a difficult book just as if they were reading the sports page. Sometines I would ask at the beginning of a class if they had any questions about the text, if there was anything they did not understand. Their silence answered in the negative. At the end of two hours, during which they could not answer the simplest questions leading to an interpretation of the book, they would admit their deficiency in a puzzled way. They were puzzled because they were quite honest in their belief that they had read the text. They had, indeed, but not in the right way.

If they had allowed themselves to be puzzled while reading, instead of after the class was over; if they had encouraged themselves to note the things they did not understand, instead of putting such matters immediately out of mind, they might have discovered that the book in fornt of them was different from their usual diet.

Let me summarize now the distinction between these two types of reading. We shall have to consider both because the line between what is readable in one way and what must be read in the other is often hazy. To whatever extent we can keep the two kinds of reading distinct, we can use the word "reading" in two distinct senses.

The first sense is the one in which we speak of ourselves as reading newspapers, magazines, or anything else which, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase the store of information we remember, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity which comes form getting in over our depth—that is, if we were both alert and honest.

The second sense is the one in which I would say a man has to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better than the reader. The writer is communicating something which can increase the reader's understanding. Such communication between unequals must be possible , or else one man could never learn from another, either through speech of writing. Here by "learning" I mean understanding more, not remembering more informatiion which has the same degree intelligibility as other information you already possess.

There is clearly no difficulty about getting new information in the course of reading if, as I say, the novel facts are of the same sort as those you already know, so far as their intelligibility goes. Thus, a man who knows some of the facts of American history and understands them in a certain light can readily acquire by reding , in the first sense, more such facts and understand them in the same light. But suppoes he is reading a history which seeks not merely to give some more facts but to throw a new and, perhaps, more profound light on all the facts he knows. Suppose there is greater understanding here than he possesses before he starts to read. If he can mamage to acquire that greater understanding, he is reading in the second sense. He has literally elevated himself by his own activity, though indirectly, of couurse, this was made possible by the writer who had something to teach him.

What are the conditions under which this kind of reading takes place? There are two. In the first place, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be superior to the reader, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his  potential readers lack. In the second place, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer. To the extent that equality is approached, the communication is perfectly consummated.

In short, we can learn only from our betters. We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The man who has this sort ofknowledge possesses the art of reading in the sense with which I am specially concerned. Every one probably has some ability to read in this way. But all of us gain more by our efforts through applying them to more rewarding materials.


Author's Preface ] 1. To the Average Reader ] [ 2. The Reading of "Reading" ] 3. Reading is Learning ] 4. Teachers, Dead or Alive ] 5. The Defeat of the Schools ] 6. On Selfhelp ] 7. From Many Rules to One Habit ] 8. Catching on From the Title ] 9. Seeing the Skeleton ] 10. Coming to Terms ] 11. What's the Proposition and Why ] 12. The Etiquette of Talking Back ] 13. The Things the Reader Can Say ] 14. And Still More Rules ] 15. The Other half ] 16. The Great Books ] 17. Free Minds and Free Men ] Appendix ]

 ] Table of Contents ] Author's Preface ] PART I. ] PART II. ] PART III. ] Appendix ] Index ] About the Author... ] Mindmap (How2R) ]

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