Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren
The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of "true." If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books.
Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around. This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really come down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his.
You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.
15 “Rules” for Reading:
Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.
Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
Show wherein the author is uninformed.
Show wherein the author is misinformed.
Show wherein the author is illogical.
Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise. And this is a terrible penalty, for there is evidence that atrophy of the mind is a mortal disease.
The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most of our colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to become authorities in their own right. In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good reader becomes an author.
That the individual man should seek to know himself for what he really is and should esteem himself for his true worth make inevitable his desire to be known and esteemed by others according to his merits... God alone is the judge of one’s ultimate worth, and virtue is its own reward.
Illusion and self-deception stand in the way of an honest, penetrating and fearless self-appraisal. Though it would appear that we have access to the innermost core of our individual being, and that there is nothing in the world with which we are on more intimate terms than our own self, the self remains an elusive object of knowledge and understanding.