The Art of Reading: Great Books and the Liberal Ideal

Dr Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001)

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent ReadingHow to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mortimer Adler was Editor-in-Chief of the Great Books series, and a proponent of a liberal education in the Western tradition. This work is in the same vein, but it is what Adler refers to as a "practical" book. In the introduction he notes the fun that was made of his book title, with a spoof How to Read Two Books written shortly after by Erasmus G. Addlepate. As I started reading the book, I felt like I was being taught by an "old school" teacher who had to go through the basics before getting to the point some time later in life. But therein lies the charm of the work - by the end, I felt I had been reading John Stuart Mill's On Liberty - all the ideas were lining up, my liberal education had been delivered correctly, and I understood why I do what I do. What struck me most is that the four stages of reading, from elementary to syntopical, lead one to being able to organise a literature review. If ever there was a book that teaches how to systematically, and practicably, go about conducting a literature review, this is it. The process seems almost absurd when spelt out - much like Aristotle's Poetics - it reads like:
1. Select two eggs.
2. Suck.
But that would be so wrong! There is so much here, I am pleased it was my first read for the year, and I intend to add some of the techniques to my daily journalling practice (or maybe even keep a separate book journal). The two appendices are helpful. The first provides an updated list of the Great Books of the Western World (most of which are available online free these days). The second provides a series of tests on each of the levels of reading. This was designed to be "exemplary" but it was also a bit of fun, with some interesting text on Mill, Newton, Dante, et al. For anyone interested in classic works, this book is a useful guide to the art of reading, but also desktop research. One interesting change to my reading habits has resulted. Adler states that part of the fun of owning a book is that you can write in the margins. For decades I have cringed at the thought of doing this - my books are all catalogued and covered - but in Adler's book, I took out my sharpened pencil and begin to make margin notes. I suppose it is fine if I do this in pencil. And it will certainly make it easier to relocate quotes, instead of using my typically ineffective method of remembering page numbers for important quotes. I am a devotee to the Great Books cause. I was pleased to note that Adler writes that he has limited knowledge of the great books of the eastern world, and this was his main reason for not introducing "Eastern" works (a little Orientalism goes a long way), but given the work was written in 1940 and then revised in the 1970s, it was ahead of its time. There is something about the liberal democratic ideal and reading that Adler points to time and again, and while my own ideals have been systematically destroyed through practice, Adler paints an honourable picture of liberalism as it is rarely practised these days. This is not an easy book, and for some it might be off-putting, but for me, I learnt more in this volume than I have in the last five years.

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