Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 1 of 3)

  1. HOW TO READ HISTORY

“History,” like “poetry,” is a word of many meanings. In order for this chapter to be useful to you, we must come to terms with you about the word – that is, explain how we will be using it.

First of all, there is the difference between history as fact and history as a written record of the facts. We are obviously, here, employing the term in the latter sense. … The word could be applied, and indeed has been applied, to almost every kind of writing that originated in a time period, or in the context of an event, in which the reader was interested.

The sense in which we use the word “history” in what follows is both narrower and broader than any of those. It is narrower because we want to restrict ourselves to essentially narrative accounts, presented in a more or less formal manner, of a period or event or series of events in the past.

But our meaning is also broader than many of the definitions of the term that are current today. We think … that the essence of history is narration, that the last five letters of the word – “story” – help us to understand the basic meaning. Even a collection of documents, as a collection, tells a story. That story may not be explicit – … but it is implicit in them, whether they are ordered or not. Otherwise, we think, the collection would not be called a history of its time.

THE ELUSIVENESS OF HISTORICAL FACTS

A historian is concerned with events that occurred, most of them, a long time ago. All the witnesses to the events are usually dead. What evidence they give is not given in a courtroom – that is, it is not governed by stringent and careful rules. … They are not cross-examined. And there is no guarantee whatever that they know what they are talking about.

If, then, it is difficult to be sure that one knows about the truth of a relatively simple matter, such as is decided by a jury in a court of law, now much more difficult it is to know what really happened in history. A historical fact, though we may have a feeling of trust and solidity about the word, is one of the most elusive things in the world.

Of course, about some kinds of historical fact we can be pretty certain. America was involved in a Civil War that began with the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and ended with the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. Everyone agrees about those dates.

But how much have we learned if we know exactly when the Civil War start and when it ended? Indeed, those dates have been disputed – not on grounds that the calendars were wrong, but that the war really started with the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 and ended with his assassination five days after Lee’s surrender. Others have claimed that the war started even earlier – as much as five or ten or twenty years before 1861 – and we know that it was still actually being fought in the outlying parts of the United States, to which word had not yet come of the Northern triumph, as late as May, June and July, 1865.

At least we do know, one might say, that whether or not the firing on Fort Sumter started the Civil War, it did occur on April 12, 1861. … But why was Sumter fired on? That is an obvious next question. … If we did not care – and we do not care about many attacks on forts that have doubtless occurred, but about which we know nothing whatever – would the firing on Sumter still be a significant historical fact?

THEORIES OF HISTORY

We class history, the story of the past, more often under fiction than under science – if it must be affiliated with one or the other. … This does not mean that a historian makes up his facts, like a poet or a story teller.

A good historian does not, of course, make up the past. He considers himself responsibly bound by some concept or criterion of accuracy or facts. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something. He must either find a general pattern in, or impose one on, events; or he must suppose that he knows why the persons in this story did the things they did. … It is essential to recognize which way the historian you are reading is operating.

Because theories in history differ, and because a historian’s theory affects his accounts of events, it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history. … every narrative history has to be written from some point of view. But to get at the truth, we ought to look at it from more than one viewpoint.

THE UNIVERSAL IN HISTORY

We are not always able to read more than one history of an event. When we are not, we must admit that we do not have much chance of learning the truth of the matter in question – of learning what really happened. However, that is not the only reason to read history. It might be claimed that only the professional historian, the man who is writing a history himself, is required to cross-examine his sources by exhaustively checking one against the other. … We, as lay readers of history, stand somewhere between the professional historian, on the one hand, and the irresponsible amateur, on the other hand, who reads history only for amusement.

Let us take the example of Thucydides. You may be aware that he wrote the only major contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century B.C. In a sense, there is nothing to check his work against. What, then, can we expect to learn from it? … The victories are now meaningless, and the defeats without pain. … Indeed, if we stop to think of it, almost all that remains of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of it.

Yet that account is still important. For Thucydides’ story – we might as well use that word – has had an influence on the subsequent history of man. Leaders in later eras read Thucydides. … The result was that by ever so little, perhaps, but perceptibly, the history of the world was changed by the view held of a small portion of it by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Thus we read Thucydides not because he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after. And we read him, strange as it may seem, to know what is happening now.

