Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, the authors of How to Read a Book, say that it’s easier to read nonfiction than it is to read fiction. Some readers may disagree, perhaps because, to them, non-fiction means “learning,” learning means “school,” and school was never easy for them. Others may object because they believe that nonfiction is meant to be “serious,” while fiction is meant to be “fun.”
How to Read a Book doesn’t argue with these points. It simply maintains that the difference between reading nonfiction and fiction is because one kind of book primarily communicates facts, and the other is meant to communicate a sensory-emotional experience. These objectives are not mutually exclusive, however.
This makes sense to me. People can have different goals when choosing reading material: I read fiction and nonfiction both seriously and for fun. One of the most simultaneously educating, enlightening, entertaining and emotionally satisfying books I’ve read is nonfiction: Connections, by journalist James Burke, which is the companion to his 1970s television documentary series of the same name.
But most of us in this neighborhood are reading (and writing) fiction, so that’s the focus of this post on How to Read a Book. Chapter 14, “How to Read Imaginative Literature,” posits ten rules for reading fiction (specifically, novels and plays).
It starts with three ground rules:
- Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.
- Don’t look for terms, propositions, and arguments in imaginative literature.
- Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge.
It follows with three structural rules:
- You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind.
- You must grasp the unity of the whole work.
- 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.
Then come three interpretive rules:
- You must become acquainted with the details of incident and characterization.
- Become at home in this imaginary world.
- You must follow [the characters] through their adventures.
Finally, the criticism rule:
- Don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.
Only then are you qualified to judge a work of fiction:
- Your first judgment will … be one of taste … not only that you like or dislike the book, but also why.
- To complete the task of criticism, you must objectify your reactions by pointing to those things in the book that caused them … saying what is good or bad about the book and why.
(Emphasis is as it appears in the text.)
On the flip side, if these reading rules are re-written as reader goals, they may also be helpful to writers.
- Readers are looking for emotional effects from a work of fiction: writers should not fear to elicit feelings.
- Readers of fiction are not necessarily looking for the kinds of terms, propositions, and arguments that are found in most non-fiction – but imaginative literature can be a good teacher, and some readers like to learn a little from fiction, too.
- Readers don’t expect imaginative literature to adhere to the same standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge – but even writing fiction entails doing research, which must be done and used correctly, and stories must maintain internal consistency; otherwise, readers will give up on them.
- Readers do need to identify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind, however complicated the story, or the number of genre lines it crosses.
- Readers of a story want to understand the unity of the whole work: is it “The Little Tailor,” “Boy Meets Girl,” or “Sadder But Wiser?”
- Readers want to know not only how to reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but also to discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts: the story has to hang together, throughout any genre combinations.
- Readers want to become acquainted with the details of incident and characterization: they should be able to tell the players without a scorecard.
- Readers of fiction want to become at home in this imaginary world – but that familiarity has to develop as it does in life: gradually, even though necessarily accelerated, with digestible snacks of back story and character background.
- Readers want to follow characters through their adventures: to feel as if they could be real, and that what they do and what happens to them is plausible – an experience that transcends tense and point-of-view.
- Readers of imaginative writing want to fully appreciate what an author has tried to make them experience: they will feel disappointed if they fail to achieve engagement, so writers must strive to ensure that nothing about the execution of the story blocks communication (spelling, grammar, punctuation, accuracy, literary conventions, lexicon, and flow).
If writers do everything they can to help people read their works, those readers will be able to say not only that they like or dislike the work, but also why; and they will be able to objectively explain their reactions by saying what is good or bad about the work and why.
Have you read How to Read a Book? Do you agree or disagree with Adler’s and Van Doren’s rules?