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T-110.5290 Seminar on Network Security and T-110.5190 Internetworking Seminar

How to read a book


This instruction is for readers who read for information and understanding, not just for entertainment, and it is based on book of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren: How to Read a Book. Revised and Updated Edition. Simon & Schuster 1972. All text marked with quotation marks is from that book.

Introduction to active reading

The reading should be active since information does not just move from the teacher to the student but the student must think and find connection to his own knowledge in order to understand. Books can be considered teachers that are absent since the student cannot ask anything from the teacher if he does not understand. Goal of reading can be increasing information (remembering), increasing understanding (enlightment), and entertainment.

There are four kinds of reading: Elementary reading is what the schools teach for pupils. Inspectional reading is the next level of reading and has two parts: systematic skimming of the text and superficial reading. Inspectional reading tells if you should choose this book or maybe some other book is more suitable for you. In the skimming phase, the title page of a book is examined (what is the scope or goal of the book), and table of content (what it contains) and index (how wide is it) is checked. Scan through a chapter that seems to be essential for the topic. The superficial reading phase suites well for difficult books: the book is read through without stopping to the difficult parts that are not understood. This helps understanding in the second reading because something is already familiar and the human brains can connect new things to the familiar things more easily - seeing the forest from the threes. Third kind of reading is analytical reading and it is the topic of this instruction. Fourth kind of reading is syntopical reading where the reader construct an analysis beyond the book(s).

How to prevent falling asleep while reading? Active reading helps: "ask questions while you read - questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading". Adler and Van Doren give four main questions: "What is the book about as a whole?, What is being said in detail, and how?, Is the book true, in whole or part?, What of it?" (more about these later). Another mean for active reading is drawing markings. Of course, you cannot do that with library books. Good ways to mark (own) books are underlinging, vertical lines at the margin, stars, asterisks or others in margin, numbers in the margin, circling of key words or sentences, and writing in the margins of the page. Do not mark the library books or other loaned books! Third way for active reading is writing notes while reading. Notes can be structural, conceptual, and dialectical.

Reading should be a habit, and for making it to be a habit, Adler and Van Doren have given set of rules for analytical reading. When you have developed a habit of reading, you can forget these separated rules. The rules are not given in cronological order, and several of them can be fulfilled with one single reading.

I The first stage of analytical reading: Rules for finding what the book is about

Following the rules of the first stage of analytical reading provides knowledge of a book's structure. This stage provides answer to the first question: "What is the book about as a whole?"

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter

"You should know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you began to read." Title of the book usually give the first answer to this question. Books can be theorethical answering to question 'what?' and practical answering to question 'how?'. Theorethical books can be about history, science, or philosophy.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity

What the book is about? What is its main point and theme? "State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph)".

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole

"Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole." Simple things do not have parts but larger things are constructed from these simple unities. Usually things are not simple, at least if a whole book is written about a thing. Write your own outline for the book even when the book has an outline (be active). "A piece of writing should have unity, clarity, and coherence."

4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve

The author may not give the problems directly. Questions can be theorethical, for example "Does something exist? What kind of thing is it? What caused it to exist? Why? What purpose it serve? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its characteristic properties? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort? How does it behave?". The questions can also be practical, for example "What means should be chosen to a given end? What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order? Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse?".

"The last step of structural outlining is to know the problems the author is trying to solve."

II The second stage of analytical reading: Rules for interpreting a book's content

5. Come in terms with the author by interpreting his key words

First, you need to find the important words and their definitions. Term means here a basic element of communicable knowledge, it is not just a word. Often, authors use words ambiguously, e.g. different words to mean the same thing. Moreover, one word may mean many terms, many words may be needed to define one term. Of course, all fields of science have their own jargon.

Note that the important terms of the author may be different than those that are important for the reader. The term should be important for the reader if he does not understand it (e.g. it is new for him). Author may emphasize those terms that are important from his point of view. Earlier knowledge helps finding important terms. Previous rules also give the important terms e.g. title and structure usually mentions many of them.

When the important terms are found, the reader should find meanings for them (note: word's meaning can change). The reader should try to define the terms that he does not understand using other terms he already understand. This does not mean that all unknown words are checked from a dictionary while reading.

6. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences

"Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain." The author has to justify the proposition, otherwise they are only personal opinions. The author should give reasons why the readers should believe him: "if this is so, then that; since this, therefore that; it follows from this, that that is the case" etc. The propositions are the answers to the questions that the book is trying to solve.

Here, relation between sentences and propositions is the same as above between words and terms. The reader has to interpret what the author means with the important sentences in a book. Essential is that the reader has understood. One way to test that is to try explaining the thing with own words. If this does not succeed, "only words have passed, not thought or knowledge". Another way is to figure out an example where the thing is valid.

7. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences

"Find if you can the paragraphs in a book that state its important arguments; but if the arguments are not thus expressed, your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the proposition that compose the argument."

All arguments must have justifications. Generalizations must be based of facts (reasoning or testing). In addition, argumentation is based on presumptions that are not always explicitly stated. Some of them are self-evident (tautologies) and some must be attested (somewhere).

8. Determine wich of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

The last step is to find out the author's solutions to problems (defined in Rule 4). After this, the thing presented in the reader shoud understand the message of the book.

"The last step of interpretation is to know which of the problems the author solved and which he did not."