If your view of history is limited, if you go to it to discover only what really happened, you will not learn the main thing that Thucydides, or indeed any good historian, has to teach.

History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us – that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago.

Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history. The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act at all times and places, especially now.

           

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 3 of 3)

    HOW TO READ LYRIC POETRY

The simplest definition of poetry (in the somewhat limited sense implied by the title of this section) is that it is what poets write. That seems obvious enough, and yet there are those who would dispute the definition. Poetry, they hold, is a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality, which may be expressed in written words but may also take the form of physical action, or more or less musical sound, or even just feeling. … But although we admit that there is a kernel of truth in this definition, the meaning of the term that we will be employing in what follows is much narrower. Whatever may be the origin of the poetic impulse, poetry, for us, consists of words, and what is more, of words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way.

Other definitions of the term … are too narrow, just as the definition discussed in the last paragraph was too broad (for us). … Between such very broad and such very narrow definitions lies a central core that most people, if they were feeling reasonable about the matter, would admit was poetry.

Many people believe that they cannot read lyric poetry – especially modern poetry. … We would say two things. First, lyric poetry, even modern poetry, does not always demand as much work as you may think if you go about reading it in the right way. Second, it is often worth whatever effort you are willing to spend.

The first rule to follow in reading a lyric is to read it through without stopping, whether you think you understand it or not. This is the same rule that we have suggested for many different kinds of books, but it is more important for a poem than it is for a philosophical or scientific treatise, and even for a novel or play.

In fact, the trouble so many people seem to have in reading poems, especially the difficult modern ones, stems from their unawareness of this first rule of reading them. When faced by a poem of T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or some other “obscure” modern, they plunge in with a will, but are brought up short by the first line or stanza. They do not understand it immediately and in its entirety, and they think they should. They puzzle over the words, try to unwind the complicated skein of the syntax, and soon give up, concluding that, as they suspected, modern poetry is just too difficult for them.

But any good lyric poem has a unity. Unless we read all of it, and all at once, we cannot comprehend its unity. We cannot discover, except possibly by accident, the basic feeling or experience that underlies it. In particular, the essence of a poem is almost never to be found in its first line, or even in its first stanza. It is to be found only in the whole, and not conclusively in any part.

The second rule for reading lyrics is this: Read the poem through again – but read it out loud. We have suggested this before, in the case of poetic dramas like Shakespeare’s. There it was helpful; here it is essential. You will find, as you read the poem out loud, that the very act of speaking the words forces you to understand them better. You cannot glide over a misunderstood phrase or line quite so easily if you are speaking it. Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss. And the rhythm of the poem, and its rhymes, if it has them, will help you to understand by making you place the emphasis where it belongs. Finally, you will be able to open yourself to the poem, and let it work on you, as it should.

In the reading of lyrics, these first two suggestions are more important than anything else. We think that if readers who believe they cannot read poems would obey these rules first, they would have little difficulty afterwards. For once you have apprehended a poem in its unity, even if this apprehension is vague, you can begin to ask it questions. And as with expository works, that is the secret of understanding.

The questions you ask of an expository work are grammatical and logical. The questions you ask of a lyric are usually rhetorical, though they may also be syntactical. You do not come to terms with a poem; but you must discover the key words. You discover them not primarily by an act of grammatical discernment, however, but by an act of rhetorical discernment. Why do certain words pop out of the poem and stare you in the face? Is it because the rhythm marks them? Or the rhyme? Or are the words repeated? Do several stanzas seem to be about the same ideas; if so, do these ideas from any kind of sequence? Anything of this sort that you can discover will help your understanding.

One final piece of advice about reading lyric poems. In general, readers of such words feel that they must know more about the authors and their times than they really have to. We put much faith in commentaries, criticism, biographies – but this may by only because we doubt our own ability to read. Almost everyone can read any poem, if he will go to work on it.

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 2 of 3)

HOW TO READ PLAYS

A play is fiction, a story, and insofar as that is true, it should be read like a story. Perhaps the reader has to be more active in creating the background, the world in which the characters live and move, for there is no description in plays such as abounds in novels. But the problems are essentially similar.

However, there is one important difference. When you read a play, you are not reading a complete work. The complete play (the work that the author intended you to apprehend) is only apprehended when it is acted on a stage. Kike music, which must be heard, a play lacks a physical dimension when we read it in a book. The reader must supply the dimension.

