Television, radio and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going has limits. They are like drugs. We grow used to them and we continuously need more and more of them. Eventually, they have little or no effect. Then if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And when we cease to grow, we begin to die.
Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.
From the final chapter of How to Read a Book
I recall one evening I was sitting at a table with two fellow teachers and a student who was also one of the teacher's daughter. Our topic of conversation turned to books. One of the teachers (not the student's parent) said, "Reading at least thirty books a year is like giving yourself an annual PhD. Of course the books need to be quality."
The other teacher looked at me and said guiltily, "I just read for enjoyment."
Her daughter chimed in with, "Isn't that the point of reading? To enjoy it?"
Personally knowing that this woman's taste in literature primarily consisted of Light Romance led me to think: Yes, we should read for enjoyment but we should also cultivate a taste for truly good literature. If we do that, we will no longer enjoy mediocrity.
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren proceed to explain how to go about the task of learning to enjoy quality literature.
This is one of the most valuable books I've read. It is one everyone should read if they want to learn to read with discernment. Discernment is not parroting what your English Lit professor said about Jane Eyre or Madame Bovary. It's understanding that your professor intends for you to think a certain way about the books you read and understanding whether that way is valid, faithful to the author's intent, or propagandic.
Adler and Van Doren break down into four parts how to approach a book, read it, analyze it and understand what it is you've just read.
Part One speaks of the dimensions of reading. There is the elementary level where they explain the different stages of reading and how it should lead to higher levels of reading. This includes a discussion of how ideally education should cultivate this ability.
The second level is inspectional: how to first skim through a book, read superficially, how fast should one read and the problem of comprehension. The authors encourage writing in all your books, something I am loathe to do, at least with my finer literature editions. However I am trying to write more in my non fiction books. I feel guilty, though. Writing in a book impedes others from reading the book without interference, hence I am torn about it.
Part two is analyzing a book. What are the plots and plans? What are the author's intentions? How does one determine the author's message? This section delves into how to fairly criticize a book, whether you agree or disagree with an author, how to determine the author's soundness of judgment, recognizing his or her prejudices as well as your own and also judging the author's completeness. A list of questions the reader should ask is:
How is the author informed?
How is he misinformed?
Wherein is the author illogical?
Show where the author's analysis or account is incomplete.
Part three describes the unique approaches to different types of books: How to read literature as opposed to a history book or a book on science or math.
The last section caps everything off with what should be our ultimate goals for reading. He lists the five steps in syn-topical reading which is the practice of reading several books on a single subject. Finally they discuss how reading grows the mind.
Adler and Van Doren list about a 137 books that everyone should read but also the type of book that one should continue to read. They assert that 99% of the books in existence aren't worth reading at all but that still leaves thousands of books that are worth reading and about one hundred books that one should have if he was left on a desert island.
One of their criteria for reading books is that it will improve your skill in reading. Not merely the ability to decode symbols to form meaning, but to gain greater understanding. A truly good book will pull you out of your current cognitive zone level into the next higher one. There should be about a hundred books in everyone's life that they can read over and over again and still learn something new. Those books will be different from person to person but we all should find those books and keep them on our shelves.
The book includes two appendices. A is the recommended reading list and B has exercises and tests at the four levels of reading.