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.