The only way to do that is to make a pretense of seeing it acted. Therefore, once you have discovered what the play is about, as a whole and in detail, and once you have answered the other questions you must ask about any story, then try directing the play. Imagine that you have half a dozen good actors before you, awaiting your commands. Tell them how to say this line, how to play that scene. Explain the importance of these few words, and how that action is the climax of the work. You will have a lot of fun, and you will learn a lot about the play.

One other bit of advice may be helpful, particularly in reading Shakespeare. We have already suggested the importance of reading the plays through, as nearly as possible at one sitting, in order to get a feel for the whole. But, since the plays are mostly in verse, and since the verse is more or less opaque in places because of changes in the language that have occurred since 1600, it is often desirable to read a puzzling passage out loud. Read slowly, as if an audience were listening, and with “expression” – that is, try to make the words meaningful to you as you read them. This simple device will clear up many difficulties. Only after it has failed should you turn to the glossary or notes.

A NOTE ABOUT TRAGEDY

Most plays are not worth reading. This, we think, is because they are incomplete. They were not meant to be read – they were meant to be acted. … However, those few – the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, the plays of Shakespeare, Moliere’s comedies, the works of a very few moderns – are very great indeed, for they contain within them some of the deepest and richest insights men have ever expressed in words.

Among these, Greek tragedy is probably the toughest nut to crack for beginning readers. … Nevertheless, the plays are so powerful that they triumph over even these obstacles, as well as others. It is important to read them well, for they not only can tell us much about life as we still live it, but they also form a kind of literary framework for many other plays written much later. … We have two bits of advice that may help.

The first is to remember that the essence of tragedy is time, or rather the lack of it. There is no problem in any Greek tragedy that could not have been solved if there had been enough time, but there is never enough. Decisions, choices have to be made in a moment, there is no time to think and weigh the consequences; and, since even tragic heroes are fallible – especially fallible, perhaps – the decisions are wrong. It is easy for us to see what should have been done, but would we have been able to see in time? That is the question that you should always ask in reading any Greek tragedy.

The second bit of advice is this. One thing we do know about the staging of Greek plays is that the tragic actors wore buskins on their feet that elevated them several inches above the ground. (They also wore masks.) But the members of the chorus did not wear buskins, though they sometimes wore masks. The caparison between the size of the tragic protagonists, on the one hand, and the members of the chorus, on the other hand, was thus highly significant. Therefore you should always imagine, when you read the words of the chorus, that the words are spoken by persons of your own stature; while the words spoken by the protagonists proceed from the mouths of giants, from personages who did not only seem, but actually were, larger than life.

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 1 of 3)

  1. SUGGESTIONS FOR READING STORIES, PLAYS, AND POEMS

The parallel rules for reading imaginative literature that were discussed in the last chapter were general ones, applying across the board to all kinds of imaginative literature. … These rules, being general, must be adapted somewhat when they are applied to the different kinds of imaginative literature. In this chapter we want to suggest the adaptations that are required.

Before proceeding to those matters, however, it is desirable to make some remarks about the last of the four questions that the active and demanding reader must ask of any book, when that question is asked of a work of imaginative literature.

You will recall that the first three questions are: first, What is the book about as a whole?; second, What is being said in detail, and how?; and third, Is the book true, in whole or part? The application of these three questions to imaginative literature was covered in the last chapter. The first question is answered when you are able to describe the unity of the plot of a story, play, or poem. … The second question is answered when you are able to discern the role that the various characters play, and recount, in your own words, the key incidents and events in which they are involved. And the third question is answered when you are able to give a reasoned judgement about the poetical truth of the work. Is it a likely story? Does the work satisfy your heart and your mind? Do you appreciate the beauty of the work? In each case, can you say why?

The fourth question is, What of it? In the case of expository books, an answer to this question implies some kind of action on your part. … Now it is important to recognize that, in the case of a work of imaginative literature, this fourth and final question must be interpreted quite differently. … Strictly speaking, no action whatever is called for on your part when you have read a novel, play or poem well – that is, analytically. You have discharged all of your responsibilities as a reader when you have applied the parallel rules of analytical reading to such works, and answered the first three questions.

We say “strictly speaking,” because it is obvious that imaginative works have often led readers to act in various ways. Sometimes a story is a better way of getting a point across – be it political, economic, or moral point – than an expository work making the same point.

