Welcome to Part 3 of the Adler review as we progress our simple understanding of reading books and taking notes. If you just stumbled upon this post, I recommend you start with Part 1 and Part 2 before proceeding to give you a little context. As mentioned before, these ideas are not new as Mortimer Adler in his book How To Read A Book has laid down a foundational text on how to better understand the books we read.
"Always go too far, because that's where you'll find the truth."
- Albert Camus
So why these clickbait titles on lying to us? One of the things that took me a long time to realize in my reading habits was the idea that everyone who rights a book has their own opinion. They have a strong enough opinion in fact to write an entire book about an idea and with that comes human bias. It may not even be intentional and yet our human brains are wired to look for patterns and to look for arguments that support our case.
With that in mind let's hit question number three.
Question 3: "Is the Book True, in Whole or Part?"
Consider yourself the author of a book who is putting together a compelling argument on your topic of choice. You aren't going to fill the book with a bunch of arguments that contradict your ideas and your position. This may sound intuitive but I often find myself reading along in a generally agreeable mindset. That is why this question is critical. We have to remember that every book we read will be written in such a way as to support the argument. It is up to us to question whether we believe that argument or not.
Now, this is not an easy one to start up. It takes time to build up our understanding of what is true or not and requires diligence in ensuring that we aren't jumping to one side too quickly. Fundamental to critical analysis is the idea that we start from a position as close to the middle as possible and then listen to both sides of the argument. If we read a book supporting one position, given what we know, do we believe it to be true?
We answer this question by doing a few things:
"Wise men put their trust in ideas and not in circumstances."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
1) We question who the author is?
Is this person a credible source to begin with? What type of credentials does this author have and why should we believe them? Ph.D. from a highly respected university or no education and street smart? That's not a criticism of either, that's how we begin to understand what their experiences are and perhaps helping us determine whether we feel they are credible or not. No education and street smart but has built multiple million-dollar companies vs. Ph.D. and never started a business; the book is about business? Making a few notes before we begin can help us set the stage for the next step.
2) We question the arguments that they have made?
If you remember from Part 2, you should already have a good handle of what the main arguments are because you've been keeping track. We take the next step beyond just writing down the main arguments but begin to question them. When you are taking notes it can help to put page numbers next to everything so we can refer back to them. If the author is using examples are they providing additional sources of information? Can we jump down the rabbit hole and follow the sources on certain arguments we want to understand a bit more thoroughly?
3) We make a judgment, and move on!
So we question the arguments. We try to use our knowledge and judgment of the subject to decide whether we agree or not. That's all we can do. As we continue to read more deeply on subjects we will come to realize that certain arguments stand up and others do not. There really is no wrong answer here. If its a new topic then this is the starting point from which to build our base going forward. Do the best you can and move forward.
So you've studied the author, you've examined the arguments and you've made a judgment. Good! How do you now feel about the question overall? Are you in a position to answer whether you think the book as a whole is true or just parts? Remember, that a lot of books may contain pieces of both. An author can always twist weaker facts into compelling stories. Writing is powerful and sometimes we can get caught in strong storytelling despite the arguments being weak.
If you think of your brain as a muscle then we can only strengthen it by going through these exercises. We practice assessing the arguments and the book as a whole and we build our own strength in the exercise. You will become better at recognizing strong arguments, whether veiled in good or bad writing, and weaker arguments purposefully hidden behind good writing.
"The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing."
One last tip. Read other people's reviews! It can never hurt to take a look and see what other people are saying about a book. The New York Times and The Guardian dissect many of the popular books and do thorough write-ups! If you found this through Instagram there are also some amazing people out there writing reviews on IG.