How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren advanced a hypothesis that depended upon a metaphor-premise that saw the “mind” as a muscle and self-improvement as the goal.  Presenting reading levels advancing from elementary through inspectional (skimming, superficial) and on to “analytical” reading, the authors discussed the essence of “active” reading and taught the reader to ask four basic questions of any author and then advised the reader on “how to make a book your own”.  They taught readers how to use dictionaries and other aids to judgment and critical thought and plotted out the role of rhetoric in the self-improvement enterprise.  They even offered advice on how to read various kinds of works—mathematics, philosophy, history, science, stories and plays; each had a “reading style” and aim. Finally, the highest kind of reading for the professors was “syntopical” reading.  Syntopical means that one goes about reading books about love or war or death, or sorrow perhaps (with grief not far behind), systematically, until one comes to rest somewhere inside the hidey-hole of truth about a topic.


This kind of scheme runs counter to most people’s experience.  Signposts (5) and (6) in this workshop point the way towards a more common-sense understanding of the reading life, which often begins in childhood with pleasant memories of a favorite book— perhaps a gift one received from a parent or grandparent which, along with a special teddy bear or doll, is remembered with love and pleasure.  For Proust, time spent with a favorite book during childhood has magical savor, being associated with days lived fully and happily, days full of associations that remain long after every-day memories fade.  On the other hand, as Henry Miller argues, the path of reading and writing is a metaphysical one, a way of delivering ourselves from normalcy.  For adults, books become pathways towards salvation from everyday-ness, the illness of being like everybody.  Miller would surely agree that powerful books rescue us from life.


I remember childhood reading very well.  On my shelves I have a book of simple cartoons called “Little Lulu”, which is inscribed to me from a young friend in 1954.  For some reason having to do with the surreal drawings, the sometimes puzzling and challenging situations, and the rather bizarre character of Little Lulu herself, this book had a mystical power over me as a child.  I remember clearly (after most of my childhood has disappeared into a blur of nothingness) being somewhat frightened by the book, but also irresistibly drawn to its haunting power.  Alone in my room, lying on a brown bedspread patterned with lariats, horses and spurs, I poured over its pages again and again.  The book, sixty years later, still retains its power over my imagination and I have no idea why that is so.  Clearly, I think, the book has opened a window into the deepest workings of my own body; not my mind, but something more complex and human.  It is a scary, funny, weirdly offbeat, highly entertaining, puzzling, and ultimately enthralling book.


Why would I remember and still be moved by Little Lulu?  I’ll bet Adler and Van Doren haven’t a clue.