A lot of reading group guides are worthless not because they’re unintelligent but because they’re irrelevant. They urge you to talk about everything except what a book is says and how well it says it. Some of their discussion questions aren’t questions but directions that might make you feel as though you’re taking an oral essay exam.
The new paperback edition of Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (Griffin, 384 pp., $13.95), a novel about a high school teacher forced to use a curriculum she doesn’t support, comes with a guide that has as question No. 5 on a list of 14: “Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.” That might be an interesting topic. But to raise it before you’ve talked about other aspects of the novel – as this guide urges you do to – could only drag the conversation far away from the book at hand.
Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren offer better advice in their classic How to Read a Book (Touchstone, 426 pp., $16.99, paperback), still in print more than 60 years it first won fame as the best all-around guide to reading comprehension. The authors argue there are four main questions to ask about any book.
“1. WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential or subordinate themes or topics.
“2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
“3. IS THE BOOK TRUE, IN WHOLE OR IN PART? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated , if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.”
“4. WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important that you know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, or what is further implied or suggested.”
The tone of this passage is didactic by today’s standards. But the advice is as good as ever (and developed at length it in later chapters, which deal with topics such as how to understand what a book is “about”). And although the authors focus on nonfiction, their questions apply also to (or can be adapted for) fiction. Among their greatest strengths is that they keep their focus on asking thoughtful questions – the kind that will help you make a book your own – instead of buying into a publisher’s point of view.
Other quotes from How to Read a Book appear in the Nov. 2007 post on this site, “How Are Reading and Writing Related?,” which dealt with the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. An excerpt appears on the Touchstone site.
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.