What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to read better?
Of course I could read before. So what changed? Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s aptly-titled How to Read a Book explains there are four levels of reading.
The first is Elementary reading, which you have mastered if you can read this blog!
Second is Inspectional Reading to get a sense of what the book is about and how it sets out to get there. In my experience this means leafing through the contents, index, and reading the first and last chapters, with a skim of the conclusion of the major parts in between. Some authors even save you the bother by setting it all out in a long introduction! It is if you like, getting a feel for the lie of the land. (Much easier in my experience with a print book than a digital one).
The third level enables one to ‘come to terms’ with the book. That phrase has a specific meaning, which is to understand the author’s key phrases (the terms), and understand how they are used here (coming to terms). That enables one to define what problem the author is trying to solve, how the parts of the book come together, and whether the problems have in fact been solved. Which opens the way to criticism, for which the following rules are given:
Do not say you agree, or disagree, or suspend judgement until you can say, “I understand.”
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
Present good reasons for the critical judgement you make.
If you can show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed or illogical, then you can state why you disagree. If their analysis or account is incomplete then you can explain why you suspend judgement
The fourth level of reading is Syntopical reading, which is to bring several authors together as they speak on a certain discussion. If you’re with me so far, you might recognise this as the skill that essay subjects aim to develop – to see what different authors say about a similar question, and to let them speak in their terms.
So what did I learn through the DMin? I learned that by growing in the Third and Fourth stages of reading, I could read better and quicker. Speed was important because of the need to get the reading done in the midst of a busy ministry. Quality mattered because this is a serious course with a credible doctoral dissertation as the desired end-product. I found that for too long I had read every word of every page and lost sight of the author’s main arguments. In other words, I used to read non-fiction in the same way I still read fiction – from start to finish.
It’s a legacy of my undergraduates studies which were in natural science. Chemistry is not an essay subject: the merits or otherwise of a reaction aren’t settled by argument on paper, they are settled in lab by experiment. And text books are dense texts filled with formulae that do not respond well to skim-reading. My first studies required me to read closely but I never needed to read intelligently. Somehow I stumbled through theological studies without really mastering the latter either. Thankfully the DMin helped me gain my feet in Learning How to Read a Book. I wish I had discovered that book twenty years ago.