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The Conversation We Have with Books

I recently revisited my book notes post about Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic “How to a Read a Book.” I was struck by one of the best lessons it proffers when reading for understanding: to read a book effectively there must be an ongoing “conversation” between the reader and the author. “Reading a book is a kind of conversation. You may think it is not conversation at all, because the author does all the talking and you have nothing to say. If you think that, you do not realize your full obligation as a reader—and you are not grasping your opportunities.”

Note: Adler and Van Doren acknowledge that reading for entertainment is entirely valid. However, in this article, I am setting aside reading for entertainment (which I regularly engage in) to focus solely on reading for the purpose of learning and understanding. While reading for understanding might be considered the sole province of non-fiction by some narrow-minded thinkers, there are countless fictional works that explore deep philosophical questions and consequential themes. These too warrant an ongoing conversation between book and reader. The ability to engage in this conversation does not discriminate between fiction and non-fiction.

One of the reasons I take notes on some of the books I read is that it is one way for me to more deeply engage with the book. First, it allows me to consider ideas from the book beyond merely reading words on a page. Notes allow me to actively record, organize and revise my thoughts about the book. Secondly, note-taking leaves a record of those thoughts and insights for my future self that I can return to at my pleasure to revisit and rejoin the conversation.

Naturally, this conversation is not a literal one of the in-the-flesh, person-to-person variety. It is an asynchronous and asymmetrical “dialogue”; the author puts their ideas out into the world and the reader can then read, interpret, contemplate, and argue with those ideas on their own terms. While this interaction might stretch conventional definitions of the term “conversation,” the insight behind the metaphor is instructive: the reader must engage in active reading in order to learn, understand, and benefit from the text. This admonition might appear obvious, but in practice it seems that the general inclination is to read passively and avoid a deeper engagement with the books we read.

“A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of fudging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to analyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever.” — Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren, “How to Read a Book”

If this idea of “active reading” is essential to reaping the rewards of reading for knowledge, how specifically should the reader engage with a book? Here I am reminded of the second important lesson from “How to Read a Book”: what we consider reading is really a superset of discrete activities. More specifically, the authors identify four different levels of reading. They are:

  1. Elementary reading (reading for basic comprehension).
  2. Inspectional reading: Systematically skimming a book to become familiar with its core contents and ideas.
  3. Analytical reading: Carefully reading and considering the ideas within the book. Analyzing and critiquing the ideas. Taking notes, summarizing and thinking about those ideas.
  4. Syntopical reading: Comparative reading in which ideas from different books are commingled and synthesized into new insights and ideas.

According to the authors, these four types of reading (and all their attendant sub-behaviors) comprise the necessary skills to read effectively. This perspective presents “reading” as a much richer and multifaceted activity than many of us are familiar with. Reading isn’t just the act of deciphering glyphs printed on paper—it’s just a small piece of a much larger process. While I’m certain most people would opt for a more expansive definition of what reading is, it’s also likely that most of us fall short of the bar set by Adler and Van Doren. It reminds me of the act of writing, which is another activity that is multidimensional and far exceeds just the act of putting pen to paper to generate prose (for a glimpse of this idea, see my article on My Five Step Writing Process).

Using this lens, it’s worth teasing out some of the other activities I’ve found beneficial in fostering my personal conversation with individual books. To some extent, these are just elements of the four levels of reading cited above.

  • Consuming supplemental content from the same author: This can include other books on the same topic as well as other media in which they present the core ideas in their book (e.g. podcasts, interviews, articles, speeches, etc.).
  • Consuming complementary material from other authors on the same or adjacent subjects. This along with the previous bullet are two ways to engage in syntopical reading.
  • The note-taking process itself. My notes are tool for memory and future engagement with a book. Adler and Van Doren would categorize this activity under analytical reading. Many note-takers advocate for very specific approaches or techniques. I’m more pragmatic; find what works best for you. For instance: some insist that verbatim transcription is a poor substitution for summarizing ideas or concepts in your own words. I hold a more moderate view and believe there’s room for both. In fact, many of my notes reflect a combination of verbatim quotations as well as my own summary or re-envisioning of the author’s ideas.
  • My book summary is an attempt to encapsulate the most salient ideas from the book that impacted me. Likewise, the book rating, attempts to do the same. This latter item may seem a silly thing to others. I understand why this is the case—the book rating really only provides value to the person who read the book and arrived at that specific conclusion. It’s my way of saying to myself, “Quick, give me a quick indicator of where this fits into my overall appreciation, learning and mental impact compared to the other books I’ve read.” Even then you can see how limited this idea is in the context of having a long-term conversation with a book; it’s a mere snapshot of my opinion from a specific time.
  • Revisiting your notes periodically to reengage with a book and its ideas. Doing this allows you to refamiliarize, recontextualize and reconsider the ideas. Given that we are not static personalities with respect to our attitudes and understanding, our relationship and opinion on a given topic are also malleable and constantly evolving. Revisiting our notes gives us an opportunity to continue the conversation and expand upon it.

I imagine there are a host of other activities that one could engage in in order to expand upon their conversation with a book. Here are a couple of other approaches I’ve seen:

  • Andy Matuschak’s work on reading and spaced repetition is his approach to enabling this ongoing conversation between reader and book. Despite the provocative title of his essay “Why Books Don’t Work,” he’s clearly a person who appreciates books but has a clear mission for finding ways to make the process of understanding and retention more effective (take a look at his experimental book “Quantum Country” to see how he’s tackling the problem of book retention).
  • Peter C. Brown in his book “Make it Stick” believes actively quizzing ourselves to practice active recall is key to understanding and retention. The idea is that active recall—the effort of resurfacing important information from memory—is more beneficial than exposure and familiarity.
  • A book club can be a literal conversation about a book, but points to a broader external conversation we can engage in with other readers.

In reality, most of our reading omits or ignores many of these activities. Put simply: our default is to not have a conversation with a book. But doing so is to the detriment of our overall reading experience. We read a book in the most perfunctory fashion possible and then expect it to imbue us with new wisdom or knowledge. It’s no wonder we are disappointed when we forget the ideas of the book in the aftermath of reading it: we’ve failed to put in the requisite effort. Books don’t work effectively via “transmissionism” (passively receiving the wisdom transmitted to us by an expert). Books—specifically books read for knowledge, not entertainment—work in direct proportion to the work and effort we put back into them. And this ongoing effort need not be limited to a single day, week, or month in one’s life. The very best books and the very best ideas warrant consistent engagement over the course long periods of time—months, years, even a lifetime. I’m grateful for the ongoing conversation I’ve had with Adler and Van Doren’s “How to Read a Book." It was the first book to introduce me to this important habit and the rewards have been well worth the effort.

Further reading:

  • Grasping Reality with Both Hands ( Offers a 10-step strategy for active engagement with books.
  • How to Read a Book ( Stanford Fellow and U.Mich. Professor Paul N. Edwards’ succinct and practical guide to reading non-fiction.
  • How You Know ( Thoughts on books and memory.
  • Kenjitsu ( Literally “Knowledge fighting.” The idea that we must content with the ideas we encounter—a particularly intense kind of engagement.
  • The Three Kinds of Non-Fiction Books ( Interesting taxonomy for non-fiction: narrative, tree, and branch books. Helpful when assessing non-fiction books and how they convey their ideas.
  • Why Books Don’t Work ( Don’t be put off by the provocative title, the author clearly appreciates books but is exploring ways to make them more effective vis a vis retention and understanding.

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