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; however, these objectives are not mutually exclusive.
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:
It follows with three structural rules:
Then come three interpretive rules:
Finally, the criticism rule:
Only then are you qualified to judge a work of fiction:
(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.
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?
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