Thursday, 15 November 2012

Reading Practice

I’m reading currently a book called ”How to read a book?” by Mortimer J Adler and Charles van Doren. I have just started it but I talked about it in the office the other day. One of my colleagues said that one way to read a book is to first read the table of contents and the read the first page of every chapter. This post is an experience report on what can I learn by using a different reading strategy. This blog post will act also as platform for my thoughts when I read my target book. It was inspired by Erik Brickarp's blog post on taking notes.

The first pages of  “How to read a book?” book states that there are two ways to learn from books: to illicit information, and to understand the book.  My goal here is to run this exercise to illicit information. I choose a book called “Being logical” by D.Q. McInerny as my target book.


I decided to read the preface to be more in tune with what is going to be written about the subject. Forewords usually try to tell the reason behind why the book is written and to inspire the reader to go on. So when I got to the end of page 1, I decided to go on.

I had read the first paragraph of the book earlier (doesn’t count as cheating) and didn’t continue because of eldritch terms and words. Having read the preface, I the realized they will be explained. The book says it will concentrate to leave as little room for assumptions as possible thus trying to be explicit rather than implicit. Also it is not a text book for a class but a practical guide. This made me interested even more.

The preface addresses the structure of the book. It seems to be in five parts; each part building on the previous one. I’m interested if the parts contain what they were supposed to contain. The first part is told to be preparatory, the second one to lay the foundations, the third one to the meat and potatoes of thinking logically, fourth part discusses attitudes and fifth discusses fallacies. I know that I am fallacious, even more than regular people, so it is interesting to see what can I learn about myself while reading.

The table of contents

First thing that came to mind was that never before have I really read through the table of contents. This is the first time I really look into them. I usually skip the pages altogether to get cracking with the reading. Truth be told, I was quite excited to see how the table of contents was structured. It felt like a story was already told with the items on the list.

I pretty soon realized that every chapter had 8-30 sub chapters. Each chapter was about 1-5 pages long. I was starting to question my decision to read only first page from each chapter. For most of the sub chapters it would get the whole chapter done already. So I decided to read only the first *subchapter* of each chapter. They were, according to the table of content, almost always the introduction or foundation for the chapter.

Also I noticed that as for this book, it makes a great checklist for practicing critical thinking. By looking into the titles of each sub chapter, you would get a coherent guide to practice logical thinking. I could create a powerful mindmap out of those and print it on my cubicle wall. (And I will share it with you! Tadaa!)

Feel free to print this also!

Also this was a great stage to look for words and phrases you don’t understand that are essential to the understanding the content of the chapter. “Syllogistic”, “agnosticism”, “antecedent”, “equivocation”, “Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc” and “expediency” were new to me. Now that I checked them, I know better.

1st Part – Preparing the Mind for the Logic

I tackled it with my usual gusto; get cracking with it and read it again if I need to. And again I needed to read it twice for me to understand the message. I think I shouldn’t as this type of reading is just to get information. Sadly I didn’t /read/ it, I skimmed it. And after the second reading, I realized that the first sub chapter was exactly about that: Paying attention. And I had to pay, for it took my time and time is money. The book encourages you to listen instead of hearing, to see instead of looking. It gives great insight to the foundation of logical behavior.

The table of contents told that topics like “Effective Communication” and “Truth” were in latter parts of the chapter. This is the problem of this kind of quick reading, I see interesting stuff and I don’t want to stop reading. But I must refrain from reading more as I was to read this thing quickly, so on to the next chapter.

2nd Part – The Basic Principle of Logic

At this point, the technique I chose was beginning to bother me. I did read it fast, but this was only a glimpse of what it could have been. The principles could have been more thoroughly read but I chose to stick to my plan. The 1st subchapter was about the first principle of logic. Before the 1st subchapter was a brief piece of text regarding logic as three separate but linked entities; as science, as art and as skill. This did raise some questions, but I think they will be answered if I read the book with thought.

The first subchapter tries to focus on practical side of things. The theory will be discussed elsewhere, but I was intrigued by the the notion of reading even more about the theory of logic. This subchapter proved some examples which clarify the link between logic and human reasoning. Again I was tempted to read on, but managed to jump to the next chapter.

3rd part – Argument: The Language of Logic

The subchapter was about founding an argument. I did have some experience in the practical side of forming an argument, as I had been practicing that with Michael Bolton on Skype, so I knew the elements to build an argument. Those were “premise” and “conclusion”. With the help of examples the book showed some good uses of supporting and supported arguments, giving me a good ground to build upon – in fact just like the preface promised.

As this on itself might have been a good starting point to a person not knowing anything about logic and was just seeking a quick 15 minutes intense session on logic, this only made me hungrier to read through the whole chapter. I noticed that, if not the writing style or the content, my eagerness to read on was huge. I had to struggle every time to quit reading further.

4th part – The Sources of Illogical Thinking

I was a bit taken aback with the concept of writing about things that made you illogical. When writing about negative stuff some might absorb the “bad habits” instead of seeing them as negative. After reading the subchapter, I felt that it only made me stronger thinker and I was trying to spot those weaknesses – you might say - and try to find ways to mitigate them.

Skepticism was the topic of the first subchapter and it was really informative. It gave insight on selective skepticism and to behavioral skepticism – and gave some concrete examples. I began to think immediately about exercises I could to using skepticism in my coaching. I may have already done that but unintentionally. Not I could be even better at forming an argument. The book made some examples about damaging skepticism but tried to enforce the power of healthy doubt – doubt as a catalyst for learning.

5th part – The Principal Forms of Illogical Thinking

This 5th part was about fallacies. They were explained to be the typical patters people do/use to act illogically and to build illogical arguments. Usually fallacies appeal to emotions so they are more powerful than sound logic. Again by recognizing the patterns I might be better at building an argument that is based on sound logic.

The lure of using a fallacious argument is high, because it might be quicker and more effective than using sound logic. Even though you’re right and have a sound logic behind the conclusion, basing that on fallacious argument is almost never a good thing – it might bite you back when you least expect it. I had read something about the fallacies so this area in particular was really tempting.
The afterword was a good reflection through the book. They stressed the concentration when arguing so you focus on using your logic in building an argument.  I rarely read the afterword as I see no input to the meat and potatoes of the text. I did realize that the afterword did provide a fresh view to the book as a whole. It might even be effective to read the afterword /before/ starting to read the book itself as it can provide a fresh view to the book before trying to tackle the reading.

About the exercise

After having done the exercise, I feel it was a good practice. I might use it again but with a twist – I will write up questions about the first page/subchapter to a piece of paper and try to answer those questions as I read on. In that way not only will I illicit information, I will begin to understand the meaning of things.

The exercise was good fun as the text was close to my liking – it wasn’t a textbook but a guide, the topic was near to me, and it was short enough – so the exercise was a bit easy. It was good for a first experiment to this kind of reading, but I need to make this process more efficient. I might even learn more about this type of “stub skimming” (if there is no word for this type of reading, let it be that).

So right now the process goes like this:

  1. Choose a book to your liking (any book will do)
  2. Read the table of content
  3. Read the preface
  4. Read the first page of every chapter
  5. Read the afterword

On every step, make notes and questions about the content
If there are fundamental questions about the content, read on and find the answer.


This is just one way to read. This is more like giving an indication of what the book is about. This is not used to understand to book but to have some knowledge of what there might be if you’d read on. This is a good way to tackle a book on before you read it thoroughly, because you already have questions about the content. On the time you re will systematically read it through (or parts of it) might be significantly faster and make it easier to understand.

Now I need to continue reading the book about reading a book. I think I will use this technique to give me a head start.

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