Chapter 14 – How to Read Imaginative Literature (part 1 of 2)


So far, this book has been concerned with only half the reading that most people do. Even that is too liberal an estimate. Probably the greater part of anybody’s reading time is spent on newspapers and magazines, and on things that have to be read in connection with one’s job. And so far as books are concerned, most of us read more fiction that nonfiction. Furthermore, of the nonfiction books, the most popular are those that, like newspapers and magazines, deal journalistically with matters of contemporary interest.

We have not deceived you about the rules set forth in the preceding chapters. Before undertaking to discuss them in detail, we explained that we would have to limit ourselves to the business of reading serious nonfiction books. To have expounded the rules for reading imaginative and expository literature at the same time would have been confusing. But now we cannot ignore the other types of reading any longer.

Before embarking on the task, we want to emphasize one rather strange paradox. The problem of knowing how to read imaginative literature is inherently much more difficult than the problem of knowing how to read expository books. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact that such skill is more widely possessed than the art of reading science and philosophy, politics, economics, and history. How can this be true?

It may be, of course, that people deceive themselves about their ability to read novels intelligently. … Those who cannot say what they like about a novel probably have not read it below its most obvious surfaces. However, there is more to the paradox than that. Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth.


In order to proceed by the way of negation, it is first of all necessary to grasp the basic differences between expository and imaginative literature. These differences will explain why we cannot read a novel as if it were a philosophical argument, or a lyric as if it were a mathematical demonstration.

The most obvious difference, already mentioned, relates to the purposes of the two kinds of writing. Expository books try to convey knowledge – knowledge about experiences that the reader has had or could have. Imaginative ones try to communicate an experience itself – one that the reader can have or share only by reading – and if they succeed, they give the reader something to be enjoyed. Because of their diverse intentions, the two sorts of work appeal differently to the intellect and the imagination.

This does not mean that we can think without using our imagination, or that sense experience is ever wholly divorced from rational insight or reflection. The matter is only one of emphasis.

This fact about imaginative literature leads to what is probably the most important of the negative injunctions we want to suggest. Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.

We have discussed at length the importance of reading actively. This is true of all books, but it is true in quite different ways of expository works and of poetry. … We must act in such a way, when reading a story, that we let it act on us. We must allow it to move us, we must let it do whatever work it wants to do on us. We must somehow make ourselves open to it.

The basic difference between expository and imaginative literature leads to another difference. Because of their radically diverse aims, these two kinds of writing necessarily use language differently. The imaginative writer … uses metaphors as the units of his construction just as the logical writer uses words sharpened to a single meaning. … The multiplication of metaphors puts almost more content between the lines than in the words that compose them. The whole poem or story says something that none of its words say or can say.

From this fact we obtain another negative injunction. Don’t look for terms, propositions, and arguments in imaginative literature. Such things are logical, not poetic, devices.

Of course, we can learn from imaginative literature, … but not in the same way as we are taught by scientific and philosophical books. We learn from experience – the experience that we have in the course of our daily lives. So, too, we can learn from the vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination. … That is why it seems right to say that expository books teach primarily, while imaginative books teach only derivatively, by creating experiences from which we can learn.

Finally, one last negative rule. Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge. The “truth” of a good story is its verisimilitude, its intrinsic probability or plausibility.

When we read history, we want the truth in some sense, and we have a right to complain if we do not get it. When we read a novel and want a story that must be true only in the sense that it could have happened in the world of characters and events that he novelist has created, and re-created in us.

What do we do with a philosophical book, once we have read it and understood it? We test it – against the commons experience that was its original inspiration, and that is its only excuse for being. … When we understand and do not disagree, we must say, “This is our common sense of the matter. We have tested your theory and found it correct.”

Not so with poetry. We cannot test Othello, say, against our own experience, unless we too are Moors and wedded to Venetian ladies whom we suspect of treachery. But even if this were so, Othello is not every Moor, and Desdemona is not every Venetian lady; and most such couples would have the good fortune not to know an Iago. In fact, all but one would be so fortunate; Othello, the character as well as the play, is unique.


Chapter 13 – How to Read Practical Books (part 2 of 2)


This brief discussion gives you a clue to the two major questions you must ask yourself in reading any sort of practical book. The first is: What are the author’s objectives? The second is: What means for achieving them is he proposing? It may be more difficult to answer these questions in the case of a book about principles than in the case of one about rules. The ends and means are likely to be less obvious. Yet answering them in either case is necessary for the understanding and criticism of a practical book.

The practical author must always be something of an orator or propagandist. Since your ultimate judgement of his work is going to turn on your acceptance of the goal for which he is proposing means, it is up to him to win you to his ends.

There is nothing wrong or vicious about this. It is of the very nature of practical affairs that men have to be persuaded to think and act in a certain way. Neither practical thinking nor action is an affair of the mind alone. The emotions cannot be left out.

