How to Read a Book Superficially

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

As a man long identified with the great-books movement — indeed someone once called me “The Great Bookie” — I am painfully aware that many of the great works of thought and imagination I have been talking and writing about for 30 years are not read by those who might enjoy them most. A generation entertained by C. S. Forester, Herman Wouk, Georges Simenon and J. D. Salinger finds the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare practically unreadable.

The truth is that these books are actually fully as readable as Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Caine Mutiny, the Inspector Maigret mysteries and The Catcher in the Rye. The knack lies in knowing how to read them.

First, let us observe how not to read them. Consider, for example, the approach of the romantic lover of culture and learning who sets out to tackle the masters. Does he advance upon these renowned works as he would a contemporary best seller? Of course not. Instead, full of reverential awe, he approaches them as if they were sacred scripts. He starts from the first word on the first page and proceeds to the last word on the last page — or at least that is his goal. He proceeds cautiously, pedantically, feeling compelled to comprehend every sentence the moment he reads it — or to succumb in the attempt.

What happens to our lover of culture is not difficult to predict. The “stops” become more and more frequent as he tries to track down every allusion to unknown legend, myth or history, or is diverted by the author’s own digressions — all too plentiful, incidentally, in many of the great literary works of the past. No matter how pronounced a glutton for punishment our reverential reader may be, there comes a point when even he has had too much of a bad thing and he finally gives up. A few more experiences like this with the great books, and he becomes convinced that reading them is a fruitless pursuit and that they have acquired their lofty reputation through snobbery, stupidity or skullduggery.

It is not hard for us to see where the poor fellow has gone wrong.

Obviously, he has not given these renowned books any chance to display their worth. No sensible person reads an ordinary book in this way, and it’s no way to read a great book either. Our disillusioned culture seeker has been betrayed by his naiveté and his prim solemnity. He has so encumbered himself that he cannot function as a reader, loaded down as he is with all his dictionaries, encyclopedias, classical companions and literary histories, as he tries to track down every obscure allusion and understand every word of the venerable book.

Now, let me speak for myself. Whenever I have found a great book worthy of its reputation, it was the shape, tone, drive, mood and essential content of the book as a whole that impressed and interested me. Some parts of it I found especially enjoyable or vivid, while others bored, puzzled or stymied me until I slid by them and went on with my reading. This is the commonsense way of reading a great book the first time around. Otherwise — via the stop-and-look-it-up or stop-and-figure-it-out way — one would never get it read the first time.

Note that I did not say this is the only good way or even the best way to read a great work. I said that this admittedly superficial reading is the best and only way the first time around. I grant, indeed I urge, that the great books are infinitely rereadable, that we discern more meaning in them the more we read them and the more we bring to them. But we must start from where we are and with what we are — with our present age, experience and insight — and let these works and writers communicate to us here and now.

What soured many of us on so vital and juicy a writer as William Shakespeare in our school days was not simply the fact that we were far too young to understand all that he said. Of course, we were too young — what schoolboy could understand Othello, what schoolgirl understand Cleopatra? But that was not our trouble, just recall how a play as tight and simple in structure as Macbeth, with a single story line and theme, moving swiftly toward its climax and conclusion, packing everything into a terse 2100 lines, was hopelessly obscured by pseudoscholarly busyness. We were so busy reading the explanatory footnotes and glossary, and laboriously tracking down unfamiliar terms and allusions that we were never able to view the play as a whole. We never suspected that the proper way to read a play for the first time is to do it in one continuous reading, so as to grasp the action as a whole — and then, and only then, if we care to do so, to go over it carefully, searching out the meanings and connections of the details of dialog and plot. In school, we never got to see what the shouting was all about or to discern why the characters behaved as they did. What wonder, then, that Shakespeare seemed dull?

