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How to read a book critically and why
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How to read a book critically and why
by Kevin Beary 2/16/05

I was planning on writing an essay on how to get the most out of a book by reading it analytically and critically. I realize that to describe each aspect of reading a book in my own words would become tiresome and may not convey the simple questions one should ask of a book. Therefore I present this piece as delineated Notes , and not as a paragraphical article. Look for the ** if you find yourself re-reading this after your next good book.
I will quickly emphasize why one should have a system on reading books , especially more complicated books. Some of the best books may be a bit over ones head. This is a book that could be read again and more knowledge or insight gleaned from it. These , in my opinion, are the best books to read. You will always Gain from reading a book like that. You will Profit from this book. Some books , like beach books , or magazine articles , etc can be read quickly and all information absorbed and little insight gained. Reading a classical work on the other hand , and one will share ideas with someone (author) who has so much to tell them and so much for you to profit from , wether you agree or disagree (we`ll get to that). A writer Must be Superior , his book must convey the insights he possesses and the readers lack. The reader must attempt to overcome this lack and become equal to the writer. You will learn to Think , the way the author thinks , and not just one , but as many authors (teachers) as you can digest. You can know what they know, learn to analyze and think the way they think , you will come to a stage where You will find knowledge Easy to grasp , difficult ideas easy to intuit , and your own ideas , easy to relate. You will learn how to think critically.
We start by asking the book questions. One doesn`t need to be in a book discussion group to do this. One does this naturally , but possibly in a limited sense. By following some of the ideas and questions I will put forth , one can see how knowledge , ideas , wisdom , insight can all be Pulled from the text. Not every question I will present will apply to every book you read but you will be surprised at how much is applicable.

**The Beginning - It is a good idea to quickly associate yourself with the book. Get a feel for the structure of the book. Start by skimming the The foreward , table of contents , authors review if any etc; Find when the book was published (the time written can affect the views in the book) Any literary movement at the time (romanticsm ,naturalism) You could also quickly research the author for background on what he is about . One can skim to find out the time frame and/or area the book is SET in. If a reality book, mentally brush up on the history of the time and area.

Now Lets Read the book keeping in mind the following questions you are going to ask it upon completion.

To start - A book needs to be evaluated in Three Stages- A classical educational system known as the Trivium calls these stages Grammar , Logic , Rhetoric or simplified - Facts , Analysis , Argument.

Grammar (facts) - Basic questions
** Classify the book - History , Biography , Theoretical essays , Practical essays , Imaginative Literarture (fiction) etc
We will start by focusing on Fiction Primarily - as other types of books vary in their approach and their subjects more difficult generally.


*What is the book about as a whole?
*what is the main event of the book
*Who are the characters
*what happens to them
*how are they different afterwards


These are the basic questions most of us ask the book naturally. Next stage is


Logic (analysis) - In a non-fiction book this is where you would locate the argument in the book in detail. You would decide if you were persuaded. You would determine what problems the author puts forth and if he solved them.

A fiction books approach is different. You are invited into a written story. Do you appreciate the authors prose ? You are invited into a world. Have you been transported ? Do you sympathize with the characters. Do you understand their desires , or problems or are you left unmoved. This is where you attempt to truly understand the book.

**Is this book a Fable or Chronicle ie; (Fantasy or Reality)
--- (How do you know ?)
If fantasy is it Allegorical , Speculative
Allegory - Like Gullivers Travel , A real man visits an unreal world
Speculative- Like Orwells Animal Farm , A completely unreal world but resembles reality in character , action or other.
**Are there any Themes ,Terms , Phrases , Metaphors that the author uses consistently ?
-what do they mean?
*Who is the central character in the book
*What does he/she really want
* Is there a villain (direct or indirect)
* has the character(s) solved the problem ---how ?
** Consider the style of writing , (simple , complex , flowery , setting , use of detail , internalization of characters thoughts)
** What point of view is story told (1st , 2nd,3rd obj or 3rd omniscient)
** Does the book in any way reflect the authors philosophy (beginning , ending of book, events , characters , conflicts)


Rhetoric (Argument) - With non-fiction books you would at this time decide if you agree / disagree with the authors arguments or analysis. In order to agree , one must understand the book wholely. One must have explainable reason to either Agree or disagree. If disagree one must prove a) author is uninformed (missing knowledge) b) misinformed (innacurate knowledge) c) argument is illogical and how d) argument is incomplete and why
One must satisfy one of the above to disagree , or if incomplete can suspend judgement. This is where you critically decide on the book.

A fictional book again is treated slightly differently.

** Is the book true ? (is it an accurate portrayal of life)
** Do you agree with the ideas
*Do you sympathize with the characters or events , which ones and why ?
** Does the authors technique or style (as described above) covey authors philosophy (just an example - the setting (does it affect the characters) Does that reflect the authors philosophy (maybe he/she believes environment determines who we are)
**Does the writers times affect the authors book (literary movements , political climate , belief or knowledge structure at time) Ex ( naturalism - Crane?s The Red Badge of Courage.) or consider one fiction book about WWIII during the cold war (russian nukes) and now (terrorism)
**Is there an argument in the book (not all novels have an argument) but consider the Hero or Villains , downfall , fate or triumph. Is there a statement or argument there ?
** Do you agree or disagree -


Well , thats what I got for you thus far. I did the best I could to put as much information down without writing a book. Therefore , a lot is missing , and much explanation has been left out. If you have specific questions for me , I will do my best to answer them as I`ve come to understand them. The bulk of what I have put forth I have learned from three particular books

The Well-Educated Mind - Susan Beyer
How to Read a book - Adler or Adler/Van doren
How to read a book and why - Harold Bloom.

All three of these books have LISTS of reccomended reading and sort of reading programs. Most of the reccomendations are classics or western canon books but is definitely worth looking into.

Kevin Beary 2/16/05

Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself , to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full , significant , and interesting
Aldous Huxley

Employ your time in imporving yourself by other men`s writing so that you shall come easily by what otherrs have labored for ..
Socrates



 

 

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
   

 


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