The best protection against propaganda of any sort is the recognition of it for what it is. Only hidden and undetected oratory is really insidious.

The person who reads a practical book intelligently, who knows its basic terms, propositions, and arguments, will always be able to detect oratory. He will spot the passages that make an “emotive use of words.” Aware that he must be subject to persuasion, he can do something about weighing the appeals. … But the reader who supposes he should be totally deaf to all appeals might just as well not read practical books.


We are sure that you can see that the four questions you must ask about any book are somewhat changed in the case of reading a practical book. Let us try to spell out these changes.

The first question, What is the book about?, does not change very much. Since a practical book is an expository one, it is still necessary, in the course of answering this first question, to make an outline of the book’s structure.

However, although you must always try to find out (Rule 4 covers this) what an author’s problems were, here, in the case of practical books, this requirement becomes the dominant one. We have said that you must try to discern the author’s objectives. That is another way of saying you must know what problems he was trying to solve. You must know what he wanted to do – because, in the case of a practical work, knowing what he wants to do comes down to knowing what he wants you to do. And that is obviously of considerable importance.

The second question does not change very much, either. You must still, in order to answer the question about the book’s meaning or contents, discover the author’s terms, propositions and arguments. But here again it is the last aspect of that task (covered by Rule 8) that now looms most important.  … In other words, if Rule 4 as adapted for practical books is FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHOR WANTS YOU TO DO, then Rule 8, as similarly adapted, is FIND OUT HOW HE PROPOSES THAT YOU DO THIS.

The third question, Is it true?, is changed somewhat more than the first two. In the case of a theoretical book, the question is answered when you have compared the author’s description and explanation of what is or happens in the world with your own knowledge thereof. If the book accords generally with your own experience of the way things are, then you must concede its truthfulness, at least in part. In the case of a practical book, although there is some such comparison of the book and reality, the main consideration is whether the author’s objectives – that is, the ends that he seeks, together with the means he proposes to reach them – accord with your conception of what it is right to seek, and of what is the best way of seeking it.

The fourth question, What of it?, is changed most of all. If, after reading a theoretical book, your view of its subject matter is altered more or less, then you are required to make some adjustments in your general view of things. (If no adjustments are called for, then you cannot have learned much, if anything, from the book) But these adjustments need not be earth-shaking, and above all they do not necessarily imply action on your part.

Agreement with a practical book, however, does imply action on your part. If you are convinced or persuaded by the author that the ends he proposes are worth, and if you are further convinced or persuaded that the means he recommends are likely to achieve those ends, then it is hard to see how you can refuse to act in the way the author wishes you to.

Chapter 13 – How to Read Practical Books (part 1 of 2)

PART THREE: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter


In any art or field of practice, rules have a disappointing way of being too general. … the more general the rules, the more remote they are from the intricacies of the actual situation in which you try to follow them.

We have stated the rules of analytical reading generally so that they apply to any expository book – any book that conveys knowledge, … But you cannot read a book in general. … Hence, you must have some flexibility and adaptability in following the rules.


The most important thing to remember about any practical book is that it can never solve the practical problems with which it is concerned. A theoretical book can solve its own problems. But a practical problem can only be solved by action itself. When your practical problem is how to earn a living, a book on how to make friends and influence people cannot solve it, though it may suggest things to do. Nothing short of the doing solves the problem. It is solved only be earning a living.

Take this book, for example. It is a practical book. If your interest in it is practical (it might, of course, be only theoretical), you want to solve the problem of learning to read. You would not regard that problem as solved and done away with until you did learn. This book cannot solve the problem for you. It can only help. You must actually go through the activity of reading, not only this book but many others. That is what it means to say that nothing but action solves practical problems, and action occurs only in the world, not in books.

Any book that contains rules – prescriptions, maxims, or any sort of general directions – you will readily recognize as a practical book. But a practical book may contain more than rules. It may try to state the principles that underlie the rules and make them intelligible.

Practical books thus fall into two main groups. Some, like this one, or a cook book, or a driver’s manual, are primarily presentations of rules. Whatever other discussion they contain is for the sake of the rules. … The other kind of practical book is primarily concerned with the principles that generate rules. Most of the great books in economics, politics, and morals are of this sort.

You will have no difficulty in sorting books into these two piles. The book of rules in any field will always be immediately recognizable as practical. The book of practical principles may look at first like a theoretical book. … It deals with the theory of a particular kind of practice. You can always tell it is practical, however. The nature of its problems gives it away. It is always about a field of human behavior in which man can do better or worse.

In reading a book that is primarily a rule-book, the major propositions to look for, of course, are the rules.

