Chapter 7 – X-Raying a Book (part 2 of 2)


Let us turn now to the other structural rule, the rule that requires us to set forth the major parts of the book in their order and relation. … The third rule involves more than just an enumeration of the parts. It means outlining them, that is, treating the parts as if they were subordinate wholes, each with a unity and complexity of its own.

A formula can be stated for operating according this third rule. It will guide you in a general way. According to the second rule, we had to say: The whole book is about so and so and such and such. That done, we might obey the third rule by proceeding as follows: (1) The author accomplished this plan in five major parts, of which the first part is about so and so, the second part is about such and such, the third part is about this, the fourth part is about that, and the fifth part about still another thing. (2) The first of these major parts is divided into three sections, of which the first considers X, the second considers Y, and the third considers Z. (3) In the first section of the first part, the author makes four points, of which the first is A, the second B, the third C, and the fourth D. And so and so forth.

You may object to this much outlining … The rule looks as if it required an impossible amount of work from you. In fact, the good reader does this sort of thing habitually, and hence easily and naturally. He may not write it all out. … But if he were called upon to give an account of the structure of the book, he would do something that approximated the formula we have discussed.

We have stated the rule here for the ideal case. You should be satisfied if you make a very rough approximation to what is required.

Rule 2 – the requirement that you state the unity of a book – cannot be effectively followed without obeying Rule 3 – the requirement that you state the parts that make up that unity.

A very simple example will show what we mean. A two-year-old child, just having begun to talk, might say that “two plus two is four.” Objectively, this is a true statement; but we would be wrong to conclude from it that child knew much mathematics. In fact, the child probably would not know what the statement meant, and so, although the statement by itself was adequate, we would have to say that the child still needed training in the subject. Similarly, you might be right in your guess about a book’s main theme or point, but you still need to go through the exercise of showing how and why you stated it as you did. The requirement that you outline the parts of a book, and show how the exemplify and develop the main theme, is thus supportive of your statement of the book’s unity.


RULE 4. FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHOR’S PROBLEMS WERE. The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers.

It is your task as a reader to formulate the questions as precisely as you can. You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts. … Which are primary and which secondary? Which questions must be answer first, if others are to be answered later?

You can see how this rule duplicates, in a sense, work you have already done in stating the unity and finding its parts. It may, however, actually help you to do that work. In other words, following the fourth rule is a useful procedure in conjunction with obeying the other two.

If you know the kinds of questions anyone can ask about anything, you will become adept in detecting an author’s problems. They can be formulated briefly: Does something exist? What kind of thing is it? What caused it to exist, or under what conditions can it exist, or why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its characteristic properties, its typical traits? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or of a different sort? How does it behave? These are all theoretical questions. What ends should be sought? What means should be chosen to a given end? What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order? Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse? Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that? These are all practical questions.


  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.