In fewer than 350 pages, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren will more than likely transform the way you read and argue—for the better.
The most useful book you could read in 2018 isn’t about contemporary politics, or socio-cultural trends, or even about God. It’s not on the best-seller list — as far as I can tell, it has been on the best-seller list. It wasn’t written by one of those famous names of Western civilization, someone you might recognize from some high-school or college English class.
For anyone interested in improving his ability to read and debate, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s “How to Read a Book,” originally published in 1940 solely under Adler’s name, is the surest, most faithful guide. You can get it on for less than $10, making it one of the most affordable long-term investments on the market. Here’s why: in less than 350 pages, Adler and Van Doren (hereafter just Adler, since he was the original author) will more than likely transform the way you read and argue.
Adler played a significant role in influencing American education in the twentieth century. A Jewish convert to Episcopalianism, Adler was a prominent philosopher and educational theorist who sought to preserve and promote classical Western knowledge, to include an identifiable Western canon of literature, for future generations. His “How to Read a Book,” one of many texts he authored, is a “guide to intelligent reading” that has much to teach us in these contentious times.
For this last article January , I’ll highlight a few dominant lessons in Adler’s book, ones applicable not only for reading books, but any publication, to include any article on The Federalist! Incorporating Adler’s suggestions will make you only a better reader, but a better debater, too.
The progression of online communication to the fore of human interaction, particularly via social media, has significantly altered the way we engage with other humans. It has in many respects reinforced our desire to “shoot from the hip” when debating. Frequently, we read a headline, a topic sentence, or a paragraph, and make up our minds about an article’s argument. Have we actually taken the necessary time and energy to comprehend what we are reading?
This is why one of Adler’s rules of reading is: “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you an say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment.’”
As readers (or listeners), we must be able to accurately state the position of those we are reading or listening, before we challenge them. If we encounter difficulty repeating our interlocutor’s arguments (i.e. theirs), then it’s likely we don’t understand them. If we don’t understand those we are debating, how can we possibly have a useful conversation with them?
Yet, Adler observes, based on his own experiences in the classroom: “Students who plainly do not know what the author is saying seem to have no hesitation in setting themselves up as his judges. They not only disagree with something they do not understand but, what is equally bad, they also often agree to a position they cannot express intelligibly in their own words.”
Adler adds that “failure to understand is usually the reader’s fault.” When we do express our misunderstanding, we should be careful with our tone. Rather than implying the author or speaker failed to communicate effectively, one should concede the possibility that we simply haven’t comprehended. Tone, whether in spoken or written word, often gives away another frequent fault when we read or debate: contentiousness.
The more I read the comments in online articles (or watch talking heads on evening debate programs), the more I’m convinced many Americans have a growing addiction to being contentious. This habit is dangerous not only for own intellectual health, but the health of civic society. The most important reason why is because it suggests we are more concerned with victory than truth.
Adler writes, “When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously. There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong. Practically, of course, it may get you ahead in the world for a short time. But honesty is the better policy in the slightly longer run.”
I would add that circumstances are probably rare when we are absolutely certain we are right. As finite human beings, we are very likely to make mistakes, poor judgments, or bad arguments. Cultivating the humility to consider our own failings is usually the first step in growing as persons and citizens.
Adler continues: “Most people think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth. He who regards conversation as a battle can win only by being an antagonist, only by disagreeing successfully, whether he is right or wrong.”
Yet consider so many of the evening news programs, whether on the Right or the Left. How often do the hosts acknowledge they were wrong on some topic? How much more often do they gleefully advertise their own rhetorical skills and sagacity, while depicting their opponents, by default, as stupid, if not intentionally immoral? The war of words in our civic discourse seems to imply a far deeper cultural malady: a nihilistic doubt about the potential to resolve disagreements.
Adler was indeed frustrated by the substance and tenor of public discourse — in the 1950s! Yet despite this cynicism, he believed we could indeed improve ourselves, and even resolve the most contentious of disputes.
He writes, “another condition prior to the undertaking of criticism… recommends that you regard disagreements as capable of being resolved…. One is hopeless about the fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can agree. Note that we said ‘can agree.’ We did not say all rational men agree.”
Sometimes we disagree because of what Adler terms “passion and prejudice.” The cure there is simply to diminish the role of those influences in reading or debating. Other times we disagree because one party is ignorant of the truth. Of course, telling one’s interlocutor he or she is stupid is unlikely to achieve the desired effect. As the popular cartoon caption from a few years back reads: “I can’t come to bed, honey. Someone on the Internet is wrong!”
Charity and long-suffering are the virtues required in such scenarios. Name-calling and personal attacks demonstrate we aren’t really interested in authentic debate, and are wasting our time, as well as that of everyone else. If you really think your intellectual sparring partner is that dumb, why argue with him? Would you discourse on the existence of God with your dog? Would you debate tax policy with a two-year-old? If you think your opponent that intellectually incapable, there should be no point in writing or saying anything.
Fatigue can set in when we make little progress in convincing another party of his error, which is often when we succumb to just declaring “Well, that’s your opinion,” as if resolving debates truly is a chimera. Yet if we surrender to this kind of thinking, we have abandoned the very foundations of our political system, which presuppose that man’s mind, given sufficient evidence and sound argumentation, can be changed.
Moreover, our own history has demonstrated time and again that American society is capable of being persuaded to change its opinion — of racial equality, of women’s right to vote, of the possibility of non-Protestants to make positive contributions to the American experiment. It’s in our blood to debate, but it’s just as much human to persuade and be persuaded.
This article has barely scratched the surface of the wisdom found within “How to Read a Book.” It is truly a goldmine of valuable insights into the art of reading and debate. We should do ourselves a favor this year: for every minute normally spent writing or reading comboxes, we should pick up Adler’s decades-old gem, and revolutionize the way we read.
Then we can more likely avoid one of the dilemmas Adler addresses early in his book: “the ignorance of those who have misread many books.” Such people, Adler argues, “are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, bookful blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well.”
Let’s make 2018 the year we stopped being blockheads.
Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.