Monthly Archives: February 2008

How to Read a Book (Adler & Van Doren) — Entry #1

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updat ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

I have started reading the 1972 revised edition of this 1940 classic, curious about this oft-quoted book. Its mission is precisely what it title suggests: an analysis of how books are read (classified into four different levels) and instructions on how to become a better reader of books. However, an important distinction is made from the very start: its aim is to assist the reader who wishes to read for increased understanding, not for information or for entertainment.

I was amused to find that Adler and Van Doren referred to a 1939 article by James Murrell, “The Failure of Schools,” in which Murrell identified a familiar-sounding pattern about reading ability in the general population:

Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taiught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level. […] The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of readin, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. […] It as been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage,or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. (quoted in Adler & Van Doren, pp.x-xi)

Murrell blamed schools for the lack of improvement in students’ reading abilitties. Adler and Van Doren seem to agree, at least in that the last of their four identified levels of reading is rarely mastered. These levels are: Elementary Reading (ability to recognize and string together written words and sentences and to extract the surface meaning); Inspectional Reading (ability to skim, get the gist of a book in a limited amount of time); Analytical Reading (ability to extract the larger points made by a text) and finally, Syntoptical Reading (complex, systematic, comparative reading — the ability to read a book while holding it in a larger context — or, the ability to read more than one book at a time) (pp.17-18).

I am also thankful to this book for having offered me a useful and concrete recommendation (in the art of Inspectional Reading) that I can apply immediately to this reading course:

The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. (p.314)

Indeed, several of the works I have consulted so far make a similar point: that it is just as important to know when not to read a book as it is to read it. Or, as Adler and Van Doren put it, that one needs to know “how to read some books faster than others” (p.315).

So Many Books (Zaid)

Zaid, G. (2003). So many books : Reading and publishing in an age of abundance [Demasiados libros.] (1st Paul Dry Books ed.). Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books.

One of the subjects tackled by Zaid in this book is the difficulty of measuring the influence exerted by books. Do books affect our actions? Clearly ideas are spread through writing, but to what extent? Zaid points out that an author can sell many books and never become famous, while some authors achieve notoriety without writing (or selling) many books.

Without discounting its worth, Zaid also supports in his own way the notion of reading as pastime: “Reading is useless: it is a vice, pure pleasure” (p.74).

Written in 2003, it is interesting to note how many of Zaid’s arguments against the eventual demise of the book are no longer as strong as they were. He asserts that “No book requires electronic instructions explaining how to read it” (p.77) but (some) computer systems and electronic readers are becoming more usable with every iteration. He claims that radio and TV shows need to be accessed at a precise time while books can be read on your own schedule. Clearly this has changed with the advent of the Tivo and of Intenet-accessible radio and television programming. He claims that books are cheaper than other media, which similarly does not stand up in this time of free Internet content. He also suggests that although books can be produced for small audiences and still be viable, the same is not true ofother media. This is of course no longer true in a time when Internet radio stations and podcasts are happy to have small groups of committed listeners.

Reading as a Contact Sport (Fister)

Fister, B. (2005). “Reading as a contact sport”: Online book groups and the social dimensions of reading. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(4), 303-309.

This is an interesting article in that it addresses some of the social aspects of reading. In this case, a case study of a successful online book club for mystery fans entitled 4MA (For Mystery Addicts). It does not answer all my questions about those mysterious “genre readers” but it does present some interesting points nonetheless.

There is a true, warm community at the heart of this collection of mystery readers, to the point that they have collaboratively daydreamed and imagined a retirement community where they could all end up, a town with a particularly well stocked and useful library, bookstores and tea shops (p.309). Although they are spread out all over the world, they bond over shared habit, likes and dislikes. Some members describe their friends’ and family members’ inability to understand their voracious appetite for mystery books — clearly this community offers a real support system for its members, who in some cases feel like outsiders in they day-to-day life.

Fister describes the kind of discussion that happens on this list as a vastly different type of literary communication than the prevalent popular discourse, which she describes as publishers and chain bookstores “commodifying reading”. (Here she mentions a number of articles about Oprah’s Book Club, which I will try to seek out.)

Another interesting aspect of this article is the notion of ‘reading twins’ — partners who have similar reading tastes and help provide the other twin with reading material. In this way, this community has created its own highly dependable and personalized reading advisory system — much more reliable than depending on the masses’ choices on, for example.

