Do you understand what you are reading?

In the following, Mortimer Adler outlines three stages of analytical reading to help us read with understanding. I often return to this helpful guide when I sense myself getting into a lazy reading habit.

The First Stage of Analytical Reading, Or Rules for Finding What a Book is About

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading, Or Rules for Finding What a Book Says (Interpreting Its Contents)

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

The Third Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge

A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

  1. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand.”)
  2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  3. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

  1. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
  2. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  3. Show wherein the author is illogical.
  4. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

Note: Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Failing in all of these, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of the last point.

Daniel Fuller says regarding this text: The problem is, I think, that we were never taught to ‘read’ in Adler’s sense in school, college and even seminaries. You will have to really ‘read’ Adler to understand what ‘reading’ is. It sure is what exegetes of God’s inerrant word should want to do.

Fuller continues: “E.D. Hirsch then takes one into a profound metaphysics of the philosophy of how verbal symbols can transmit meanings between minds with our varying historicities.”


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