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.