Neil Gaiman on Libraries and Fiction, the library@orchard, and Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”

Neil Gaiman has spoken quite strongly, in recent years, of the importance of the library. He described himself as a “feral child who was raised in libraries” – very much like I was, but his stand hasn’t merely been based on sentiment.

They are safe spaces for a child, in terms of being bully-free zones, but dangerous too in that no one was curating the information for you. Also:

For me, closing libraries is the equivalent of eating your seed corn to save a little money. They recently did a survey that showed that among poor white boys in England, 45% have reading difficulties and cannot read for pleasure. Which is a monstrous statistic, especially when you start thinking about it as a statistic that measures not just literacy but also as a measure of imagination and empathy, because a book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out of the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s very hard to hate people of a certain kind when you’ve just read a book by one of those people. So in that context, as far as I’m concerned, closing libraries is endangering the future. You know, at least with the libraries there, you’re in with a chance. (Neil Gaiman: Libraries are cultural ‘seed corn’, Toby Litt, The Guardian, 17 November 2014)

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway
library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard GatewayAnd contra Lee Kuan Yew, Neil Gaiman sees advantages to reading fiction:

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end…

…that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading.

People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy giving them access to those books and letting them read them.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT. (Neil Gaiman, Second Annual Reading Agency Lecture 2013)

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard GatewayBut, as anyone who has read any amount of out-of-point online drivel will realise, literacy must include the ability to comprehend accurately what one is reading.

Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book was probably one of the best book investments of my teenage years (if I’d actually bothered to read it). Some excerpts

on reading and learning:

Here is a book, I said, and here is your mind. The book consists of language written by someone for the sake of communicating something to you. Your success in reading is determined by the extent to which you get all that writer intended to communicate. Let us take the second alternative. You do not understand the book perfectly at once. Let us even assume—what unhappily is not always true—that you understand enough to know that you do not understand it all. You know there is more in the book than you understand and, hence, that the book contains something which can increase your understanding.

What do you do then?

You can do a number of things. You can take the book to someone else who, you think, can read better than you, and have him to explain the parts that troubled you. Or you can get him to recommend a textbook or commentary which will make it all plain by telling you what the author meant. Or you may decide, as many students do, that what’s over your head isn’t worth bothering about, that you understand enough, and the rest doesn’t matter.

If you do any of these things, you are not doing the job of reading which the book requires. That is done in one way only. Without external help, you take the book into your study and work on it. With nothing but the power of your mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one understanding more. Such elevation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves.

Thus I roughly defined what I meant by reading: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The operations which cause this to happen are the various acts which constitute the art of reading.

Let me summarize now the distinction between these two types of reading. We shall have to consider both because the line between what is readable in one way and what must be read in the other is often hazy. To whatever extent we can keep the two kinds of reading distinct, we can use the word “reading” in two distinct senses.

The first sense is the one in which we speak of ourselves as reading newspapers, magazines, or anything else which, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase the store of information we remember, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity which comes from getting in over our depth — that is, if we were both alert and honest.

The second sense is the one in which I would say a man has to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better than the reader. The writer is communicating some thing which can increase the reader’s understanding. Such communication between unequals must be possible , or else one man could never learn from another, either through speech of writing.

Here by “learning” I mean understanding more, not remembering more information which has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

DVDs, library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gatewayon thinking while reading:

I would like to stress again the two errors which are so frequently made. One is made by those who write or talk about an art of thinking as if there were any such thing in and by itself. Since we never think apart from the work of being taught or the process of research, there is no art of thinking apart from the art of reading and listening, on the one hand, the art of discovery, on the other. To whatever extent it is true that reading is learning, it is also tree that reading is thinking. A complete account of the art of thinking can be given only in the context of a complete analysis of reading and research.

The other error is made by those who write about the art of thinking as if it were identical with art of discovery. The outstanding example of this error, and one which has tremendously influenced American education, is John Dewey’s How We Think. This book has been the bible for thousands of teachers who have been trained in our schools of education. Professor Dewey limits his discussion of thinking to its occurrence in learning by discovery. But that is only one of the two main ways we think. It is equally important to know how we think when we read a book or listen to a lecture. Perhaps, it is even more important for teachers who are engaged in instruction, since the art of reading must be related to the art of being taught, as the art of writing is related to the art of reading. I doubt whether anyone who does not know how to read well can write well. I similarly doubt whether anyone who does not have the art of being taught is skilled in teaching.

