On the order of “books I should have read a long time ago,” I’ve just completed the classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, published in 1940 by Simon and Schuster. (My 1967 paperback originally cost $1.75; but that’s another topic.)
In case you haven’t been introduced: this is a practical how-to guide to reading well. Its subtitle, “The art of getting a liberal education,” will give some sense of its scope. It mostly deals with reading non-fiction, “expository” books, and its focus is on “great books.”
The book is full of rules. All sorts of rules. These rules have to do with accomplishing deep reading of well-written books. And one set, in particular, has to do with how to talk back to a book. That’s where I want to focus in this post.
Adler’s first claim is that you have to really understand a book before you can critique it. (He earlier teaches you how to make sure you understand it.) He asks readers to be honest, not arguing for the sake of arguing or self-aggrandizement. For fiction, he advises that we abstain from critique until we “fully appreciate what the author has tried to make [us] experience.”
Ah, if only.
Behind this recommendation is Adler’s concept that what imaginative literature does, more than anything, is communicate an experience that is ultimately beyond words. Great works of fiction do this by drawing the reader into the imaginative world that the writer creates--or perhaps creating it within the imagination of the reader. Within this world is an “experience” that the author has had, and this is conveyed to the reader through the episodes and characters of the novel. He writes, "[The author] has used words to get into our hearts and fancies and move them to an experience that reflects his own as one dream might resemble another."
For Adler, you haven’t read a novel (or play, or poem) until you’ve made “an honest effort” to have this experience that the author tried to produce for you. And this in turn requires an “active” reading approach, not a passive one where you simply let your eye pass over the page.
Naturally, Adler doesn’t recommend that every book be given this kind of reading. Frankly, some novels don’t demand that much work—and that’s all right; they aren't meant to. But he does suggest—and with good reason—that if you’re going to critique a book, you’ve done this part: your part.
Seems only fair to me. I’ll try to hear what this book really has to say before I talk back to it.
Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.