What Kind of Book Are You Reading?
It’s easy to assume you know what a book is simply by beginning to read — but it’s not always so easy. Is it a novel making social commentary or a social commentary told as a story? Is it a book on philosophy, history, or science? Is it theoretical or practical? Is it worth reading or not?
In How To Read a Book, the authors’ first rule is: “You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.” (The original was in all caps).
Why Does It Matter?
Why does it matter whether you’re reading a book about history, philosophy, or science? Don’t we read all books the same?
We do not read all books the same, nor should we. Different fields of thought ask different questions and use different methods to solve problems. Science relies on “special experience” like science experiments to solve problems. Philosophy appeals to what we experience in our everyday lives to solve (often different) problems. True science is experimentation and observation, philosophy is more about persuasion.
Like a student transitioning to a new class, we should ask different questions depending on which book we’re reading. Reading well is easier when you know which “classroom” you are in and what kind of “absent teacher” the author is. If you cannot answer “What kind of book is this?” you will likely miss important questions you could have asked and found answers for.
Questions to Ask
How do we “pigeonhole” a book? By answering these questions:
- Is the book fiction or nonfiction?
- Is its primary purpose to convey knowledge (expository)?
- What kind of instruction does it provide? Is it teaching you about history, philosophy, science, or something else entirely?
- Does it give the “state of things” (theoretical) or does it make an argument for how (you/the world) should change (practical)?
The primary application for this is for non-fiction books, but these questions can be applied to fiction books (to a degree) if desired.
How to Find Answers
We can answer those questions using “Inspectional Reading”, the process of quickly assessing what a book is and is not. Here’s a brief summary of Inspectional Reading:
Read and consider:
- The Title
- The Subtitle
- The Table of Contents. A good TOC summarizes a book better than titles or descriptions.
- The publisher’s blurb on the cover (if there is one). This often summarizes the book.
- The first and last few pages of the book and major sections. Few authors can resist the urge to summarize their book in the last few pages (before an epilogue if there is one).
If you want to take it to the next level, do step 6: Read through the book quickly and focus on the main theme. Vary your reading speed. Speed up and slow down as the sections are more or less significant.
Inspectional Reading showed me how I misjudged “How To Read a Book”, and began to appreciate its true value. I’ll tell more about that next time when I talk about X-Raying a book. Please et me know if this helped you.
Most of what’s good here is a summary of Chapter 6 of How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer & Adler.