Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren

I have always been a reader. I began reading early; before I went to school. My mother had been a kindergarten teacher so she experimented on me, to see just how early a child could begin to read. I was writing my name by the time I was three-years-old and then reading fairly well before kindergarten. By the time I reached first grade, when all the other children were learning to read, I was way ahead of them, reading third and fourth grade books. At one point, my teacher wanted to move me into second grade, but I visited the class for a couple of weeks and everyone determined that while I was even ahead of them academically, I was not socially ready to be anywhere above the first grade. Sadly, this began a trend of my boredom with school. Since I finished all my class work early, I was permitted to bring a book from home and read quietly in class after I finished my work. By the time I was in about the fourth grade, I was reading fluff books that gave me no literary challenge. In middle school and high school, the trend was for everyone to read modern novels and I was never introduced to the classics. Soon, I was reading dime novels by the dozens. By the time I went to college and majored in English literature, I was happily average and was no longer ahead of the class. In fact, I was behind most of my peers.

Fast forward twenty years to homeschooling my own children. Unlike my own education, I am giving my children an education in the classics first, and everything else is secondary. Our curriculum dictates that when a student reaches the ninth grade, he or she will begin reading the classics of ancient times; but before beginning the list of books, the student is assigned to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book is a book that was first published in 1940, but was revamped and modernized by the authors in the 1970s. Today it is a timeless tool for helping students to understand the process of reading intelligently, taking notes, analyzing, and understanding all that they read. I gave the book to my ninth grade son and we read it together. It was revolutionary. It was everything I needed to know when I was in college, and here was my ninth grader reading it. I was pleased that he would already be ahead of where I was when I was in college.

How to Read a Book discusses active reading, the goals of reading, and it explains the difference between reading for information and reading for understanding. It then goes on to explain the various levels of reading. The elementary level is simply understanding what one has read; or a fancy way of saying "reading comprehension." The second level of reading is when the student learns how to skim through the page, picking out what is important, and what can be left. The third level of reading is analytical reading, where the students learns how to classify books, how to outline a book, how to understand what the author is trying to convey, how to critique a book, and how to make sound judgments about the author.

Students are then led through the different processes of reading. There are many types of books to be read, and all are discussed here. We are taught how to read practical books; imaginative literature; plays, poems, and short stories; histories; academic books such as science and math books; philosophy; and the social sciences. Basically, How to Read a Book teaches students just that: how to read any book.

Lastly, the book delves into the fourth level of reading which is syntopical reading, which can be reading more than one book on the same subject, and deciding which is more relevant and more accurate. This requires a level of skill and wisdom that can only come with time, but this book tells what to do when you get there. How to Read a Book comes highly recommended for the high school student or anyone wanting to sharpen his reading skills.

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