Granted that more elaborate and complex plays, such as Othello and King Lear, will not reveal as much of their meaning as does Macbeth in a quick once-over, the fact remains that it is the essential theme and action that must enlist our interest before we can become aware of all the details. In King Lear, what excites, astounds and terrifies us is the sad and mad career of that amazing, impulsive, raging old man as he realizes the consequences of his blind stupidity in his relations with his daughters. This is the core of the play and everything else runs in or out of it. This is what it is important to follow and grasp. As for the side story or subtheme of Gloucester and his sons, which crisscrosses the main story throughout the play, it is not important to see exactly how it fits, or whether indeed it fits at all with the central theme, when first we read the play. If we wonder about it, we can return and search it out, with the actions and reactions of Lear and his daughters fixed firmly in our minds.

It is pedantic fussiness that interferes with our enjoyment of Shakespeare, not the Elizabethan, poetic language that some readers claim is the hazard. Actually, the problem of understanding the idiom in most of Shakespeare’s plays is not much more difficult than that of grasping any other English local dialect, such as the speech of Faulkner’s rural Southerners or Sillitoe’s provincial British workingmen. The philologist Jespersen once pointed out that Shakespeare’s language is for the most part the ordinary conversational English of his day and not at all a fancy poetic diction. We should not find it too hard to grasp what Iago means when he tells Desdemona’s father that his white ewe is being tupped by an old black ram. “Tup” is certainly less of a problem to us than Norman Mailer’s odd three-letter word in The Naked and the Dead will be to readers three centuries hence (they may well confuse it with “fig”).

As I have indicated, the distinguished literature of past eras provides quite a few obstacles, detours and blind alleys, where an innocent and serious-minded reader may well come a cropper. One of the most annoying things to many readers, especially in very ancient literature, is the repetition of terms, narration and dialog. Homer’s reference to “the rosy-fingered Dawn” in the Odyssey, for example, may charm us at first, but some of us are ready to chew off our fingernails at the thousandth repetition of this phrase. Moreover, certain parts of the story of Ulysses’ wanderings are repeated many times in full detail.

One explanation of this may be that the ancient writers did not have an editor peering over their shoulders, telling them what to cut and what to condense. In those days, perhaps, books were more written than edited, in contrast to our “advanced” present-day practices. But the most likely explanation is that Homer was still close in manner to the ancient bard who chanted his tale at the banquet table or around the campfire. Oral recitation, particularly of long narratives, required repetition at various points in the tale, and no doubt the audiences liked to be reminded of the details and events that had gone before (as in the serial stories in our weekly and monthly magazines). And they would nod appreciatively at the repetition of a favorite metaphor or phrase.

However, we who read the Odyssey today usually do so alone, and most often without moving our lips. If we have read and remember a certain situation, event or interchange, there is no need to read it again, often in the very same words, a second and a third time. What most of us do when we are aware of this ancient practice is to skip the repetitive passage entirely and go on with the story, which is, of course, the sensible thing to do. It certainly involves no less majesty or blasphemy, for however sacred Homer may have been held in certain Greek circles, his text is not sacrosanct to us. We are not compelled to mouth and ponder every single word — including duplications and reduplications. Reading is, after all, an active and selective process, the analog of writing, not a merely passive echoing of the writer’s words.

Another favorite practice of the ancients, and one which has been followed by writers all the way down to the present, is the frequent use of digressions. Sometimes these digressions dovetail into the narrative proper and serve to fill in what has gone before, like the movie flash back. But often they seem to serve no particular purpose. In the Odyssey, for instance, Ulysses’ lying yarns when he is trying to preserve his incognito, and the long and detailed accounts of their pasts by various minor characters. All these digressions seem to do is to keep us from going on with the main story. According to such eminent literary critics as Goethe and Schiller, this was just what the author was trying to do, to “retard” us in the reading of the story, in order to keep things relaxed and leisurely. Ancient audiences, it seems, liked a man who took his time, and they liked to take their time in getting to the culmination of a story.