The arguments in a practical book of this sort will be attempts to show you that the rules are sound. The writer may have to appeal to principles to persuade you that they are, or he may simply illustrate their soundness by showing you how they work in concrete cases. Look for both sorts of arguments. The appeal to principles is usually less persuasive, but it has one advantage. It can explain the reason for the rules better than examples of their use.

In the other kind of practical books, the kind dealing mainly with the principles underlying the rules, the major propositions and arguments will, of course, look exactly like those in a purely theoretical book. The propositions will say that something is the case, and the arguments will try to show that it is so.

But there is an important difference between reading such a book and reading a purely theoretical one. Since the ultimate problems to be solved are practical – problems of action, in fields where men can do better or worse – an intelligent reader of such books about “practical principles” always reads between the lines or in the margins. He tries to see the rules that may not be expressed but that can, nevertheless, be derived from the principles. He goes further. He tries to figure out how the rules should be applied in practice.

In the case of purely theoretical books, the criteria for agreement or disagreement relate to the truth of what is being said. But practical truth is different from theoretical truth. A rule of conduct is practically true on two conditions: one is that it works; the other is that its working leads you to the right end, an end you rightly desire.

If you do not think careful and intelligent reading is worth doing, this book has little practical truth for you, however sound its rules may be.

Notice what this means. In judging a theoretical book, the reader must observe the identity of, or the discrepancy between, his own basic principles or assumptions and those of the author. In judging a practical book, everything turns on the ends or goals. If you do not share Karl Marx’s fervor about economic justice, his economic doctrine and the reforms it suggest are likely to seem to you practically false or irrelevant.

Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading (part 3 of 3)


Many people use a dictionary to find out how to spell and pronounce words. The analogous employment of an encyclopedia is to use it only to look up dates and places and other such simpler facts. But this is to under-use, or misuse, an encyclopedia. Like dictionaries, such works are educational as well as informational tools.

Encyclopedias present a different problem from wordbooks. An alphabetical arrangement is natural for a dictionary. But is the world, which is the subject matter of an encyclopedia arranged alphabetically? Obviously not. Well then, how is the world arranged and ordered? This comes down to asking how knowledge is ordered.

In an alphabetically-arranged encyclopedia, these relations are to a large extent obscured. In a topically-arranged encyclopedia, they are, of course, highlighted. But topical encyclopedias have many disadvantages, among them the fact that most readers are not accustomed to using them. Ideally, the best encyclopedia would be one that had both a topical and an alphabetical arrangement. Its presentation of material in the form of separate articles would be alphabetical, but it would also contain some kind of topical key or outline – essentially, a table of contents. (A table of contents is a topical arrangement of a book, as opposed to an index, which is an alphabetical arrangement.)

Any good encyclopedia includes directions about how to use it effectively, and these should be read and followed. Often, these directions require that the user go first the set’s index, before turning to one of the alphabetically-arranged volumes. Here, the index is serving the function of a table of contents, though not very well; for it gathers together, under one heading, references to discussions in the encyclopedia that may be widely separated in space but that are nevertheless about the same general subject. This reflects the fact that although an index is of course alphabetically arranged, its so-called analyticals – that is, the breakdowns under a main entry – are topically arranged. But the topics themselves must be in alphabetical order, which is not necessarily the best arrangement. Thus the index of a really good encyclopedia such as Britannica goes part of the way toward revealing the arrangement of knowledge that the work reflects. For this reason, any reader who fails to use the index has only himself to blame if the work does not serve his needs.

We noted several points about words that the user should keep in mind when he consults a dictionary. In the case of encyclopedias, the analogous points are about facts, for an encyclopedia is about facts as a dictionary is about words.

  1. FACTS ARE PROPOSITIONS – Statements of fact employ words in combination, such as “Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809,” or “the atomic number of gold is 79.” Facts are not physical things, as words are, but they do require to be explained. For thorough knowledge, for understanding, you must also know what the significance of a fact is – how it affexts the truth you are seeking. You do not know much if all you know is what the fact is.
  2. FACTS ARE “TRUE” PROPOSITIONS – Facts are not opinions. When someone says “it is a fact that,” he means that it is generally agreed that such is the case. He never means, or never should mean, that he alone, or he together with a minority of observers, believes such and such to be the case. It is the is characteristic of facts that gives the encyclopedia its tone and style. An encyclopedia that contains the unsupported opinions of its editors is dishonest; and although an encyclopedia may report opinions (for example, in a phrase like “it is held by some that this is the case, by others that that is the case”), it must clearly label them. The requirement that an encyclopedia report the facts of the case and not opinions about it (except as noted above) also limits the work’s coverage. It cannot properly deal with matters about which there is no consensus – with moral questions, for example. If it does deal with such questions, it can only properly report the disagreements among men about them.
  3. FACTS ARE REFLECTIONS OF REALITY – Facts may be either ( a ) informational singulars or ( b ) relatively unquestioned generalizations, but in either case they are held to represent the way things really are. (The birthdate of Lincoln is an informational singular; the atomic number of gold implies a relatively unquestioned generalization about matter.) Thus facts are not ideas or concepts, nor are they theories in the sense of being mere speculations about reality. Similarly, an explanation of reality (or of part of it) is not a fact until and unless there is general agreement that it is correct.
  4. FACTS ARE TO SOME EXTENT CONVENTIONAL – Facts change, we say. We mean that some propositions that are considered to be facts in one epoch are no longer considered to be facts in another. Insofar as facts are “true” and represent reality, they cannot change, of course, because truth, strictly speaking, does not change, nor does reality. But not all propositions that we take to be true are really true; and we must concede that almost any given proposition that we take to be true can be falsified by more patient or more accurate observation and investigation. This applies particularly the facts of science.

