How to Read a Book - Know what Kind of Book you are Reading

Posted by Thomas Eglinton on

Reformers Resource: How to Read a Book -- Series by Thomas Eglinton

We are now on to learning about the third level of reading: Analytical Reading.

We will slow down now, as Adler takes us through how to read analytically in detail. The first this we need to learn in order to read analytically is to work out what kind of book we are reading. Alder puts it this way:

The first rule of analytical reading can be expressed as follows: Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you being to read.

There are a few places to start in order to work out what category to put a book in, and these are the same places we learnt to start when we considered how to pre-read a book - the title, the table of contents, the blurb, the index, the preface and the introduction.

We can use these parts of a book to start to make some quick and easy categorisations. But before we get to a few examples, we need to consider what categories we may put books into. That is, what are the different 'kinds' of books?

Adler suggests two main categories - practical and theoretical. Now it is true that all things theoretical must eventually become practical or they are not worth knowing, however, it does stand that some books deal more with the theory and some deal more with the practice. Again, Adler says it better than I could:

Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think your should do.

Theoretical books can then be divided further by the different methods for demonstrating that something is the case. There are scientific theoretical books that show that something is the case through the use of scientific means. There are historical theoretical books that demonstrate that something occurred in history. There are philosophical theoretical books that apply the laws of logic and reason to facts in order to show that something is the case. Perhaps in the Christian world there needs to be one more addition to Adler's categories which might be called hermeneutically theoretical where the author uses the Bible to prove that something is the case.

In the Christian book world, I think many books would fit into the categories 'practical books', 'hermeneutically theoretical' and 'historical theoretical'. You may find the odd philosophical or scientific book as well but most would fit into the first three categories.

So, how can we work out what kind of book we are reading? How much can the title help us? Well, here are some examples:

  • "How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology" has a great title that immediately tells you what kind of book it is. It is a practical book telling you how you should learn from the Old Testament.
  • "God's Timeline: The Big Book of Church History" is also well titled and fits nicely into the category of historical theoretical. It is going to help us learn that something is the case. In this instance, we will learn something about what happened in Church history.
  • "The Moment of Truth" has a more difficult title and so we would go hunting further into the blurb, table of contents and introduction to try to work out what kind of book it is. We would find in the blurb that the author is seeking to demonstrate the answer to Pilate's questions 'what is truth?' and so it appears to be a hermeneutically theoretical book. But we also discover that the author wishes to urge the reader on to speak the truth - so perhaps it is practical. However, we are interested in the main thrust of the book and so I would approach this book primarily as a theoretical book with some practical outworking (as good theoretical books should).

The reason categorising your book as early as possible is important is that it will change what you can expect from the authors approach. A theoretical book will have a different approach and line of argument than a practical book. In addition, it will help you to understand the purpose or the goal that the author had in mind. Is this book trying to convince you of some truth, teach you some history, change how you live or teach you a skill? Categorising a book will help you answer these questions which in turn will help you achieve the goal that the author intended you to achieve when they wrote the book. 

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