Nevertheless, such practical consequences of the reading of stories and poems are not of the essence of the matter. Imaginative writings can lead to action, but they do not have to. They belong in the realm of fine art.

Therefore, when it comes to applying this last question to works of imaginative literature, you should do so with caution. … You should remember that you are then taking heed of and reacting to something other than the story or poem itself. That subsists in its own right. To read it well, all you have to do is experience it.

HOW TO READ STORIES

The first piece of advice we would like to give you for reading a story is this: Read it quickly and with total immersion. Ideally, a story should be read at one sitting, although this is rarely possible for busy people with long novels. Nevertheless, the ideal should be approximated by compressing the reading of a good story into as short a time as feasible. Otherwise you will forget what happened, the unity of the plot will escape you, and you will be lost.

Some readers, when they really like a novel, want to savor it, to pause over it, to draw out the reading of it for as long as they can. But in this case they are probably not so much reading the book as satisfying their more or less unconscious feelings about the events and the characters. We will return to that in a moment.

Following this rule will allow you to answer the first question you should ask about any book – What is it about, as a whole? Unless you read it quickly you will fail to see the unity of the story. Unless you read intensely you will fail to see the details.

The terms of a story, as we have observed, are its characters and incidents. You must become acquainted with them, and be able to sort them out. But here a word of warning. To take War and Peace as an example, many readers start this great novel and are overwhelmed by the vast number of characters to whom they are introduced, especially since they all have strange-sounding names.

We should not expect to remember every character; many of them are merely background persons, who are there only to set off the actions of the main characters. However, by the time we have finished War and Peace or any big novel, we know who is important, and we do not forget. Pierre, Andrew, Natasha, Princess Mary, Nicholas – the names are likely to come immediately to memory, although it may have been years since we read Tolstoy’s book.

We also, despite the plethora of incidents, soon learn what is important. … You should not be anxious if all is not clear from the beginning. Actually, it should not be clear then. … The reader of a story, looking back on it after he has finished it, understands the relation of events and the order of actions.

All of this comes down to the same point: you must finish a story in order to be able to say that you have read it well. Paradoxically, however, a story ceases to be like life on its last page. Life goes on, but the story does not. Its characters have no vitality outside the book. … we are satisfied with Shakespeare’s and Tolstoy’s creations partly because they are limited in time. We need no more.

Fiction seems to be a necessity for human beings. Why is this? … One reason why fiction is a human necessity is that it satisfies many unconscious as well as conscious needs. It would be important if it only touched the conscious mind, as expository writing does. But fiction is important, too, because it also touches the unconscious.

Thus, in criticizing fiction we must be careful to distinguish those books that satisfy our own particular unconscious needs – the ones that make us say, “I like this book, although I don’t really know why” – from those that satisfy the deep unconscious needs of almost everybody. The latter are undoubtedly the great stories, the ones that live on and on for generations and centuries. … We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.

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

GENERAL RULES FOR READING IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE

To make the “don’ts” discussed in the last section more helpful, they must be supplemented by constructive suggestions. These suggestions can be developed by analogy from the rules of reading expository works.

There are, as we have seen, three groups of such rules. The first group consists of rules for discovering the unity and part-whole structure; the second consists of rules for identifying and interpreting the book’s component terms, propositions, and arguments; the third consists of rules for criticizing the author’s doctrine so that we can reach intelligent agreement or disagreement with him. We called these three groups of rules structural, interpretive, and critical. By analogy, we can find similar sets of rules to guide us in the reading poems, novels and plays.

First, we can translate the structural rules – the rules of outlining – into their fictional analogies as follows.

  1. You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind. A lyric tells its story primarily in terms of a single emotional experience, whereas novels and plays have much more complicated plots, involving many characters, their actions and their reactions upon one another, as well as the emotions they suffer in the process. Everyone knows, furthermore, that a play differs from a novel by reason of the fact that it narrates entirely by means of actions and speeches.
  2. You must grasp the unity of the whole work. Whether you have done this or not can be tested by whether you are able to express that unity in a sentence or two. … the unity of a story is always in its plot. You have not grasped the whole story until you can summarize its plot in a brief narration – not a proposition or an argument. Therein lies its unity.
  3. You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts. … The parts of fiction are the various steps that the author takes to develop his plot – the details of characterization and incident. … In a story, the parts must somehow fit into a temporal scheme, a progress from a beginning through the middle to its end. To know the structure of a narrative, you must know where it begins – which is not necessarily on the first page, of course – what it goes through, and where it comes out at. You must know the various crises that lead up to the climax, were and how the climax occurs, and what happens in the aftermath. (By “aftermath” we do not mean what happens after the story is over. Nobody can know that. We mean only what happens, within the narrative, after the climax has occurred)

Second, what are the interpretive rules for reading fiction?

