Analytical Reading: Pigeonholing a Book: The Importance of Classifying Books

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Pigeonholing a Book

We said at the beginning of this book that the instruction in reading that it provides applies to anything you have to or want to read. However, in expounding the rules of analytical reading, as we will do in Part Two, we may seem to be ignoring that fact. We will usually, if not always, refer to the reading of whole books. Why is this so?

The answer is simple. Reading a whole book, and especially a long and difficult one, poses the severest problems any reader can face. Reading a short story is almost always easier than reading a novel; reading an article is almost always easier than reading a book on the same subject. If you can read an epic poem or a novel, you can read a lyric or a short story; if you can read an expository book—a history, a philosophical work, a scientific treatise—you can read an article or abstract in the same field.

Hence everything that we will say about reading books applies to reading other materials of the kinds indicated. You are to understand, when we refer to the reading of books, that the rules expounded refer to lesser and more easily understood materials, too. Sometimes the rules do not apply to the latter in quite the same way, or to the extent that they apply to whole books. Nevertheless, it will always be easy for you to adapt them so that they are applicable.

The Importance of Classifying Books


You must know, for instance, whether you are reading fiction—a novel, a play, an epic, a lyric—or whether it is an expository work of some sort. Almost every reader knows a work of fiction when he sees it. Or so it seems—and yet this is not always easy. Is Portnoy’s Complaint a novel or a psychoanalytical study? Is Naked Lunch a fiction or a tract against drug abuse, similar to the books that used to recount the horrors of alcohol for the betterment of readers? Is Gone with the Wind a romance or a history of the South before and during the Civil War? Do Main Street and The Grapes of Wrath belong in the category of belles-lettres or are both of them sociological studies, the one concentrating on urban experiences, the other on agrarian life?

All of these, of course, are novels; all of them appeared on the fiction side of the best-seller lists. Yet the questions are not absurd. Just by their titles, it would be hard to tell in the case of Main Street and Middletown which was fiction and which was social science. There is so much social science in some contemporary novels, and so much fiction in much of sociology, that it is hard to keep them apart. But there is another kind of science, too—physics and chemistry, for instance—in books like The Andromeda Strain or the novels of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke. And a book like The Universe and Dr. Einstein, while clearly not fiction, is almost as “readable” as a novel, and probably more readable than some of the novels of, say, William Faulkner.

An expository book is one that conveys knowledge primarily, “knowledge” being construed broadly. Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in this meaning of knowledge and is an expository work. As with fiction, most people know an expository work when they see it. Here, however, the problem is not to distinguish nonfiction from fiction, but to recognize that there are various kinds of expository books. It is not merely a question of knowing which books are primarily instructive, but also which are instructive in a particular way. The kinds of information or enlightenment that a history and a philosophical work afford are not the same. The problems dealt with by a book on physics and one on morals are not the same, nor are the methods the writers employ in solving such different problems.

Thus this first rule of analytical reading, though it is applicable to all books, applies particularly to nonfictional, expository works. How do you go about following the rule, particularly its last clause?

As we have already suggested, you do so by first inspecting the book—giving it an inspectional reading. You read the title, the subtitle, the table of contents, and you at least glance at the preface or introduction by the author and at the index. If the book has a dust jacket, you look at the publisher’s blurb. These are the signal flags the author waves to let you know which way the wind is blowing. It is not his fault if you will not stop, look, and listen.


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