The modern temper, however, is not a leisurely one and we are likely to be annoyed rather than mollified by digressions from the main story. Our tendency is to skip or skim these interruptions. Certainly something is lost when we do this, for a full appreciation and enjoyment of Homer requires an awareness of the richness and clarity of detail even in his offshoots from the main narrative. It would be unfortunate if we did not catch the wonderful story of how Ulysses got his scar in Book XIX of the Odyssey, and the many other magnificent miniatures that adorn the work. Still, in a first reading we must achieve a middle ground between the slow sipping which never gets to the bottom of the glass and the quick gulp which never senses the flavor, body and aroma. We must not permit ourselves to become so engrossed in our admiration of Homer’s miniatures that we lose the main thread of the story of that most crafty and devious of men, Ulysses; his ambiguous, devoted, sly and catty wife; and his weak, uncertain, father-seeking son.

A great book which certainly seems to call for the skipping device is Cervantes Don Quixote. This engaging, comical, touching story of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance and his fat, pragmatic squire is interspersed with all kinds of side stories, stories within stories and subplots. There are many of these tales, such as “The Novel of the Ill-advised Curiosity” (in which the husband prevails on his friend to test his wife’s virtue — to his sorrow), which have nothing to do with the story of Don Quixote. A recent translator of Cervantes’ work, J. M. Cohen, advises us to skip these interlarded tales entirely. Certainly most of this extraneous material can be skipped in a first reading without affecting our grasp of the main theme.

Another obstacle to our understanding and enjoyment of some of the great works of fiction is that the author often steps into the role of preacher, teacher or lecturer. These dissertations occur not only in works with a serious message, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, but also in such comic tales as Don Quixote and Tom Jones. In the latter two works, the discussions are closely related to the narration, consisting of literary criticism and literary history. The whole story of Don Quixote might be regarded as a form of literary criticism, since it deliberately parodies the trashy chivalric romances which were popular in Cervantes’ time. But in addition to this practical or existential demonstration of the ridiculousness of the cliché-ridden romances, Cervantes provides a critical history of this literature, as well as a discussion of the popular drama of his time. He also gives us in Part II of his novel a criticism of the defects of which he had been guilty in Part I — for instance, that “The Novel of the Ill-advised Curiosity” is out of place. Most of this critical material is apparently germane to the work, which is one of the prime examples of anti-literary literature — a work of fiction written to demonstrate the worthlessness of a certain type of fiction.

In the case of Tom Jones, the essays on literary criticism, which appear at the beginning of each of the 18 “books” that comprise the work, do not have such a close relation to the theme. Indeed, these admittedly are breaks in the narrative which the author, Henry Fielding, avows will be a welcome change for the reader. He proceeds to give his captive audience a whole theory of the writing of novels and also to get in his licks against the literary critics, whom he describes as “reptiles,” “slanderers,” ignoramuses, and incompetents. Here again our commonsense rule should prevail. The main thing in Tom Jones is the story of the misfortunes, exploits and embarrassing moments of that good-natured “gallant” young man and of the people with whom he is involved. If the chapters of literary criticism are an annoying interruption in our following the story, then we may ignore them at a first reading, without feeling guilty about “cheating.”

When we come to a book like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the presentation of the author’s theory of the causes of historical events adds a further, and to some readers a discouraging, complexity to what is already a very complex work. Indeed, the late H. L. Mencken has said it contains every endeavor known to man with the possible exception of a yacht race. It tells the story of several families over three generations against the background of Napoleon’s war against Russia. Close to 500 characters march through its pages. It is a vast fictional narrative which at the same time deals with widespread and complex historical events. In addition, it includes whole sections presenting Tolstoy’s philosophy of history — that historical events are completely determined and inevitable, not influenced at all by human decisions.

