The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Critical reading

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pile-of-books-2To make the most of our reading, we need to be critical readers in the best and fullest sense of the word, engaging with the text rather than having it simply flow around or over us.  I remember borrowing a book from a friend a few years ago, and being struck by the manner in which he was wrestling with the text, investigating, questioning, arguing and commending the book as he went.  My own system for reading developed further after that experience, as I sought to be an active rather than a passive reader.

Justin Taylor has recently posted two helpful pieces drawing on Morton Adler’s How To Read A Book.

In one, he identifies a passage concerning critical evaluation that had a significant impact on him:

Every author has had the experience of suffering book reviews by critic who did not feel obligated to do the work of the first two stages [see below] first. The critic too often thinks he does not have to be a reader as well as a judge. Every lecturer has also had the experience of having critical questions asked that were not based on any understanding of what he had said. You yourself may remember an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or at most two, “I don’t know what you mean, but I think you’re wrong.”

There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent. (pp. 144-145)

Taylor ties in this principle with the golden rule: suggesting that this “is really the answer to the question: How, when reading, do I do unto others as I would have done unto me, and how do I love my neighbor as I love myself?”

In another post, Taylor provides Adler’s framework of three stages for analytical reading, answering the questions (1) What is this book about as a whole? (2) What is being said in detail, and how? and (3) Is it true? What of it?

Stage 1: What Is the Book About as a Whole?

Rule 1. 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. / Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. (p. 60)

Rule 2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph). State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. (pp. 75-76)

Rule 3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole. / Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. (p. 76)

Rule 4. Find out what the author’s problems were. / Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. (p. 92)

Stage 2: What Is Being Said in Detail, and How?

Rule 5. Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author. / Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. (p. 98)

Rule 6. Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain. / Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. (p. 120)

Rule 7. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connections of sentences. / Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. (p. 120)

Rule 8. Find out what the author’s solutions are. / Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. (p. 135)

Stage 3: Is It True? What of It?

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

Rule 9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.” / Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (pp. 142-143)

Rule 10. When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously. (p. 145)

Rule 11. Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make. (p. 150)

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

Rule 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

Rule 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.

Rule 14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

Rule 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

For more fulsome notes on the book, we are directed to Brian Fulthorp’s series.

I was interested to note the overlap with John Updike’s rules for reviewing.  He wrote:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Interesting here is the notion of avoiding being some objective arbiter, defending no tradition, enforcing no standard, fighting no battle, correcting no error.  Does this really provide for interesting reviews?  Furthermore, I am not sure that any Christian reviewer can afford that perspective: by very definition, we are engaged on matters of truth and error, poison and tonic.  Surely reviews – in keeping with other writing, and not overlooking or ignoring the golden rule – are necessary opportunities for the very thing that Mr Updike would deny?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 31 January 2009 at 17:02

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