From reading’s bygone days

There are books you read once and then put away on your shelf. You know that you will never have to read them again, although you may return to them to check certain points or to refresh your memory of certain ideas or episodes. (It is in the case of such books that the notes you make in the margin or elsewhere in the volume are particularly valuable.)

How do you know that you do not ever have to read such books again? You know it by your own mental reaction to the experience of reading them. Such a book stretches your mind and increases your understanding. But as your mind stretches and your understanding increases, you realize, by a process that is more or less mysterious, that you are not going to be changed any more in the future by this book. You realize you have grasped the book in its entirety. You have milked it dry. You are grateful for what it has given you, but you know it has no more to give.

I like it when books are self-referential, whether they mean to be or not. It does make a good chuckle. Above passage pretty much seems up my relationship to, my experience of, and my future with this book—quite helpfully titled How to Read a Book [deemed “the classic guide to intelligent reading], written/assembled by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I’ve got the completely revised and updated version of the 1940s edition—well, updated to the 1970s, that is. I picked it up knowing full well it was going to be rules for a bygone era—where the great external distractions to reading are the television and the radio. Yep. I was curious.

It’s such a dinosaur. Cranky, snooty, stuffy, pedantic, often condescending. It’s a manual. For intelligent reading. Very textbook-y, very fundamental. Very practical. Like some invisible ruler cracked against my keyboard-clobbering knuckles, like a pesky voice in your head.

It’s like having tea with your cane-thumping retiree-professor of a great-grandfather. Him demanding why you aren’t wearing hose, and will you please stand up straight? You bide your time, you promised you’d keep him company. And then, hours later, you realize you’re growing fond of the old coot, you can’t help but enjoy the starchiness. And there are rewards, there are gems your heart could ping with, the occasional moments of, egad, tenderness. Just imagine Gramps lecturing you on all the misreading you’ve committed, giving you precise directions on how to analyze a given book’s title, teaching you how to skim the right way. And then him suddenly going quiet, when you’ve mustered the courage to ask about fiction—him quiet and then, and then: “We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.” And you both reach for your cups of tea.

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5 comments

  1. I especially love the bit that says ‘The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading’. I love books about books and reading so will venture forth and check this out.

    1. Yes, Books About Books is a favorite genre. Topic? Preoccupation? Also, people have to come up with a term! “Books About Books” is so unwieldy. I want something Latin, haha.

      Anyway, like I said above, this is pretty old-fashioned and prescriptive. But, yeah, I went into it as though it were a curiosity. I won’t follow the advice to the letter–I didn’t even listen in some parts, haha–and I don’t even agree with his token aphorisms about reading. But, but, but! It’s fun. :)

  2. How to read a book. Hmm. Just open the covers and start somewhere? I think I’d probably be chucking this at the wall. I don’t like being told that there’s a proper way to do anything, but that’s just my rebellious nature coming to the fore. I wonder what they made of French literary theory or postmodernism, if they were still around in the 80s. It shocked the dinosaurs out of their cozy little conservative & elitist world. They’re still complaining about it in the pages of The Australian newspaper. HaHaHa

    1. I did want to throw it against a wall. But I’d just bought it ten minutes before and that wouldn’t be very cost-effective of me now, would it? I think staving off the buyer’s remorse was influential in me reading this book in as patronizing a manner as it talked to me. :)

  3. [...] How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. [...]

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