A good encyclopedia will answer your questions about facts if you remember the points about fats that we have outlined above. The art of using an encyclopedia as an aid to reading is the art of asking the proper questions about facts. As with the dictionary, we have merely suggested the questions; the encyclopedia will supply the answers.

Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading (part 2 of 3)


There are many kinds of reference books. In the following section we will confine ourselves mainly the two most used kinds, dictionaries and encyclopedias. However, many of the things we will have to say apply to other kinds of reference books as well.

It is not always realized, yet it is nevertheless true, that a good deal of knowledge is required before you can use a reference book well. Specifically, four kinds of knowledge are required.

First, have some idea, however vague it may be, of what you want to know. … Another way to say this is that you must be able to ask a reference book an intelligible question.

Second, you must know where to find out what you want to know. You must know what kind of question you are asking, and which kinds of reference books answer that kind of question. … You must have a fair overall knowledge of all of the major types of reference books before you can you can use any one type effectively.

Third, you must know how the particular work is organized. … Thus there is an art of reading reference books, just as there is an art to reading anything else. … Do not try to use a reference book before getting the editor’s advice on how to use it.

Of course, not all kinds of questions can be answered by reference books. You will not find in any reference book the answers to the three questions that God asks the angel in Tolstoy’s story, What Men Live By – namely, “What dwells in man?” “What is not given to man?” and “What do men live by?” … and there are many such questions … Only those things about which men generally and conventionally agree are to be found in reference books. Unsupported opinions have no business there, though they sometimes creep in.

As you can see, we have just been suggesting that there is a fourth requirement for the intelligent use of reference books. You must know what you want to know; you must know in what reference work to find it; you must know how to find it in the reference work; and you must know that it is considered knowable by the authors and compilers of the book. All this indicates that you must know a good deal before you can use a work of reference. Reference books are useless to people who know nothing. They are not guidelines to the perplexed.


Dictionaries are full of arcane knowledge and witty oddments. Over and above that, of course, they have their more sober employments. To make the most of these, one has to know how to read the special kind of book a dictionary is.

This fact is relevant to the rules for using a dictionary well, as an extrinsic aid to reading. The first rule of reading any book is to know what kind of book it is. That means knowing what the author’s intention was and what sort of thing you can expect to find in his work. If you look upon a dictionary merely as a spelling book or a guide to pronunciation, you will use it accordingly, which is to say not well. If you realize that it contains a wealth of historical information, crystallized in the growth and development of language, you will pay attention, not merely to the variety of meanings listed under each word, but also to their order and relation.

Words can be looked at in four ways.

  1. WORDS ARE PHYSICAL THINGS – writable words and speakable sounds. There must, therefore, be uniform ways of spelling and pronouncing them, though the uniformity is often spoiled by variations, and in any event is not as eternally important as some of your teachers may have indicated.
  2. WORDS ARE PARTS OF SPEECH – Each single word plays a grammatical role in the more complicated structure of a phrase or sentence. The same word can vary in different usages, shifting from one part of speech to another, especially in a non-inflected language like English.
  3. WORDS ARE SIGNS – They have meanings, not one but many. These meanings are related in various ways. Sometimes they shade from one into another; sometimes a word will have two or more sets of totally unrelated meanings. Through their meanings, different words are related to one another – as synonyms sharing in the same meaning even though they differ in shading; or as antonyms through opposition or contrast of meanings. Furthermore, it is in their capacity as signs that we distinguish words as proper or common names (according as they name just one thing or many that are alike in some respect); and as concrete or abstract names (according as they point to something we can sense, or refer to some aspect of things that we can understand by thought but not observe through our senses).
  4. WORDS ARE CONVENTIONAL – they are man-made signs. That is why every word has a history, a cultural career in the course of which it goes through ceratain transformations. The history of words is given by their etymological derivation from original word-roots, prefixes, and suffixes; it includes the account of their physical changes, both in spelling and pronunciation; it tells of the shifting meanings, and which among them are archaic and obsolete, which are current and regular, and which are idiomatic, colloquial, or slang.