He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition.

I pass rapidly over Mursell’s further report of the facts about writing: that the average student cannot express himself “clearly, exactly, and orderly in his native tongue”; that “a great many high-school pupils are not able to discriminate between what is a sentence and what is not”; that the average student has an impoverished vocabulary. “As one goes from senior year in high school to senior year in college, the vocabulary content of written English hardly seems to increase at all. After twelve years in school a great many students still use English in many respects childish and undeveloped; and four years more bring slight improvement.” These facts have bearing on reading. The student who cannot “express find and precise shades of meaning” certainly cannot detect them in the expression of anyone else who is trying to communicate above the level of subtlety which a sixth-grader can grasp.

(Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed. There is, again, a tendency to stress the role of these activities in the process of research or discovery and to forget or minimize their place in the process of being taught through reading or listening. A moment’s reflection will show that the sensitive as well as the rational powers, in short, includes all the same skills that are involved in the art of discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, a reason trained in analysis and reflection. Though in general the skills are the same, they may be differently employed in the two major types of learning.)

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway
library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway

on reading fatigue (today, the person I was reading John 3 with said that even the elite Raffles Girls’ Secondary School students she was in turn reading with could not stand for Bible study – “too intense” it seems, perhaps because they aren’t used to reading?):

The most direct sign that you have done the work of reading is fatigue. Reading that is reading entails the most intense mental activity. It you are not tired out, you probably have not been doing the work. Far from being passive and relaxing, I have always found what little reading I have done the most arduous and active occupation. I often cannot read more than a few hours at a time, and I seldom read much in that time. I usually find it hard work and slow work. There may be people who can read quickly and well, but I am not one of them. The point about speed is irrelevant. What is relevant is activity. To read books passively does not feed a mind. It makes blotting paper out of it. That suggests another sign by which do tell whether you are doing the job of reading. Not only should it tire you, but there should be some discernible product of your mental activity.

on reading, thinking, and note-taking:

Thinking usually tends to express itself overtly in language. One tends to verbalize ideas, questions, difficulties, judgements that occur in the course of thinking. If you have been reading, you must have been thinking; you have something you can express in words. One of the reasons why I find reading a slow process is that I keep a record of the little thing I do. I cannot go on reading the next page, if I do not make a memo of something which occurred to me in reading this one. Whatever procedure you chosen you can measure yourself as a reader by examining what you have produced in notes during the course of reading a book. Do not forget, here as elsewhere, that there is something more important than quantity.

Just as there is reading and reading, so there is note taking and note taking. I am not recommending the kind of notes most students take during a lecture. There is no record of thought in them. At best, they are sedulous transcript. They are later become the occasion for what has been well described as “legalized cribbing and schoolboy plagiarism.” When they are thrown away after examinations are over, nothing is lost.

Intelligent note taking is probably as hard as intelligent reading. In fact, the one must be an aspect of the other, if the notes one makes while reading are record of thought. Every different operation in reading calls for a different step in thinking, and hence the notes one makes at various stages in the process should reflect the variety of intellectual acts one has performed. If one is trying to grasp the structure of a book, one may make several tentative outlines of its main parts in their order, before one is satisfied with one’s apprehension of the whole.

Schematic outlines and diagrams of all sorts are useful in disengaging the main points from supporting and tangential matters. If one can and will mark the book, it is helpful to underline the important words and sentences as they seem to occur. More than that, one should note the shifts in meaning by numbering the places at which important words are used successively in different senses. If the author appears to contradict himself, some notation should be made of the places at which the inconsistent statements occur, and the contest should be marked for possible indications that the contradiction is only apparent. There is no point in enumerating further the variety of notations or markings that can be made. There will obviously be as many as there are things to do in the course of reading. The point here is simply that you can discover whether you are doing what should be doing by the note taking or markings which have accompanied your reading.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway

and on reading itself:

Thus, there are three distinct readings, which can be variously named and described as follows:

I. The first reading can be called structural or analytic. Here the reader proceeds from the whole to its parts.

II. The second reading can be called interpretative or synthetic. Here the reader proceeds from the parts to the whole.

III. The third reading can be called critical or evaluative. Here the reader judges the author, and decides whether he agrees or disagrees.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard GatewayIn each of these three main divisions, there are several steps to be taken, and hence several rules.

