When I introduce people to Mortimer Adler’s classic guide on intelligent reading, How to Read a Book, most merely give it a dismissive glance and ask, “Why would anyone read a whole book on how to read a book?” The more politely inquisitive might go so far as to ask, “If someone doesn’t know how to read a book, how would he be able to read that book?”
Adler soundly answers these questions at the beginning of his book. Simply recognizing the meaning of the words on a page and reading a book well are radically different things. I was reminded of this fact yesterday when I found myself dragging my eyeballs across the readings in Philosophy of Religion, trying to follow the strands of William Alston’s argument for a perceptual model of religious experience. “If I hope to get this,” I thought, “I need to refine my skill in reading philosophical works.”
I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to help me than my friend Mortimer. He has a section in How to Read a Book specifically devoted to the reading of philosophical literature. His most helpful (and probably most important) piece of wisdom is this: when reading works of philosophy, seek to discover the problem the author is seeking to solve or the question he is seeking to answer. Sometimes the author will state the problem or question. Sometimes he will not. Nevertheless, if I as the reader fail to grasp this, I will inevitably go away scratching my head in confusion.