A good dictionary will answer all of these four different kinds of questions about words. The art of using a dictionary consists in knowing what questions to ask about words and how to find the answers. We have suggested the questions. The dictionary itself tells you how to find the answers.

As such, it is a perfect self-help book, because it tells you what to pay attention to and how to interpret the various abbreviations and symbols it uses in giving you the four varieties of information about words. Anyone who fails to consult the explanatory notes and the list of abbreviations at the beginning of dictionary has only himself to blame if he is not able to use it well.

Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading (part 1 of 3)


Any aid to reading that lies outside the book being read we may speak of as extrinsic. By “intrinsic reading” we mean reading a book in itself, quite apart from all other books. By “extrinsic reading” we mean reading a book in the light of other books. … There are good reasons for our having insisted up to now on your primary task as a reader – taking the book into your study and working on it by yourself, with the power of your own mind, and with no other aids. But it would be wrong to continue insisting on this.

The main reason for avoiding extrinsic aids up to this point is that many readers depend on them too slavishly, and we wanted you to realize that this is unnecessary. … On the whole, it is best to do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help; for if you act consistently on this principle, you will find that you need less and less outside help.

The extrinsic aids to reading fall into four categories. In the order in which we will discuss them in this chapter, they are: first, relevant experiences; second, other books; third, commentaries and abstracts; fourth, reference books.

It is a common-sense maxim of reading that outside help should be sought whenever a book remains unintelligible to you, either in whole or in part, after you have done your best to read it according to the rules of intrinsic reading.


There are two types of relevant experience that may be referred to for help in understanding different books. … Common Experience is available to all men and women just because they are alive. Special Experience must be actively sought and is available only to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it. The best example of special experience is an experiment in a laboratory, but a laboratory is not always required. … Common experience does not have to be shared by everyone in order to be common. Common is not the same as Universal.

The two kinds of experience are mainly relevant to different kinds of books. Common experience is most relevant to the reading of fiction, and to the reading of philosophy. Judgments concerning the verisimilitude of a novel are almost wholly based on common experience; the book, we say, is either true or not true to our experience of life as it is led by most people, ourselves included.

Special experience is mainly relevant to the reading of scientific works. To understand and judge the inductive arguments in a scientific book, you must be able to follow the evidence that the scientist reports as their basis.

Both common and special experience are relevant to the reading of history books. This is because history partakes both of the fictional and scientific.

How do you know whether you are making proper use of your experience to help you understand a book? The surest test is one we have already recommended as a test of understanding: ask yourself whether you can give a concrete example of a point that you feel you understand.  


We will have more to say later about syntopical reading, where more than one book is read on a single subject. For the moment, we want to say a few things about the desirability of reading other books as extrinsic aids to the reading of a particular work.

Reading related books in relation to one another and in an order that renders the later ones more intelligible is a basic common-sense maxim of extrinsic reading.

The utility of this kind of extrinsic reading is simply an extension of the value of context in reading a book by itself. We have seen how the context must be used to interpret words and sentences to find terms and propositions. Just as the whole book is the context for any of its parts, so related books provide an even larger context that helps you interpret the book you are reading.


A third category of extrinsic aids to reading includes commentaries and abstracts. The thing to emphasize here is that such works should be used wisely, which is to say sparingly. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that commentators are not always right in their comments on a book. Sometimes, of course, their works are enormously useful, but this is true less often than one could wish.

The second reason for using commentaries sparingly is that, even if they are right, they may not be exhaustive. … Reading a commentary, particularly one that seems very self-assured, thus tends to limit your understanding of a book, even if your understanding, as far as It goes, is correct.

Hence, there is one piece of advice that we want to give you about using commentaries. Indeed, this comes close to being a basic maxim of extrinsic reading. Whereas it is one of the rules of intrinsic reading that you should read an author’s preface and introduction before reading his book, the rule in the case of extrinsic reading is that you should not read a commentary by someone else until after you have read the book. This applies particularly to scholarly and critical introductions. … If you read them first they are likely to distort your reading of the book. You will tend to see only the points made by the scholar or critic, and fail to see other points that may be just as important.

You may be able to understand a particular book with the help of a commentary, but in general you will be a worse reader.

The rule of extrinsic reading given here applies also to abstracts and plot digests. They are useful in two connections, but in those two only. First, they can help to jog your memory of a book’s contents, if you have already read it. Ideally, you made such an abstract yourself, in reading the book analytically, but if you have not done so, an abstract or digest can be an important aid. Second, abstracts are useful when you are engaged in syntopical reading, and wish to know whether a certain work is likely to be germane to your project. An abstract can never replace the reading of a book, but it can sometimes tell you whether you want to need to read the book or not.