III The third stage of analytical reading: Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge

Active reading does not stop to understanding of the book. After understanding, thinking continues with criticism. Now it is time to "talk back to the author".

A. General maxims of intellectual etiquette

9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book. Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgement, until you can say "I understand".

"You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, 'I understand,' before you can say any one of the following things: 'I agree', or 'I disagree', or 'I suspend judgment'."

Usually, criticism is perceived to be negative, disagreeing with the author. On the contrary, criticism can be also positive, even when it is not called 'constructive' criticism. 'I do not understand' is also criticism, but it is more against the book, its language, not about the topic.

'I suspend judgment' means that something is not shown, and the reader cannot decide whether to agree or disagree. If the justifications are solid, the reader cannot disagree, but he can dislike the conclusion.

10. Do not disagree disputiously or contentiously

The point is not to win an argument but find the truth. It is not essential to show that the author is wrong but explain to oneself the reasons (justifications) why to agree or disagree. "Disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolution."

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any judgement you make.

"Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinnion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make." Self-evident propositions are considered indemonstrable and undeniable truths, but most knowledge is not absolute. However, there are opinions that can be defended, concidered be true because of objective evidence or other.

B. Special criteria for points in criticism.

When the reader has end up to disagreeing with the author, three conditions must be re-examined: emotions, assumptions, and viewpoint. Reasons for disagreeing should not be feelings but objective reasons. Assumptions of the author and the reader can differ and lead to disagreeing if they are not stated clearly. The reader should at least try to see the author's point of view. If these are in order, there are four ways to criticize a book.

12. Show wherein the author is uninformed

If the author is uninformed, he has missed some relevant piece of knowlegde. This missed knowledge maybe something new that has been published after the book, for example. In order to show that the author is uninformed, the reader should be able to state the missing knowledge and show its relevance.

13. Show wherein the author is misinformed

The author is misinformed if he has done an error that leads to an assertion that in not supported by facts. The error can be due a lack of knowledge, wrong assuption, etc.

14. Show wherein the author is illogical

The author is illogical if his reasoning has flaws. This is related to above, being uninformed or/and misinformed that occur much more than just being illogical.

"If you cannot show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. ... All you can say is that you do not like the conclusions."

15. Show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete

If author's analysis is incomplete, he has not answered all the questions or the ramifications of the solutions. All books are somewhat incomplete, so ending up to this "flaw" means that reader should explicitly point out what is the precise inadequacy in the book.

"The final step of criticism is to point out completeness. It touches structural outlining insofar as considers how adequately the author has stated his problems, and interpretation insofar as it measures how satisfactorily he has solved them."

Aids to reading

Relevant experience

Common experience is available to all "just because they are alive". Common here means universal, not that every one really has experienced the same. It is something that large part of human beings have experienced. Common experience is relevant for reading fiction, pholosophy etc.

Special experience requires effort to be attained. It may be attained, for example, due a laboratory experiment. Special experience is relevant for reading scientific works.

When a reader can give a concrete example of a thing presented in a book, he has used his relevant experience and understood the thing.

Other books

Reading other books means here for example the earlier books of the same author. This gives larger context to a topic. Of course, the author of the books should probably be a great writer and at least one of the books should be a so called great book.

Reading other books helps more in reading of history and philosophy than in science and fiction. When instead of "a book" reading material is "a scientific article", the reading of other articles (books) become essential, even when their authors are not the best ones, since articles are not so extensive than books can be.

Commentaries and abstracts

Commentaries can be used to help reading. However, commentators can be wrong in their interpretations and conclusions, and the commentary may be incomplete. The commentaries should be read only after reading the book.

Abstracts have a similar role in reading. They help remembering the content of the book. They also help to finding out if the work is something that should be read for readers own work (writing) or if it is about a different topic.

Reference books: dictionaries and encyclopedias

Using of reference books require knowing of what the reader want to know (what to ask), where to find it out (what reference to use), how to use the refencence book, and what the authors of the reference book considere knowable ("only those things about which men generally and conventionally agree are to be found in reference books").

Dictionaries are useful when reading text on foreign language. However, the reader should not check every unknown word from a dictionary because this will easily cause loosing track of the reading. Only those words that are completely new and seem to be important for the author should be checked.

Words can be looked from a dictionary in a four ways: how to spell or pronounce a word ("Words are physical things"), how to use a word in a sentence ("words are parts of speech"), what a word means 'here' ("words are signs"), and how a word has been used through time ("words are conventional").

Above mentioned applies also to encyclopedias. Note that two kinds of encyclopedias today exists: such that are edited (i.e. traditional encylopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica) and such that can be written by anybody (e.g. Wikipedia). Finally, encyclopedias are not the best sources for understanding since they are limited.

Same as in case of dictionaries, facts can be looked from a encyclopedia in four ways: Facts that does not require explanations ("facts are propositions"). An encyclopedia can report opinions but they should be clearly stated ("facts are 'true' propositions") and thus things that does not have clear consensus cannot be found from (traditional) encyclepedias and can be vague in a 'new' encyclopedia. Facts can be informational singulars or relatively unquestioned generalizations. ("facts are reflections of reality") i.e. "facts are not ideas or concepts, nor are they theories in the sense of being mere speculations about reality". Facts can change and they are culturally determined ("facts are to some extent conventional").


Sources and Acknowledgements

This page is based on a book titled "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

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