Chapter 6 – Pigeonholing a Book

PART TWO: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading


Everything that we will say about reading books applies to reading other materials of the kinds indicated. … when we refer to the reading of books, that the rules expounded refer to lesser and more easily understood materials, too.



You must know, for instance, whether you are reading fiction – a novel, a play, an epic, a lyric – or whether it is an expository work of some sort. Almost every reader knows a work of fiction when he sees it. Or so it seems – and yet this is not always easy. Is Portnoy’s Complaint a novel or a psychoanalytical study? Is Naked Lunch a fiction or a tract against drug abuse, similar to the books that used to recount with horrors of alcohol for the betterment of readers? Is Gone with the Wind a romance or a history of the South before and during the Civil War? Do Main Street and The Grapes of Wrath belong in the category of belles-lettres or are both of them sociological studies, the one concentrating on urban experiences, the other on agrarian life?

All of these, of course, are novels; all of them appeared on the fiction side of the best-seller lists. Yet the questions are not absurd. Just by their titles, it would be hard to tell in the case of Main Street and Middletown which was fiction and which was social science. There is so much social science in some contemporary novels, and so much fiction in much of sociology, that it is hard to keep them apart. But there is another kind of science, too – physics and chemistry, for instance – in books like The Andromeda Strain or novels of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke. And a book like The Universe and Dr. Einstein, while clearly not fiction, is almost as “readable” as a novel, and probably more readable than some of the novels of, say, William Faulkner.

An expository book is one that conveys knowledge primarily, “knowledge” being construed broadly. Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in the meaning of knowledge and is an expository work. As with fiction, most people know an expository work when they see it. Here, however, the problem is not to distinguish nonfiction from fiction, but to recognize that there are various kinds of expository books. It is not merely a question of knowing which books are primarily instructive, but also which are instructive in a particular way. The kinds of information or enlightenment that a history a philosophical work afford are not the same. The problems dealt with by a book on physics and one on morals are not the same, nor are the methods the writers employ in solving such different problems.

How do you go about following the rule, particularly in its last clause? … you do so by first inspecting the book – giving it an inspectional reading. You read the title, the subtitle, the table of contents, and you at least glance at the preface or introduction by the author and at the index. If the book has a dust jacket, you look at the publisher’s blurb.


In 1859, Darwin published a very famous book. … The book was about the theory of evolution, and the word “species” was in the title. What was the title?

Probably you said The Origin of Species, in which case you were correct. But you might not have said that. You might have said that the title was The Origin of the Species. Recently, we asked some twenty-five reasonably well-read persons what the title of Darwin’s book was and more than half said The Origin of the Species. The reason for the mistake is obvious; they supposed, never having read the book, that it had something to do with the development of the human species. In fact, it has little or nothing to do with that subject, which Darwin covered in a later book, The Descent of Man. The Origin of Species is about what its title says it is about – namely the proliferation in the natural world of a vast number of species of plants and animals from an originally much smaller number of species, owing mainly to the principle of natural selection. We mention this common error because many think they know the title of the book, although few have actually ever read the title carefully and thought about what it means.

The reader who ignores all these things has only himself to blame if he is puzzled by the question, What kind of book is this?

Important as reading titles is, it is not enough. The clearest titles in the world, the most explicit front matter, will not help you to classify a book unless you have the broad lines of classification already in your mind.

The title will not tell you, nor all the rest of the front matter, nor even the whole book itself sometimes, unless you have some categories you can apply to classify books intelligently.

The main distinction, we said, was between works of fiction, on the one hand, and works conveying knowledge, or expository works, on the other hand. Among expository works, we can further distinguish history from philosophy, and both from science and mathematics.

The trouble is that as yet we have no principles of classification. … For the moment, we want to confine ourselves to one basic distinction, a distinction that applies across the board to all expository works. It is the distinction between theoretical and practical works.


To make knowledge practical we must convert it into rules of operation. We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get somewhere. This can be summarized in the distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

Inspectional reading … becomes necessary when, as is sometimes the case, it is impossible to classify a book from its title and other front matter. In that case, you have to depend on signs to be found in the main body of the text. By paying attention to the words and keeping the basic categories in mind, you should be able to classify a book without reading very far.

A practical book will soon betray its character by the frequent occurrence of such words as “should” and “ought,” “good” and “bad,” “ends” and “means.” … In contrast, a theoretical book keeps saying “is,” not “should” or “ought.”

Let us caution you against supposing that the problem is as simple as telling whether you are drinking coffee or milk. We have merely suggested some signs whereby you can begin to make discriminations. The better you understand everything that is involved in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, the better you will be able to use the signs.


The traditional subdivision of theoretical books classifies them as history, science, and philosophy.

If you walked into a classroom in which a teacher was lecturing or otherwise instructing students, you could tell very soon whether the class was one is history, science, or philosophy. … and it would make a difference to you to know this, if you were going to try to listen intelligently to what went on.

In short, the methods of teaching different kinds of subject matter are different. Any teacher knows this. Because of the difference in method and subject matter, the philosopher usually finds it easier to teach students who have not been previously taught by his colleagues, whereas the scientist prefers the student whom his colleagues have already prepared. And so forth and so on.

Now, just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and their readers is the same as that between teachers and their students. … Hence, if we are to follow them, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner.