Mortimer Adler On The Art of Reading

Reading Shakespeare in high school was a difficult task. I read the words but did not understand them in those days. And often enough, I found myself hurrying to a website when I felt discomfort from the lack of understanding. Websites that gave a nice little synopsis on Hamlet or King Lear, talked about the symbolic nature of Macbeth’s wife constantly cleaning her hand after she conspired and killed the old king. I would jot down these facts and present them as my own understanding but that was not true. Looking back, I see that I did myself a great disservice. Once I got into the habit of relying on others to tell me what I read, I slowly began just reading other people’s interpretations instead of formulating my own. What’s the point of reading then if you are not expanding your own knowledge or thought process?

There is this need people have nowadays of wanting the bullet points, the summary, the top 3 or 5 things that matter about the book or article. Many websites have been created and books have been printed in order to satisfy this need. Mortimer Adler would look down upon such a thing. For Adler, the point of reading was to elevate one’s mind through the power of its own operations. As he stated in his famous book, How to Read a Book.

The art of reading: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.

There is also the issue of incompetence. The feeling of not being up to the task, almost a shameful feeling, where one believes he or she is simply not smart enough to understand something on their own and this leads them to either seek help or just give up on the project. From personal experience, I have felt this often but behind these feelings and emotions there is discomfort in trying to know something that you do not know, you have to put in work and effort which is the true reason for asking for help or giving up. Viewing it in that sense, if one is able to just put their head down and work on the issue instead of relying on the excuse of not being smart enough, understanding will come. And besides, as Adler points out, if you want to understand something from a book then there must be an inequality of understanding between you and the author.

A person tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader. The writer is communicating something that can increase the readers understanding. Such communication between unequals must be possible or else one person could never learn from another, either through speech or writing. Here by learning is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

What are the conditions under which this kind of reading – reading for understanding – takes place? There are two. First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer. To the extent that equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.

In short, we can learn only from out “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The person who has this sort of knowledge possesses the art of reading in the sense with which we are especially concerned in this book. Everyone who can read at all probably has some ability to read in this way. But all of us, without exception, can learn to read better and gradually gain more by our efforts through applying them to more rewarding materials.

With everything else, it is practice that one needs. Practice of reading, practice of understanding, practice of thinking. This is an active activity, not a passive one, and through this active process not only can you increase your knowledge, but a certain type of joy comes one you are able to finish a “difficult” book and come out of it with your own understanding which sticks with you and does not fade away like simple facts do.

Sit down with a pen and paper and open up Hamlet. Go through the text line by line, take your time, breaking the text down, have fun with, be entertained and learn.

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