To accomplish the first reading you must know:

(1) what kind of book it is; that is, the subject matter it is about (“Classify the book according to kind and subject matter”).

You must also know (2) what the book as a whole is trying to say (“State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most in several sentences (a short paragraph)”);

(3) into what parts that whole is divided (“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.”), and

(4) what the main problems are that the author is trying to solve.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard GatewayYou have already being introduced to three of the four rules for doing the second reading:

(1) you must discover and interpret the most important words in the book (“find the important words and through them come to terms with the author. Note that the rule has two parts. The first step is to locate the words which make a difference. The second is to determine their meanings, as used, with precision.”);

(2) you must do the same for the most important sentences (“Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.”), and

(3) similarly for the paragraph which express arguments (“Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.”).

(“Find if you can the paragraphs in a book which state its important arguments; but if the arguments are not thus expressed, your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences which state the propositions that compose the argument.”)

The fourth rule, which I have not yet mentioned, is that you must know which of his problems the author solved, and which he failed on.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard GatewayIn the third critical reading, the rules are:
(1) 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.”

(2) There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong…many people think a conversation is an occasion for personal aggrandizement. They think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth.

(3) Regard disagreements as capable of being resolved. Where the second maxim urged you not to disagree disputatiously, this one warns you against disagreeing hopelessly.

(4) Four ways in which a book can be adversely criticized. My hope is that if a reader confine himself to making these points, he will be less likely to indulge in expressions of emotion or prejudice. The four points can be briefly summarized by conceiving the reader as conversing with the author, as talking back. After he has said, “I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks:

  • “You are uninformed” – To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge which is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. Notice here that unless the knowledge, if possessed by the author, would have been relevant, there is no point in making this remark. To support the remark, you must be able yourself to state the knowledge which the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions;
  • “You are misinformed” – To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case. His error here may be due to lack of knowledge, but the error is more than that. Whatever its cause, it consists of assertions contrary to fact. The author is proposing as true or more probable what is in fact false or less probable. He is claiming to have knowledge he does not possess. This kind of defect should be pointed out, of course, only if it is relevant to the author’s conclusions. And to support the remark you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s;
  • “You are illogical, your reasoning is not cogent” – To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning. In general, fallacies are of two sorts. There is the non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. And there is the occurrence of inconsistency, which means that two things the author has tried to say are incompatible. To make either of these criticisms, the reader must be able to show the precise respect in which the author’s argument lacks cogency. One is concerned with this defect only to the extent that the major conclusions are affected by it. A book may lack cogency in irrelevant respects;
  • “Your analysis is incomplete” – To say that an author’s analysis is incomplete is to say that he has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications. or that he has failed to make distinctions which are relevant to his undertaking. It is not enough to say that a book is incomplete. Anyone can say that of any book. Men are finite, and so are their works, every last one. There is no point in making this remark, therefore, unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely, either by his own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway
Since you have said you understand, your failure to support any of these first three remarks obligates you to agree with the author as far as he has gone. You have no freedom of will about this. It is not your sacred privilege to decide whether you are going to agree or disagree. Since you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.” All you can possibly mean by saying something like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions or prejudices. If you have been convinced, you should admit it.

(If, despite your failure to support one or more of these three critical points, you still honestly feel unconvinced, perhaps you should not have said you understood in the first place.)

The first three remarks are related to the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments. These are the elements he used to solve the problems which initiated his efforts. The fourth remark — that the book is incomplete — bears on the structure of the whole.

This fourth point is strictly not a basis tor disagreement. It is critically adverse only to the extent that it marks the limitations of the author’s achievement. A reader who agrees with a book in part — because he finds no reason to make any of the other points of adverse criticism—may, nevertheless, suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of this fourth point about the book’s incompleteness. Suspended judgment on the reader’s part responds to an author’s failure to solve his problems perfectly.

library@orchard, National Library of Singapore, 277 Orchard Road, Orchard Gateway


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