The first time I tried to read How To Read A Book, I threw it across the room. In my defense, I was only sixteen, and Mortimer Adler can be that way sometimes. I am less sensitive to his pomposity now, and have decided that How To Read A Book should be a summer reading requirement for all tutors and students at St. John's. This is a particularly strong desire since we attended an alumni seminar in Seattle this weekend. It was led by Eva Brann, on Dostoevsky's short story "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man"--so far, so good. Those two elements were quite enjoyable. However, I was baffled by the attitudes of the other attendees. Being an alumni seminar, everyone there was 1), no longer attending SJC; 2), at the seminar voluntarily; and 3), unacquainted with anyone else (for the most part). These factors would cause me to assume that the discussion would be lively but mellow, with a united desire to understand the reading better and enjoy the insightful comments of our scholarly leader. How wrong I can be sometimes.
Actually, it was much like normal seminars at SJC, which made me realize that I DO NOT miss school. All the stereotypes were there, including the sunshine hippie who was disturbed by the negative connotations of the word "preacher", and the really-amazing-insight guy who was determined to convince us that the whole story was actually an allegory for the writing process. To be fair, there were several people who had quite intelligent things to say; however, I am already acquainted with most of them. (And for those of you who are wondering, no, I did not contribute to the conversation. I actually didn't plan to go at all, so was somewhat unprepared, but mostly I felt the way I did at SJC--I really didn't care what anyone else thought and had no desire to reveal my stunning insights to them. Or, in my sister-in-law's words, I didn't want to share with them, and didn't want them to share with me.)
St. John's is great in theory. And I really feel that Mortimer Adler could assist with the practice. One of the reasons I liked the book this time around was because I realized I do actually read the way he says one ought to (at least to some extent), and this is a rather unusual quality. Even at SJC people read to some purpose other than understanding, as if they want to "win" at seminar. We read the great books in order to understand ourselves better and, indeed, to seek the truth. Too many students (and tutors) allow themselves to be bound by fears and opinions and are unable to see truth in things they don't like. I take as example the Dostoevsky story. Ms. Brann several times brought up the question of religion, yet no one would consider the possibility of a true conversion experience, as if even thinking such a thing would somehow sully their liberal minds (though fortunately our dear Erin reminded everyone that this was, after all, 19th century Orthodox Russia). Now, there are plenty of books that expound ideas contradictory to my beliefs, yet I can still recognize some elements of truth in them. Also, I can accept an author's foundation in order to read his work, even if I don't agree with it in general. This doesn't seem difficult, but is apparently why Adler had to write his book.
Enough of annoying Johnnies. How To Read A Book is a book to which anyone interested in self-education should pay close attention. Even if you don't take the time to read it, consider these 4 questions the next time you read something of merit:
1. What is the book about as a whole?
2. What is the author saying in detail, and how?
3. Is it true?
4. What of it? (I.e., what do I make of it, and should I care?)
As well as being inspired to read better (and better books), I've decided to keep 4 kinds of books going at the same time, in order to keep my brain working and happy. Thus I am currently reading the following.
A work of poetry: Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop
A work of non-fiction: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn, Penny Simkin
A work of literature: Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
A potato-chip book: Heir of Sea and Fire, Patricia McKillip
I'd like to break the non-fiction category in two or three, to delineate works of philosophy and religion, but that may be too adventurous at this point. For now, we'll see how the plan works.