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  • Writer's pictureSean

Studying Under Adler; Part 2

Back again today with Part 2 of deconstructing a book and coming up with a decent set of notes. Still working my way through The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker and the volume of notes is right up there! It feels like there are takeaways on every page in some chapters.

We are following Mortimer Adler's four key questions to reading a book; this is greatly simplified as the book is packed full of wisdom in terms of critical thinking and how to digest a book. Regardless, this is a simplified version to get you started. I've been incorporating this into my note-taking process using Notability. Last week's question asked What is this book about as a whole and this week we are going to focus on question #2.

Question 2: What is being said in detail, and how?

We've gone from the main theme in question one to how this theme is being described using the key ideas and arguments the author is making. This is where note-taking really helps. Ideally, you have started your notes with these questions already primed. As you make your way through the books you can then focus on these key ideas in your notes. A lot of non-fiction books will focus each chapter around a central idea with the first and last paragraphs providing a summary of the arguments being made. These are good spots to compare your own notes with the bulk of the chapter being devoted to supporting arguments/examples. It doesn't always work this way but I find the better authors are writing this way. Prime the reader with the main idea of the chapter, provide the examples and supporting arguments, and reiterate the main idea at the end. It's a smart writing style as it reinforces our own psychological bias' for recognizing the repetition of ideas and also anchors us to the idea upfront.

As mentioned in my last post, these are meant to be guideposts and can seem quite simple. I've often found myself finishing a book and recognizing the overall theme of the book but then forgetting some of the key points because my note-taking wasn't focused on capturing them.

If you flipped over from my Instagram post then welcome; I'll spend a bit more time going into detail on the types of questions we can be asking to better understand what is being said within the book and what kind of detail we should be looking for. Again, these ideas are pulled from Adler so I don't want to make it seem like they are my own. I'm simply modifying them for my own use to help me to best comprehend the books that I'm reading.

Key Ideas / Sentences: One of the things you will find, especially in non-fiction books, is that many authors will focus around a key set of ideas and sentences that really lock-in what they are trying to say. Your best bet in identifying these early on are in the introduction and conclusion. Oh, you don't read the conclusion of the book first? How come? This is actually one of the most powerful ways of identifying not only the main theme of the book but also the key ideas before you dive into the book. You will find that some authors will tease out the key ideas in the introduction and slowly unfold it over the coming pages. This is fine but can be challenging for us the reader if we really want to think critically about the idea.

Reading the conclusion first can be one of the more powerful ways of identifying the main theme of the book but also the key ideas before you dive into the book.

Think about a movie that uses this trick. It opens with a scene that raises a big question that we must spend the next two hours trying to figure out what the question is and what the answer is. This might be fine for fiction books but if you are trying to learn from non-fiction it can lead us to be more supportive of the author's argument. It can be helpful to jump straight to the conclusion and see where we are going. Once we have those key ideas in our mind we then circle back through the book and see if we agree with how the author got there.

One last tip. If you do read the conclusion first you can sometimes avoid buying the book in the first place. The back cover is designed to be marketing material and draw you in. If you read/skim through the conclusion standing in the book store you may realize that the book isn't even one you want to be reading! Something to keep in mind.

Arguments: In a lot of non-fiction work today, the author is working at the edge of ideas that are new to the world or is trying to repurpose old ideas to fit new models. It's important to focus in on the arguments that the author is making and this is generally done through finding the key sentences within each chapter. You will usually see these leading into examples that the author has identified. These key sentences are good to have jotted down with short summaries of the examples noted down. You can then take the combinations of these key sentences and begin to understand what the arguments truly are. In some case, you may find yourself not convinced.

This can be hard to discern if you are new to a subject but you may find your knowledge and understanding grow after you have read a couple of books on the topic. Smart and compelling writing may not hide the fact the author hasn't used a strong argument.

Did the author solve the problem? This isn't always the easiest question to answer. If you are like me diving into new topics it can be challenging to understand whether the author has actually solved the problem. A book with compelling writing can sometimes fool the discerning reader. Malcolm Gladwell often gets caught up in this as he provides compelling storytelling wrapped around ideas that may not be fully developed or glossed over. This comes with time so don't be concerned if you aren't at a stage where you can answer this question. The important thing is to ask yourself every time. As you continue to read more and more books on similar topics your own understanding will grow and this question will become easier to answer.

My hope with these posts is to bring you closer to the ideas of Mortimer Adler but also help you improve your own note-taking. Let me know in the comments what you think or send me a message on Instagram!


Beer Pairing today is the fantastic 8.2% Imperial New England IPA Float Along from The Establishment Brewing. Follow up beer to one of my favourites, this beer is delicious. Hazy and full of juicy citrus, this is another winner coming on the heels of my already favourite Ghost Machine.

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