Further to “reading as arcane hobby”

I was thinking about this idea of reading as “arcane hobby” and also of the great amount and skill in reading among 9-year-olds (though not among teenagers), and am wondering if the following may become (or perhaps has already become) the norm: books will be considered tools solely in the process of mastering the art of reading, for use by children only until they are able to to seek out disparate information from the Internet and other electronic sources, piecing these elements together into their own personally defined ‘story’.

Just as the notion of “the album” (and track order) is increasingly becoming irrelevant as music-seekers  download individual tracks and rearrange them as they see fit (or shuffled as their device sees fit), will the same happen to books and stories? Is it not plausible that the notion of an author-driven narrative will become obsolete if it becomes commonplace for surfers to be dropped into a story midstream after a Google keyword search?

E-book Reading Groups (Landoni & Hanlon)

Landoni, M., & Hanlon, G. (2007). E-book reading groups: Interacting with e-books in public libraries. Electronic Library, 25(5), 599-612. Retrieved 1/22/2008 from LISTA database.

In this UK case study, willing participants from two pre-existing book clubs were given electronic books on PDA’s to use for a month in lieu of their usual paper copies. After this period, they filled out questionnaires and took part in discussions on the usability of these devices, their impressions of e-books and their reactions to reading using this technology.

This study points out some advantages to e-books (namely that they are cheaper, easier and quicker to produce, their portability and their ease of use for individuals with print disabilities). For libraries, they are beneficial in that they cannot be stolen, do not need to be signed out, and do not need to be purchased in multiple copies (no waiting lists!). This multi-user access is a great benefit, and makes it very easy for libraries to organize and encourage book clubs.

Participants’ reactions were quite strong. Although they used the devices and found certain advantages to them, they reported feeling as though they had betrayed the print medium. Researchers found that these participants had very strong attachments to the print form of books. Not surprisingly, they suggested that further study might benefit from focusing on a population that is more open to electronic formats, perhaps organized specifically around the idea of an electronic book club. Such a study would indeed be useful for studying the dynamics of the group as well as the way the medium is received by individuals who have joined of their own volition.

e-Science and the Life Cycle of Research (Humphrey)

Humphrey, C. (2006), “E-science and the life cycle of research”, available at:

Humphrey has used  the “Life Cycle Model of ResearchKnowledge Creation” (Humphrey and Hamilton) and the “Knowledge Transfer Cucle” within it to illustrate the gaps between the various stages of information production and manipulation that make up the research process, and to draw attention to the loss of information that can so easily happen at the juncture between these phases. He has also described the many “streams of activity” involved throughout the process, the shifts of responsibility, intellectual ownership and “digital custodianship” that are unavoidable and in need of clarification so as to maintain continuity.

His main argument is that research libraries must become familiar with the full spectrum of this life cycle, and customize their services and partnerships with a view to fostering research outcomes and continued data access.

The unacknowledged convergence of open source, open access, and open science (Willinsky)

Willinsky, J. (2005). The unacknowledged convergence of open source, open access, and open science. First Monday 10(8). Retrieved from

It is in the concluding paragraph of this article that Willinsky makes his plea: for universities and faculty members to take a leading role in promoting the “common commitment to a larger public sphere” that he identifies as a common trait of the open source, open access and open science movements. He suggests that just as disparate groups commited to environmental causes had to join forces in order to build a popular environmentatism movement, so should these three groups. The similarities he draws include the important mix of community and competition, people’s motivations for participating and fostering these movement (largely driven by intellectual curiosity and the “addictive economy of ‘cool opportunities'”), “actively rejecting the extension of intellectual property right” (in favour of correct attribution but not of exclusion), an important relationship with patronage (whether at the individual or state level), and support of the Lockian concept of a “commonwealth of learning”.

One of the most interesting aspects of this article is Willinsky’s description of these movements and the factors that influence them in economic terms. He reminds us of the importance of free sharing of information between science clubs in the 17th century, and reminds us that computer software did not start out as a proprietary model, but only becaume thus in the 1980’s. He describes the current intellectual property rules as economically imposed, and places both open source software and open access in clear opposition to this system. Finally, he portrays these movements as means of resistance in the ongoing shift in how we approach and develop knowledge by calling them “practical and proven means of resisting that constant capitalization of knowledge work that marks this economy.”