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.