How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler

It’s a shame I only got to read this book late in life. It is very well written, and tremendously helpful and informative.

I’ve always found it hard to find a good book to read. To put it in a better way, the most depressing time comes when I’m about to finish a book I really like, and start thinking of how am I going to find something as good or better, or another book which I can go through without getting bored. Nothing worse than forcing myself to read a dull book.

Alder actually first wrote this book in 1940, but I read the substantially revised version published in 1972. I am convinced, in fact I have since revised his concepts to adapt to the Internet age, which I’m sure is has a tremendously positive affect on some of the ideas Alder raises in his book. Apart from being engaging (not a boring read) it does provide a good foundation for which one can improve on.

Not all books are the same is the mantra. Well I could have guessed that, but what the book guides you through, are the types of books, genres, styles, disciplines, and how one would categorise and begin reading particular books in certain ways to avoid disappointment, to gain the most out of them, to entertain yourself, and manage to go through even the most complex books around.

There are books of fiction that are like watching a good movie, quite addictive and very hard to put down once you start, but usually not much is gained other than a good story and entertainment, there are others that are tedious, hard to understand, very specialised, requiring a dictionary and decipher, and are hardly ever finished only to be found in my bookshelf, left for another time or another life, May be in solitary confinement, if I ever go to prison. And all those that lay in between, which are the majority.

Disregarding the unimaginative title “How to Read a Book” describes many of the types of reading in an appealing way, which made me feel the author truly understands the distress I go through starting a book. It also made me feel better not finishing books, throwing books away, or better giving them to someone I don’t like, and techniques in sifting through quickly, to find out early rather than half way through a 400 page book, that the book is not worth it.

Alder also explains the value of challenging books. Those that are a difficult read but once understood and mastered, are treasured, and can be considered a key for other books of the same subject. Accepting the fact you will need to read them at least twice to uncover the secret of the author is a given, specially in lieu of the enormous resources which might be missed or not understood the first time round. His philosophy is don’t stop to check anything the first time, just continue reading. May be with the Internet age we can tweak this one a little.

Also there are those books you always go back to for reference, and don’t require you reading cover to cover, but only glance through the chapters which are relevant. Alder also explains how one might appreciate literature and poetry, if you are science minded and the other way round.

The one good lesson I learnt from Alders analysis is there are no short cuts to complex subjects. If you want to know about something complicated, reading someone’s short interpretation in a nutshell, which sometimes I still do, is probably not a good idea. Better to read an original complicated book three or four times, than take someone’s interpretation.

Having become a Foucauldian in a sense has confirmed to me the uselessness of self-help books, and made me try to go through the original sources, and create my own self help applications. Ironically!! and probably unjustly, after reading this book, I started shunning away any book that starts with the title of “How to”.

I always wondered what book I would recommend as a first read for anyone, and as cliche as it may seem from the title, I would recommend this one for its excellent conceptual content.

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