From the time the novel first appeared, extraordinary as well as ordinary readers have protested vehemently against the inclusion of these long discursive passages in a work of fiction. Turgenev accused Tolstoy of sheer charlatanism. Flaubert complained that “he repeats himself, he philosophizes.” And the critic Perry Lubbock said that he inserted “interminable chapters of comment and explanation, chapters in the manner of a controversial pamphlet, lest the argument of his drama should be missed.” Though the justice of these harsh criticisms can be challenged, it is still true that our reading and understanding of this magnificent story will not be seriously impaired if we skip what Lubbock called “these maddening interruptions” in a first reading, and go on with the novel. Our enjoyment and completion of the work depend on our following out the destinies and interactions of the main characters and the incomparable portrait of men at war. Besides, the common reader will gather a good deal of Tolstoy’s theory of historical inevitability simply from his story of the way and its direction — for instance, the contrasting portraits of Napoleon and Kutuzov, the ridicule of pretentious military theorists, the comparatively greater role assigned to the common soldiers as against the “big brass,” and the way in which General Bagration saves the day at Austerlitz merely by his unplanned appearance on the scene.

This work certainly deserves its reputation. Few writers have equaled Tolstoy’s power to re-create concrete human actions — war, hunting, farming, family life and erotic love. But again it is not necessary to read everything in the novel the first time we read it — perhaps not at all. I, myself, find the parts dealing with Pierre Bezukhov’s Masonic activities boring, and this has not been remedied by continual rereading, so I pass them by. Other readers may find that other parts drag, and skip accordingly. Certainly this is a whale of a book, and far more enjoyable to read than 90 percent of the fat contemporary best sellers through which people plow in order to be “well-read” today.

Speaking of a whale of a book naturally reminds us of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, a great work of fiction that includes numerous sections of nonfictional material. Pages and pages of the book are filled with a history and description of whale hunting and a pseudoscientific “cetology,” the study of whales. Here again it is far better for those who feel blocked and confused by the appearance of these chunks of historical and scientific material that interrupt the flow of the narrative, simply to skip them at a first reading. After all, it is obviously far less important to absorb all the details of the whaling industry than to perceive that Captain Ahab’s hunt for the white whale has something to do with man’s encounter with evil. Moby Dick is a rich and complex story, requiring enough of the reader’s concentration and energy, without forcing him, in addition, to an involuntary reading of the digressions into history and biology.

Another great book that contains much nonfictional and instructive material is, oddly enough, Gargantua and Pantagruel, by PLAYBOY’S patron monk, François Rabelais. The common habit of talking about Rabelais’ work instead of reading it has concealed this from most of us. This does not mean that Rabelais is not Rabelaisian in the common sense. He is, and most delightfully and wholesomely so, in a manner to make most contemporary attempts at coarseness seem sick and effete. Yes, Gargantua’s ingenious invention of a new type of toilet tissue is there, and so are the great feats of emptying heroic bladders to flood the countryside and win battles, the rhapsodies on the male member and on that now unfortunately passé article of wearing apparel, the codpiece, Panurge’s plea for an impregnable wall for Paris constructed of women’s essential parts, arranged according to size, the five recipes for the abatement of lust, of which “the too frequent reiteration of the act of venery” seems to be the surest. These and hundreds of other such incidents, as well as all the four- and five-letter words and many others that we never heard of — all are there. Rabelais’ earthiness is indeed no mere spieler’s come-on.

This earthiness is wonderfully enjoyable, but that is by no means all that there is to Rabelais’ masterpiece, for it is also in large part a distillation and presentation of Renaissance learning. At the beginning Rabelais suggests the two faces of his work, pointing on the one hand to the saving power of laughter and claiming nothing but wholesome mirth as his aim, while on the other hand warning that a serious message is cleverly hidden under the “jests, mockeries, lascivious discourse, and recreative lies.” He urges that the reader “by a sedulous lecture, and frequent meditation, break the bone’ and suck out the marrow.”