Chapter Summary – The Three Stages of Analytical Reading


We have now completed, in a general way, the enumeration and discussion of the rules of analytical reading. We can now set forth all the rules in thir proper order and under appropriate headings.

  • THE FIRST STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: Rules for Finding What a Book is About
  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 has tried to solve
  • THE SECOND STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
  2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
  4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not’ and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve
  • THE THIRD STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
  • A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette
  1. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand”)
  2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  3. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make
  • B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism
  1. Show wherein the author is uninformed
  2. Show wherein the author is misinformed
  3. Show wherein the author is illogical
  4. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete

Note: Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Failing in all of these, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgement on the whole, in the light of the last point.

Applying the first four rules of analytical reading helps you to answer What is the book about as a whole? … Applying the four rules for interpretation helps you to answer What is being said in detail, and how? … The last seven rules of reading – the maxims of intellectual etiquette and the criteria for points of criticism – help you to answer Is it true? and What of it?

Unless what you have read is true in some sense, you need go no further. But if it is, you must face the last question. You cannot read for information intelligently without determining what significance is, or should be, attached to the facts presented. Facts seldom come to us without some interpretation, explicit or implied. This is especially true if you are reading digests of information that necessarily select the facts according to some evaluation of their significance, some principle of interpretation. And if you are reading for enlightenment, there is really no end to the inquiry that, at every stage of learning, is renewed by the question, What of it?

Before proceeding to Part Three, perhaps we should stress, once again, that these rules of analytical reading describe an ideal performance. Frew people have ever read any book in this ideal manner, and those who have, probably read very few books this way. The ideal remains, however, the measure of achievement. You are a good reader to the degree in which you approximate it.

When we speak of someone as “well-read,” we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. As Thomas Hobbes said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”

One approaches the ideal of good reading by applying the rules we have described in the reading of a single book, and not by trying to become superficially acquainted with a larger number. There are, of course, many books worth reading well. There is a much larger number that should be only inspected. To become well-read, in every sense of the word, one must know how to use whatever skill one possesses with discrimination – by reading every book according to its merits

Chapter 11 – Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author


“I don’t understand” may itself be a critical remark. To make it so, the reader must be able to support it. If the fault is with the book rather than himself, the reader must locate the sources of trouble. He should be able to show that the structure of the book is disorderly, that its parts do not hang together, that some of it lacks relevance, or perhaps, that the author equivocates in the use of important words, with a whole train of consequent confusions. To the extent that a reader can support his charge that the book is unintelligible, he has no further critical obligations.  

Let us suppose that you are finally able to say “I understand.” If, in addition to understanding the book, you agree thoroughly with what the author says, the work is over. … It is clear that we have additional steps to consider only in the case of disagreement or suspended judgement. … Not simply by following an author’s arguments, but only by meeting them as well, can the reader ultimately reach significant agreement or disagreement with his author. 

Agreement about the use of words is the indispensable condition for the genuine agreement or disagreement about the facts being discussed. It is because of, not in spite of, you meeting the author’s mind through a sound interpretation of his book that you are able to make up our own mind as concurring in or dissenting from the position he has taken.


Now let us consider the situation in which, having said you understand, you proceed to disagree. If you have tried to abide by the maxims stated in the previous chapter, you disagree because you think the author can be shown to be wrong on some point. You are not simply voicing your prejudice or expressing your emotions. Because this is true, then, from an ideal point of view, there are three conditions that must be satisfied if controversy is to be well conducted.

The first is this. Since men are animals as well as rational, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions you bring to a dispute, or those that arise in the course of it. Otherwise you are likely to be giving vent to feelings, not stating reasons.

Second, you must make your own assumptions explicit. Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions.

Third and finally, an attempt at impartiality is good antidote for the blindness that is almost inevitable in partisanship.

We are going to substitute for those three ideal conditions, a set of prescriptions that may be easier to follow. They indicate the four ways in which a book can be adversely criticized.

The four points can be briefly summarized by conceiving the reader as conversing with the author, as talking back. After he has said, “I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks to the author: (1)You are uninformed”; (2) “You are misinformed”; (3) “You are illogical – your reasoning is not cogent”: (4) “Your analysis is incomplete.”

They are somewhat independent. Each and all can be made, because the defects they refer to are not mutually exclusive. But, we should add, the reader cannot make any of these remarks without being definite and precise about the respect in which the author is uninformed or misinformed or illogical. … the reader who makes any of these remarks must not only make it definitely, by specifying the respect, but he must also support his point. He must give reasons for saying what he does.


  1. To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. … To support the remark, you must be able yourself to state the knowledge that the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions.
  2. To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case. … it consists in making assertions contrary to fact. The author is proposing as true or more probable what is in fact false or less probable. … And to support the remark you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s.