  1. The elements of fiction are it episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions. … Just as you must come to terms with an expository writer, so here you must become acquainted with the details of incident and characterizations. You have not grasped a story until you are familiar with its characters, until you have lived through its events.
  2. Terms are connected in propositions. The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene or background against which they stand out in relief. The imaginative writer, we have seen, creates a world in which his characters “live, move and have their being.” The fictional analogue of the rule that directs you to find the author’s propositions can, therefore, be stated as follows: become at home in this imaginary world; know it as if you were an observer on the scene; become a member of its population, willing to befriend its characters, and able to participate in its happening by sympathetic insight, as you would do in the actions and sufferings of a friend. If you can do this, the elements of fictions will cease to be so many isolated pawns moved about mechanically on a chessboard. You will have found the connections that vitalize them into members of a living society
  3. In the reading of [expository] books, it is necessary to follow the argument. Hence, after you have discovered its terms and propositions, you are called upon to analyze its reasoning. There is an analogous last step in the interpretive reading of fiction. You have become acquainted with the characters … Now you must follow them through their adventures. The scene or background, the social setting is (like the proposition) a kind of static connection of the elements of fictions. The unraveling of the plot (like the arguments or reasoning) is the dynamic connection. To read a story well you must have your finger on the pulse of the narrative, be sensitive to its very beat.

The three steps we have suggested outline the way in which one becomes progressively aware of the artistic achievement of an imaginative writer. … You will not only know what you like but also why you like it.

Third, and last, what are the critical rules for reading fiction? … Where, in the case of expository works, the advice was not to criticize a book – not to say you agree or disagree – until you can first say you understand, so here the maxim is: don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.

There is an important corollary to this. The good reader of a story does not question the world that the author creates – the world that is re-created in himself. … That is, we must merely appreciate the fact that a writer sets his story in, say, Paris, and not object that it would have been better to set it in Minneapolis; but we have a right to criticize what he does with his Parisians and with the city itself.

In other words, we must remember the obvious fact that we do not agree or disagree with fiction. We either like it or we do not. Our critical judgement in the case of expository books concerns their truth, whereas in criticizing belles-lettres, as the word itself suggests, we consider chiefly their beauty. The beauty of any work of art is related to the pleasure it gives us when we know it well.

Let us restate the maxims, then, in the following manner. Before you express your likes and dislikes, you must first be sure that you have made an honest effort to appreciate the work. … To achieve appreciation, as to achieve understanding, you must read actively, and that means performing all the acts of analytical reading that we have briefly outlined.

After you have completed such a reading, you are competent to judge. Your first judgement will naturally be one of taste. You will say not only that you like or dislike the book, but also why. The reasons you give will, of course, have some critical relevance to the book itself, but in their first expression they are more likely to be about you – your preferences and prejudices – than about the book. Hence, to complete the task of criticism, you must objectify your reactions by pointing to those things in the book that caused them. You must pass from saying what you like or dislike and why, to saying what is good or bad about the book and why.

The better you can reflectively discern the causes of your pleasure in reading fiction or poetry, the nearer you will come to know the artistic virtues in the literary work itself. You will thus gradually develop a standard of criticism. And you will probably find a large company of men and women of similar taste to share your critical judgments. You may even discover, what we think is true, that good taste in literature is acquired by anyone who learns to read.

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

  1. HOW TO READ IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE

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.

HOW NOT TO READ IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE

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)

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.

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

PART THREE: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter

  1. HOW TO READ PRACTICAL BOOKS

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.

TWO KINDS OF PRACTICAL BOOKS

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)

HOW TO USE AN ENCYCLOPEDIA

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)

HOW TO USE REFERENCE BOOKS

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.

HOW TO USE A DICTIONARY

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.