This seems to contradict what I have been saying. But, for one thing, I think Rabelais’ rather large claim is to be taken with several grains of salt, especially when he promises to “disclose . . . the most glorious doctrines and dreadful mysteries.” I do not think, however, that he is just trying to put the cloak of respectability over his “Rabelaisian” stories, for indeed the work is a potpourri of all the arts, sciences and poetry of his time. This varied material is somehow welded together and brought into the story. For instance, it is in his stories about Gargantua and Pantagruel that Rabelais gives us a concrete and humorous description of his ideal educational program, in contrast with the degenerate scholastic type of education. His views about the stupidity and horror of war between nations are expressed in the context of his tale, which he tells in uproarious fashion. He attacks legal folderol and hairsplitting in the comical litigation between Lord Kissbreech and Lord Suckfist. His antipapist views are embodied in a satirical section dealing with Pope-Figland and Papimany. Undoubtedly, all the currents of the Renaissance and Reformation are present in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Still, we do not read it as social and cultural history, which we can get in handier form elsewhere. If we are edified and instructed, it is because we have been seduced into it by the story and the style — by Rabelais’ joyous bouncing about of words.

But, again, we are not compelled to read every single, blessed word. There are frequent repetitions of themes and ideas, and some parts of the work drag, especially in the later books. I am sure that Rabelais himself would approve a reader’s skimming or skipping the parts that bore him. After all, his life ideal, as portrayed in the utopian community of Theleme in the book, is nonconstraint. DO WHAT THOU WILT is its motto. Rabelais’ view is that constraint corrupts. What about such monumental pieces of literature as the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and Faust? Are they not exceptions? Such works seem to demand a whole mass of accessory scholarship, including a score card to tell the players, and a detailed map of the scene to find our way around. There is a good deal of justice in this objection. We may take the Divine Comedy as a prime example of such monumental, all-embracing literature. How can we appreciate this work even partially without some knowledge of the philosophical and theological doctrines which it presupposes, of the historical characters who fill the work, and of the political situation in Dante’s time, including the role of the papacy to which he refers so often? There is no doubt that all the footnotes, explanations and graphs that are solicitously tacked onto most editions of the Divine Comedy are quite helpful. But it is also true that they can hinder a successful reading of the work the first time around. We may get so enmeshed in following the footnotes and locating ourselves on the various levels of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise that we may miss the message as well as the story and the lovely language in which it is told.

Whatever Dante has to say to us is told in the form of a story. It is, on the author’s own admission, an allegory of man’s free will and destiny, and he begs the reader to seek out the underlying meaning of the narrative. That meaning, however, is to be grasped through our own reading, imagination and appreciation, not through a pile of glossaries, dictionaries, footnotes, guidebooks or maps. Dante himself said that he was appealing to the reader through poetic fiction. His aim, he said, was “to put into verse things difficult to think.” There are many possible meanings and levels of meaning at a first reading, and it is doubtful if we can ever fully exhaust them in innumerable readings. But whatever meanings we do perceive through our own personal insight must come through reading the story about Dante, lost in a dark and tangled wood at the midpoint of his life, and following him on his way through Hell and the other regions. It is not important that we grasp the extremely complicated topography of Hell at a first reading. What really matters is that we sense the prevading tone, are impressed by the dramatic and touching incidents, and become aware of the central personal relationships, such as the master-disciple relation between Virgil and Dante. And, besides, the author himself stops the story from time to time to sketch the plan of his imaginary regions and hint at the meanings intended by some of the incidents and characters.

Again, as with many other of the great books, there are sections of the work that are dull and tedious — every page of the Divine Comedy is not on the same level of vitality, lucidity and interest. There is a good deal of it that you will not only want to skim the first time, but also the next few times. And the same goes for Paradise Lost, Faust and similar works.

This is a good time to recall that the reason why we reread a book is not merely to grasp what was lost or blurred in the first reading, but also to enjoy again what we enjoyed the first time. Exactly the same impulse is at work as the one that impels us to see again a movie which we particularly enjoyed and admired. William Faulkner, remarking on how he continually reread the literary classics, pointed out that with these “old friends” you do not have to begin at the start and go on to the end. “I’ve read these books so often,” he said, “that I don’t always begin at page one and, read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.” This is all the more reason to read through and enjoy a great book the first time. Without that initial acquaintanceship and pleasure, the stage of familiar friendship and repeated enjoyment can never be reached.

The moral is evident — it is a far, far better thing to have read a great book superficially than never to have read it at all.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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