These first two points of criticism may be related. Lack of information, as we have seen, may be the cause of erroneous assertions. Further, whenever a man is misinformed in a certain respect, he is also uninformed in the same respect. But it makes a difference whether the defect is simply negative or positive as well. Lack of relevant knowledge makes it impossible to solve certain problems or support certain conclusions. Erroneous suppositions, however, lead to wrong conclusions and untenable solutions. Taken together, these two points charge an author with defects in his premises. He needs more knowledge than he possesses. His evidences and reasons are not good enough in quantity or quality.

  1. To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning. In general, fallacies are of two sorts. There is the non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. And there is the occurrence of inconsistency, which means that two things the author has tried to say are incompatible. … One is concerned with this defect only to the extent that the major conclusions are affected by it. A book may safely lack cogency in irrelevant respects.

This third point of criticism is related to the other two. … But we are here concerned primarily with the case in which he reasons poorly from good grounds. … It is worthwhile to distinguish the kind of erroneous statement that is owing to bad reasoning from the kind previously discussed, which is owing to other defect, especially insufficient knowledge of relevant details.


Before we proceed to this fourth remark, one thing should be observed. Since you have said you understand, your failure to support any of these first three remarks obligates you to agree with the author as far as he has gone. … If you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.” All you can possibly mean by saying something like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions or prejudices.

The first three remarks are related to the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments. These are the elements he used to solve the problems that initiated his efforts. The fourth remark that the book is incomplete – bears on the structure of the whole.

  1. To say that an author’s analysis is incomplete is to say that he has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or that he has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to his undertaking. It is not enough to say that a book is incomplete. Anyone can say that of any book. … There is no point in making this remark unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely, either by his own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books.

This fourth point is strictly not a basis for disagreement. It is critically adverse only to the extent that it marks the limitations of the author’s achievement. A reader who agrees with a book in part – because he finds no reason to make any of the other points of adverse criticism – may, nevertheless, suspend judgement on the whole, in the light of this fourth point about the book’s incompleteness. Suspended judgement on the reader’s part responds to an author’s failure to solve his problems perfectly. … Related books in the same field can be critically compared by reference to these four criteria.


Chapter 10 – Criticizing a Book Fairly (part 2 of 2)


The second general maxim of critical reading is as obvious as the first, but it needs explicit statement, nevertheless, and for the same reason. It is RULE 10, and it can be expressed thus: WHEN YOU DISAGREE, DO SO REASONABLY, AND NOT DISPUTATIOUSLY OR CONTENTIOUSLY. There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong.

He who regards conversation as a battle can win only by being an antagonist, only be disagreeing successfully, whether his is right or wrong. The reader who approaches a book in this spirt reads it only to finds something he disagrees with.

If all he wants is the empty satisfaction of seeming to show the author up, the reader can get it readily. … But if he realizes that the only profit in conversation, with living or dead teachers, is what one can learn from them, if he realizes that you win only by gaining knowledge, not by knocking the other fellow down, he may see the futility of mere contentiousness. We are not saying that a reader should not ultimately disagree and try to show where the author is wrong. We are saying only that he should be as prepared to agree as to disagree.


The third maxim is closely related to the second. It states another condition prior to the undertaking of criticism. It recommends that you regard disagreements as capable of being resolved. Where the second maxim urged you not to disagree disputatiously, this on warns you against disagreeing hopelessly. One is hopeless about the fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can agree. Note that we said “can agree.” We did not say all rational men do agree. Even when they do not agree, they can. The point we are trying to make is that disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolution of an issue.

These two facts, that people do disagree and can agree, arise from the complexity of human nature.  Men are rational animals. Their rationality is the source of their power to agree. Their animality, and the imperfections of their reason that it entails, is the cause of most of the disagreements that occur. … The sort of disagreement that is only apparent, the sort that results from misunderstanding, is certainly curable.

There is, of course, another sort of disagreement, which is owing merely to inequalities of knowledge. … Disagreement of this sort can also be corrected. Inequality of knowledge is always curable by instruction.

What we have just said applies to the great majority of disagreements. They can be resolved by the removal of misunderstanding or of ignorance. Both cures are usually possible, though often difficult. Hence the person who, at any stage of a conversation, disagrees, should at least hope to reach agreement in the end. He should be as much prepared to have his own mind changed as seek to change the mind of another. … No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.

The trouble is that many people regard disagreement as unrelated to either teaching or being taught. They think that everything is just a matter of opinion. I have mine, and you have yours; and our right to our opinions is as inviolable as our right to private property. On such a view, communication cannot be profitable if the profit to be gained is an increase in knowledge.

We would not – an could not – write this book if we held this view. Instead, we hold that knowledge can be communicated and that discussion can result in learning. If genuine knowledge, not mere personal opinion, isa at stake, then, for the most part, either disagreements are apparent only – to be removed by coming to terms and a meeting of minds; or they are real, and the genuine issues can be resolved – in the long run, of course – by appeals to fact and reason.

