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A Reciprocating Engine -- Like Proust

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 104-110 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0044

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 104-110

Proceedings of the ALSC: I. Intellectual Craftsmanship: How to Read a Book

Would you buy a book called "How to Read a Book"? Only out of annoyance, I imagine. In the company of literary scholars, critics, and writers, we all think we know already how to read. Otherwise, we'd be professional charlatans. Still, in 1940 tens of thousands of people bought a book called How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. It stayed on the best seller lists for several weeks. Adler wrote in an easy conversational style and promoted good books -- even old ones. But he had the essentials wrong. He believed we should read the way a tyro tours an art museum: the tyro looks at the label before looking at the painting. Of course our whole educational system -- K plus 12 plus 4 plus even more -- inevitably follows this label-first method. I shall come back to the basic question of order of events in reading literature.

On the basis of my own experience and of my investigations in recent years, I distinguish three kinds or levels of reading. We read for basic comprehension of words and sentences. We read for literary response to the parts and the whole of a work. And we read for the relations of the work to other works and to life itself. These tentative categories of reading do not represent sequential stages. Our response to language may resort to one or all of these three activities at any stage of learning.

Formal reading begins with the basic association of written word with sounded word -- with a notion in the mind -- with some phenomenon in the world. Since most of us have forgotten how we learned those initial associations, we understand them probably from having helped a child to read. And in that gradual process we do not usually encounter the excitement that can occur when an illiterate older child or an illiterate adult suddenly grasps the miracle of language. The exemplary case of Helen Keller concentrates into one incident at the water pump the revelation that comes to the rest of us over a period of weeks or months at a much earlier age. We should never forget one fundamental: the comprehension stage of reading is not an empty skill that can be acquired apart from meaningful content. In order to make sense of written language, we cannot just learn a mental trick of association but must also acquire much information about the world we live in.

This first category of reading for comprehension is endlessly debated by all parties, including literary scholars and critics. Almost no one speaks of the third category: how to keep track of and make use of what we read over the years, both as professionals in the field of literature and as individuals seeking to shape a life out of our experience. I lifted the title of this panel from a remarkable essay on how to keep notes on one's reading and how to set up and constantly revise a system of files both in order to give direction to one's professional career and in order to constitute one's character as a person. The essay "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" was written by C. Wright Mills as an appendix for The Sociological Imagination (1959). We all pick up procedures for keeping notes and files as we go along. But despite the number of methodology courses in graduate programs in literature, such basics are rarely discussed. Mills deserves much credit for raising a neglected subject essential for all writers. Intellectual craftsmanship will become even more challenging in the era of electronics and computers.

Another great scholar a century earlier saw fit to speak of these basics near the end of his autobiography.

I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate...


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