The Study Dude – Put Some Meat on that Skeleton

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to stop gawking at your latest book’s skeleton. Put some meat on it, for darn sakes. A hamburger.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude further explores How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. This week, we’ll carve up a skeleton (a book’s, that is) and determine the book’s species.

What’s Your Type?
When peering at a book, consider what kind of book it is.

Adler and Doren’s book is rather dull, but eerily logical and analytical. And the authors dissect reading a book is if they were charting the structure and function of a bug?analyzing the legs, the antennas?the bulging eyes?to ad nauseam. The book’s title boasts of practicality, but its pages stink of theory.

But, how can you tell what kind of a book you are reading? Well, we all know a philosophy book is not a cookbook. Search Amazon for how to write a philosophy book?nothing pops up. But, search Amazon for how to write a cookbook?rows of titles surface. There’s a reason for this imbalance in popularity: one book is theoretical; the other, practical. Everyone loves to read how-to books.

And many people write practical books on strictly practical matters.

Not Adler and Doren.

As you’ll see, they are as thick as they pretend to be practical.

So, here’s what Adler and Doren say about how to assess your book’s category:
– Before you begin reading a book, know it’s genre. Know whether the book is fiction or nonfiction and whether it’s theoretical or practical.
– Sometimes, you might mistake a fiction book for a nonfiction book. For example, many fiction books involve subject material from the social sciences. Just because a book deals with social science topics doesn’t mean it’s necessarily nonfiction.
– To get a sense of the classification of a book, study the title, subtitle, and table of contents. Also, peer at the preface, the book-jacket blurb, and the introduction.
– After reading the table of contents, you’ll have the tools to better understand the title.
– Books that talk about “knowing that” typically fit in the category of theoretical; books on “knowing how”, practical.
– Practical books include ones on morality, ethics, politics, cooking, medicine, and engineering. Judging morality has a practical component, whether we agree with the views expressed or not.
– Practical books often use the words “should,” “ought,” “bad,” “good,” “end,” and “means.”
– Theoretical books focus on what is, not what should or could be.
– Different kinds of books instruct differently (for instance, economics versus psychology).

Wow, that’s the gist of twenty pages of theoretical, highbrow, opaque reading. Put some meat on that skeleton, Adler and van Doren…

The Skeleton Whole and the Skeleton Parts
When you know what the whole book discusses, you’re better able to study the parts.

Adler and van Doren talk about the skeleton of a book.

As an aside, here’s a tip: If you want to learn about a topic, first go to Amazon. Enter your topic in the search field. Then skim the tables of contents of the search results. Painless summary.

Once, to help me learn about a vague topic, my former supervisor urged me to go read reference books in the library. But after scouring the reference books, I found little. The librarian found little, too. The visit sucked away hours of the day.

Wikipedia is another way to figure out the skeleton of a topic. But don’t cite the site; you’ll get penalized. Most anyone can edit Wikipedia, including the neighbor who shouts ?You don’t know the extent of my problems!? while inviting herself over.

Once you figure out the parts of a topic or of a book, what do you do? Read the whole book.

Here’s what Adler and van Doren theorize about the whole and the parts:
– Describe the entire gist of the book in a sentence or two. In other words, what is the main idea?
– Figure out how the major parts of the book are related with one another and how they are connected with the whole.
– Figure out the plot of the book. All stories have similar plots. It’s the meat on the plot that makes the story original.
– The preface sometimes gives away the central theme of the book. Read it.
– Read the book in its entirety to get a sense of the big idea. That is, unless You’re pressed for time; in that case, skim.
– Each reader will have a somewhat different interpretation of a book’s big idea: Books mean different things to different people.
– Dissect the book’s major parts, subparts, and key ideas. Books are imperfect, so don’t worry if your summary of the book, too, is imperfect. Authors are also imperfect, so sometimes the major parts of a book don’t logically connect together.
– Craft your own outline of a book; don’t worry if it’s not the same as the outline in the table of contents. Make it your own.
– Figure out what questions the author asks and how she answers them. Look at theoretical questions (what is the purpose of…?) and practical questions (what can be achieved by…? What is the moral thing to do?) Knowing what the book’s questions are will help you understand the whole and the parts.

And that’s the theory behind a seemingly practical book titled How to Read a Book. Did you learn much? I thought the book might read like a mental steroid. But when it came time for me to dish the gist, the bun was barren.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

ReferencesAdler, Mortimer J., & van Doren, Charles. (1972). How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.