How to Read Classic Books Effectively

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

14 Comments

  1. […] am a believer in the joy and benefits of reading classic (”great”) books. Here’s an interesting post on how to read them (given that you already accept the […]

  2. thanks for the very informative post! always great insight here….

  3. This is terrible advice! Read books for yourselves, make your own connections, don’t rely on a rubric!

  4. Etavitom,
    Welcome! Glad you like it.

    Stephen,
    I personally see these steps as a ‘best practice’ which have been refined by many people over the years. I think it’s good to learn such ‘best practice’ because finding it ourselves will take too much time. But of course, this is just a suggested way to read a book. We can always read a book in whatever way we see fit.

  5. I got The Well Educated Mind from the library, opened it, and was stunned to see that it was filled with one-page synopses of books—sort of a Cliff Notes of Cliff Notes. The synopses missed quite a bit, but never missed a spoiler. The total effect of anyone unfortunate enough to read them would be to destroy much of the pleasure of reading the works for the first time. I would say that it’s an evil book.

  6. I love classics, but the style is very different from today’s literature. But after a few books, you’ll get used to it.

  7. Leisureguy,
    Yes, there are one-page synopses of the books. I personally find them helpful because they give me the big-picture of the books. But it’s true that for some others, it may destroy the pleasure of reading.

    So I think we can see them as optional. If we find them helpful, we can read them. Otherwise, we can just skip them. And prior to the synopses there are guidelines on how to read each kind of books which I think will be helpful for everyone. Overall, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s an evil book just because of the synopses.

    Mina,
    I agree with you. I’m a beginner myself, so it takes some time to get used to the style. But I believe it’s really well-worth the time.

  8. Regarding the one-page synopsis, take the example of Madame Bovary. This is a novel, and presumably Flaubert intended the reader of the novel to some extent be motivated by wanting to find out what happens. The one-page synopsis details what happens, in that sense: it describes the plot twists and the ending. No real surprises left in that department. But it does provide the big-picture view of the novel, while leaving it lifeless. Why, then, did Flaubert himself not include a one-page synopsis at the beginning? Perhaps because he felt the book would work better without the big-picture view? In fact, none of these writers, good as they are, include one-page synopses at the beginning of their books. It’s good to think about that.

    So far as the synopses being optional—my eye reads where it looks, faster than I can control. Safest for me to avoid Bauer’s book altogether. YMMV.

  9. Leisureguy,
    I understand your point of view, and I agree that in such case the synopses could reduce the pleasure of reading.

    Fortunately, I can still control my eyes 🙂 I think getting familiar with the structure of the book before further reading could help us determine what to read and what to skip. There’s no reason for me not to learn as much as possible from a book just because some parts of it should be skipped.

  10. […] Books – remember them? The ones with paper pages, dog ears and actual cardboard bookmarks with tassels on them. You don’t always have to go for the latest releases either. Plenty of lessons, information and ideas can be gleaned from older books, which can give you ideas to write about from a slightly different viewpoint. Have a look at Life Optimiser for some great tips on reading older books effectively. […]

  11. […] list, but I know I have always had problems reading some of the must-reads out there.  Check out How To Read Classic Books Effectively and become a […]

  12. […] Books – remember them? The ones with paper pages, dog ears and actual cardboard bookmarks with tassels on them. You don’t always have to go for the latest releases either. Plenty of lessons, information and ideas can be gleaned from older books, which can give you ideas to write about from a slightly different viewpoint. Have a look at Life Optimiser for some great tips on reading older books effectively. […]

  13. What is considered a “great” classic? Who determines and guards the Western canon? I personally enjoy reading classics, but at times I do wonder why this set of texts is considered more “great” than perhaps texts from other parts of the world. Great classics, as the label goes, are unquestioningly defined as literature from Western (and Eastern, counting Russia, of course) Europe. If we’re honest with ourselves, then we have to admit that the label is elitist. Perhaps the question is not how to read a classic, but how to read any book. I have not looked at The Well Educated Mind, so it might be presumptuous of me to say this, but the title itself assumes that one must read that privileged set of books labeled “great classics” in order to be “well educated,” and if we are not well versed in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Austen, Dickens, Melville, etc., etc., etc., we must not be “well educated.” How about Mario Vargas Llosa, Knut Hamsun, Jorge Borges, Jorge Amado, Salman Rushdie, Wendy Law-Yone, Naguib Mahfouz, Jose Rizal, Y.B. Mangunwijaya, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Putu Wijaya, Isabel Allende, Bao Ninh, Surangkhanang, Ahmad Tohari, etc.,etc? Are the works of these authors to be relegated to the “not-so-great” literature because the gatekeepers of the great canon cannot read or understand them? Of course, the lack of translations is a problem in this world. My point is, the question of “how to read a great classic” is a fatuous one. Perhaps we need to question what constitutes a “great classic” and if the privilege imbued in such works should pass without challenge.

  14. thanks for the tips! these would be great help for our home reading report

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