A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled 48 Classic Books to Boost Your Learning Experience. It lists 48 classic books which are mentioned by both How to Read a Book (by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren) and The Well-Educated Mind (by Susan Wise Bauer). I believe the 48 books are great books which will boost our learning experience.
The next question, after knowing what to read, is how we should read them. Since I’m just a beginner in the world of classic books, that is something I would like to know myself.
One book which has very good tips on reading classic books is The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (which I mentioned above). The book is well-structured and clearly explains how to read classic books. I find the tips there very helpful, so here I’d like to share the summary with you. Since this is only a summary, it won’t be able to capture the whole ideas presented in the book; I suggest you check the book to get the complete ideas. However, I’m sure this summary can still capture the essence of the ideas well.
All right, let’s start. First of all, we should understand that there are three stages of learning:
- Grammar stage
(“Grammar” here means the building blocks, the foundational knowledge of each academic subject)
In this stage, we just absorb information without evaluating it. The goal is simply to learn and understand the information.
- Logic stage
Here we evaluate the information. We decide whether the information is correct or incorrect, and also make connections. Critical thinking comes into play here.
- Rhetoric stage
In this stage we express our own opinions about the facts we have accumulated and evaluated.
When we read classic books, we should follow these three stages. To do this, we need to have a journal in which we could write our findings and thoughts.
Here are some specific tips on how to do these three stages of reading:
1. Grammar stage
- Plan on reading each book more than once
When you first read through a book, don’t feel that you have to grasp completely every point that the writer is making. The secret to reading a difficult book is simply this: Keep reading. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, don’t stop; scribble a question mark in the margin, and keep going.
- Before you begin, read the title page, the copy on the back, and the table of contents.
This puts you “in the picture” before you begin to read.
- Underline or mark passages that you find interesting or confusing.
Turns down the corners of difficult sections; jot your questions in the margin.
- At the end of each chapter or section, write down a sentence or two that summarizes the content.
Don’t take extensive notes on a first reading. First-reading notes tend to be far too detailed. All the note taking will also slow you down. Instead, stop at the end of each chapter (or substantial section) to jot down a sentence – two at the most – in your journal. These sentences should summarize the chapter’s content, main assertion, or most important event.
- As you read, use your journal to jot down questions that come to your mind.
Record your disagreements or agreements with the writer. Scribble down any reflections or connected thoughts that the book brings to your mind. All these should be visually distinct from your summary of the book’s content.
- Assemble your summary sentences into an informal outline, and then give the book a brief title and an extensive subtitle.
When you’ve finished your first reading, go back and assemble your summary sentences into an informal outline. All you need to do is arrange the sentences in order. Then give the book a four to seven words title. The title should be a phrase that describes the book’s main subject, while the subtitle should sum up the book’s most important points.
2. Logic stage
The second stage of inquiry – logic-stage – differs enormously from genre to genre. Chapter 5 to 9 of the book give you different sets of questions to be used for different genres. However, no matter what questions you ask, you’ll always progress into the second stage by doing the following:
- Go back and reread those sections of the book that you identified as difficult. Also reread your comments and summaries.
Can you identify which chapter contains the book’s climax, the center of the writer’s argument, or the author’s own summary of his work?
- Dig deeper into the book’s structure: Answer questions about how the writer has put his words together.
Jot your answers down in your notebook.
- Ask: Why did the author write this book? What did he or she set out to do?
- Now ask: How well did the writer succeed? Did he successfully carry out his intention? If not, why?
While the goal of grammar-stage reading is to know what the author says, the goal of logic-stage inquiry is to understand why and how.
3. Rhetoric stage
After dealing with what, why, and how, the goal of the rhetoric-stage pass through is to answer so what?
Here are some questions to help you:
- What does this writer want me to do?
- What does this writer want me to believe?
- What does this writer want me to experience?
- Am I convinced?
- Have I experienced what the writer wants me to experience?
- If not, why?
You should base your answers for these questions on intelligent analysis and not mere unthinking reaction.
I hope you find these tips useful. Of course, these tips can also be applied to other kinds of books. However, since these tips require a lot of effort, they are recommended only for a few books that deserve such effort.