How does this third maxim apply to the conversation between reader and writer? How can it be stated as a rule of reading? … This maxim requires him to distinguish between genuine knowledge and mere opinion, and to regard an issue where knowledge is concerned as one that can be resolved.

If an author does not give reasons for his propositions, they can be treated only as expressions of personal opinions on his part. … Thus the reader must do more than make judgements of agreement or disagreement. He must give reasons for them. In the former case, of course, it suffices if he actively shares the author’s reasons for this point on which they agree. But when he disagrees, he must give his own grounds for doing so.


Knowledge, if you please, consists in those opinions that can be defended, opinions for which there is evidence of one kind or another. … Opinion, in the sense in which we have been employing the word, is unsupported judgement.

Let us now summarize the three general maxims we have discussed in this chapter. The three together state the conditions of a critical reading and the manner in which the reader should proceed to “talk back” to the author.

The first requires the reader to complete the task of understanding before rushing in. The second adjures him not to view disagreement about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable. This rule goes further: It also commands him to give reasons for his disagreements so that issues are not merely stated by also defined. In that lies all hope for resolution.

Chapter 10 – Criticizing a Book Fairly (part 1 of 2)


We are now ready for the last stage of analytical reading. Here you will reap the reward of all your previous efforts.

Reading a book is a kind of conversation. … That [the author] has conducted his part of the conversation well can be assumed in the case of good books. What can the reader do to reciprocate? What must he do to hold up is end well? … The reader has an obligation as well as an opportunity to talk back.

If the book is of the sort that conveys knowledge, the author’s aim was to instruct. … His effort is crowned with success only if the reader finally says, “I am taught. You have convinced me that such and such is true, or persuaded me that it is probable.” But even if the reader is not convinced or persuaded, the author’s intention and effort should be respected. The reader owes him a considered judgement. If he cannot say, “I agree,” he should at least have grounds for disagreeing or even for suspending judgement on the question.

The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging.


What we mean by talking back is not something apart from reading. It is the third stage in the analytical reading of a book; and there are rules here as in the case of the first two stages.

We are discussing here the virtue of teachability – a virtue that is almost always misunderstood. Teachabilty is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgement. He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical.  He is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed.

We say “finally” because teachability requires that a teacher be fully heard and, more than that, understood before he is judged.


In its most general significance, rhetoric is involved in every situation in which communication takes place among human beings. If we are the talkers, we wish not only to be understood but also to be agreed with in some sense.

To be equally serious in receiving such communication, one must be not only a responsive but also a responsible listener. You are responsive to the extent that you follow what has been said and note the intention that prompts it. But you also have the responsibility of taking a position. When you take it, it is yours, not the author’s. To regard anyone except yourself as responsible for your judgment is to be a slave, not a free man. It is from this fact that the liberal arts acquire their name.


Thus you see how the three arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric cooperate in regulating the elaborate processes of writing and reading. Skill in the first two stages of analytical reading comes from a mastery of grammar and logic. Skill in the third stage depends on the remaining art. The rules of this stage of reading rest on the principles of rhetoric, conceived in the broadest sense. We will consider them as a code of etiquette to make the reader not only polite, but also effective, in talking aback. (Although it is not generally recognized, etiquette always serves these two purposes, not just the former)

Not until you are honestly satisfied that you have accomplished the first two stages of reading should you feel free to express yourself. When you have, you not only have earned the right to turn critic; you also have the duty to do so.

This means, in effect, that the third stage of analytical reading must always follow the other two in time. The first two stages interpenetrate each other.

RULE 9. YOU MUST BE ABLE TO SAY, WITH REASONABLE CERTAINTY, “I UNDERSTAND,” BEFORE YOU CAN SAY ANY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING THINGS: “I AGREE,” OR “I DISAGREE,” OR “I SUSPEND JUDGEMENT.” These three remarks exhaust all the critical positions you can take. We hope you have not made the error of supposing that to criticize is always to disagree. That is a popular misconception. To agree is just as much an exercise of critical judgement on your part as to disagree. You can be just as wrong in agreeing as in disagreeing. … Though it may not be so obvious at first, suspending judgement is also an act of criticism. It is taking the position that something has not been shown. You are saying that you are not convinced or persuaded one way or the other.

To say “I don’t understand” is, of course, also a critical judgement, but only after you have tried your hardest does it reflect on the book rather than yourself.

There are two other conditions under which the rule requires special care. If you are reading only part of a book, it is more difficult to be sure that you understand, and hence you should be more hesitant to criticize. And sometimes a book is related to other books by the same author, and depends upon them for its full significance. In this situation, also, you should be more circumspect about saying “I understand,“ and slower to raise your critical lance.