The art of Re – Reading books

When I was in my teens , I discovered P.G.Wodehouse , Agatha Christie , Alistair MacLean and a horde of other writers including the Pseudonymous Franklin W.Dixon and Carolyn Keene . My parents were of a  middle class background  and could not afford to keep my desire for new books satiated but ironically when I asked for a library application , my father refused . His argument was that one’s attitude towards books should be similar to that of a boy chewing on a sugarcane , with the first bite , one merely gets a glimpse into the many rewards that await us so therefore one needs to chew and re chew until the promise of sweet reward no longer comes forth. A societal structure such as the library screamed against that sentiment and he eschewed it with a passion. I knew well enough not to start an argument especially one of the kind as to what do I do after I have consumed all the juice , it is easy to spit the molasses but start throwing away books and I might get into deep trouble and lectures on the virtue of hard work and having to provide for family and ungrateful wretches who threw away books bought with hard earned money . However I managed to become part of an elaborate social network, a social network of book loaners and readers , the network extended for miles . It stretched from Deccan to Salisbury Park and included all the intermediate Peths in Pune , for those of you who have never visited Pune that would probably stretch for 7-8 miles and cover an area well over 25 square miles. I never met those people but the books always had names and addresses, that is how I knew the origin of these books . Some blessed soul from Gita Society in Pune called Rajesh had the complete collection of Hardy boys circa 1986 and I managed to read every one of them . A thousand blessings on him . But I digress

As I got older , my books changed to reflect a deeper desire for knowledge but my strategy of attacking books , ignoring the foreword , the table of contents , the blurb on the jacket and starting at page 1 and plowing until I got to the end stayed the exact same as in the days of lore when I was reading pulp fiction( maybe classic pulp fiction) and I was glumly aware of the wisdom of my father’s words but could not bring myself to practice it. The effort was inordinate in some cases and the reward seemed meager , even in the case of some really dense books where I was dimly aware that I had understood less than 1% of the book, I did not go back. Brings to mind a quote from a familiar personage

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

My sole differentiating factor in this case was volume , I was trying to read an enormous number of books  (enormous by my standards) , close to 100 books a year and I was hoping to distill information that I could use to change my life , to make for a better person , more useful to society , more adept at detecting trends and most of all be an erudite listener for the people around me. I wasted a lot of time plowing through volumes and volumes of books whose names I don’t recall and whose gist is completely lost to me ,but through a happy accident I managed to discover Mortimer J Adler .

Mortimer J Adler has many books to his credit and some of them have found their way to my book shelf over the years . One in particular has a way of disappearing with my friends so I have to keep re purchasing it , one of these days I will learn and purchase the Kindle version . The book is called “How to Read a book” ,a truly ironic title but it is one of those books that reminds me of the sugarcane analogy that my father had used and then to my great relief and joy , I discovered this quote

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested

Sir Francis Bacon

The joy of reconciling my dad’s words of wisdom with wise words of lore was indeed a delight and a relief.  It is funny how great platitudes tend to be twisted out of context as time passes . Brings to mind a funny anecdote about a co worker who always liked to quote Emerson as follows “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and he took that quote very seriously and was very consistent about being inconsistent . That quote always made me feel insecure because I need consistency in my daily life, in my thinking . I am a creature of habit and I thrive when I am in a zone where habits can take care of my basic needs . Many years later , I discovered while reading Emerson that what he had said was “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” . One tiny adjective makes for all the difference in the world. So was my dad’s all encompassing quote about all books . Francis Bacon makes more sense for me . There are indeed books that one can read at various stages in life to discover that these books have indeed grown with you and you can discern new meanings at each stage in life .

I was delighted to see that is indeed the premise for Mortimer J Adler’s writings . Incidentally he is also a vital collaborator in the creation of the Great Books of the Western World. It is probably one of those rare must do projects for every man, woman and child , regardless of what hemisphere you were born and raised in.

In “How to read a book” , Adler talks about the various stages of reading . In particular the style that I outlined earlier is what he calls “Elementary Reading” and is obviously the basic style of reading that everybody learns through sheer will power . It is as essential to us as learning the alphabets and by the same token quite literally as elementary to the art of reading .

He outlines three more styles of reading and incidentally these build upon each other just as Greek mathematics and philosophy seems to .

The second style is called “Inspectional Reading” and this is where we get the gist of the book in 20 minutes or less . As I get older , I find this to be an extremely valuable time saver in determining whether the author can meet my needs . Lot of times , we are seduced by the title and end up either buying the book or getting it from the library . The time that we invest in the book tends to be inordinate , inspectional reading allows us to predetermine if we truly need to invest all that time

The third style is called Analytical Reading and this is where we strive to get the gist of the book given an unlimited amount of time . Obviously this also means that only a limited number of books can be targeted using this approach . Some might even suggest that we pick the truly great books for this kind of reading because they are  the ones that are the most likely to grow along with us

The fourth style and probably the most difficult is the Syntopical Reading is where we essentially create our own book based on the Analytical reading of several different books which deal with the same idea . For eg if one was to talk about psychology and assembles the works of Freud , Jung , James and other notable luminaries in the field and creates a work which compares and contrasts the various ideas , that would be a true syntopical reading of the various works .

I recommend to you, my reader to go to the local bookstore and perform a inspectional read of a title that intrigues you and do one every day after that until it becomes second nature to you.

But before you do that , you might want to get your own copy of How to read a book.

Happy Reading!!!


9 thoughts on “The art of Re – Reading books

  1. In a pinch, ie waiting in long lines, I’ll read anything. But re-reading a book makes me feel guilty that I’m not reading one of the many books on my ‘unread’ list.


    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading . I agree with you totally for 99.9% of books written, I was referring to the great books specifically because my personal experience has been that you do not get everything out of a single read , maybe these books tend to be complex and layered and as I get older and experienced, it becomes a different and richer experience. I experienced that recently when I re read the Iliad after 8 years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whatever works 🙂 . I first read Moby Dick as a picture strip , then as a audio book and finally the real deal , I like to think if I had tried to approach it directly , I might not have made it through .


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