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

THE ROLE OF PERSUASION

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.

WHAT DOES AGREEMENT ENTAIL IN THE CASE OF A PRACTICAL BOOK?

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.