After my first trip to Italy I read an article by Thomas Sowell in which he placed The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the top of a list of books that had profoundly influenced his thinking. After putting it off for years I picked up a copy and thus began my love affair with Edward Gibbon. I'm fairly sure he might have been my soul mate. Well, him or Thomas Jefferson. (Do men just become intensely interesting when they've been dead a couple of centuries? Or is it like the quote from Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society about men in real life never being as interesting as the men in books? Does that happen to real men when all that is left of them is books?)
Where was I?
Oh, yes...Gibbon's masterpiece was something I regretted not reading sooner. Which brings me back to this book.
I've just finished How To Read a Book and can indeed recommend that it should be required reading for all incoming freshmen. It could also be used as a tool to weed out those who shouldn't really be in college, during the admissions process. To quote my son while he was complaining about some less than serious classmates who are annoying to him: "It's frustrating because the people who have no business being there haven't figured it out and quit yet. They are just there wasting everyone's time." (We do persist in this idea that everyone should go to college, don't we? But that's a topic for another day.)
Here is a sample of chapter titles:
- Determining An Author's Message
- Criticizing a Book Fairly
- Reading and the Growth of the Mind
Here are some of my favorite quotes from this valuable classic:
"The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery; keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection." (p.14)
"Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher." (p. 16)
"What is important is that there is an intellectual etiquette to be observed. Without it, conversation is bickering rather than profitable communication. We are assuming here, of course, that the conversation is about a serious matter on which men can agree or disagree. Then it becomes important that they conduct themselves well. Otherwise there is no profit in the enterprise. The profit in good conversation is something learned." (from Criticizing a Book Fairly, p. 138)
"Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than to be taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth." (from How to Read Imaginative Literature. p. 204)
There are a couple of topics that are a bit dated, like How to Read an Encyclopedia. But other than that it is an absolute gem. You can't make the universities require it, but you can personally give it to your student. Here's the link.