Analytical Reading: Pigeonholing a Book: What You Can Learn from the Title of a Book

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What You Can Learn from the Title of a Book

The numbers of readers who pay no attention to the signals is larger than you might expect. We have had this experience again and again with students. We have asked them what a book was about. We have asked them, in the most general terms, to tell us what sort of book it was. This is a good way, almost an indispensable way, to begin a discussion of a book. Nevertheless, it is often hard to get any kind of answer to the question.

Let us take a couple of examples of the kind of confusion that can occur. In 1859, Darwin published a very famous book. A century later the entire English-speaking world celebrated the publication of the book. It was discussed endlessly, and its influence was assessed by learned and not-so-learned commentators. The book was about the theory of evolution, and the word “species” was in the title. What was the title?

Probably you said The Origin of Species, in which case you were correct. But you might not have said that. You might have said that the title was The Origin of the Species. Recently, we asked some twenty-five reasonably well-read persons what the title of Darwin’s book was and more than half said The Origin of the Species. The reason for the mistake is obvious; they supposed, never having read the book, that it had something to do with the development of the human species. In fact, it has little or nothing to do with that subject, which Darwin covered in a later book, The Descent of Man. The Origin of Species is about what its title says it is about—namely the proliferation in the natural world of a vast number of species of plants and animals from an originally much smaller number of species, owing mainly to the principle of natural selection. We mention this common error because many think they know the title of the book, although few have actually ever read the title carefully and thought about what it means.

Here is another example. In this case we will not ask you to remember the title, but to think about what it means. Gibbon wrote a famous, and famously long, book about the Roman Empire. He called it The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Almost everybody who takes up the book recognizes that title; and most people, even without the book in their hand, know the title. Indeed, the phrase “decline and fall” has become proverbial. Nevertheless, when we asked the same twenty-five well-read people why the first chapter is called “The Extent and Military Force of the Empire in the Age of the Antonines,” they had no idea. They did not see that if the book as a whole was titled Decline and Fall, then it might be assumed that the narrative would begin with the high point of the Roman Empire, and continue through to the end. Unconsciously, they had translated “decline and fall” into “rise and fall.” They were puzzled because there was no discussion of the Roman Republic, which ended a century and a half before the Age of the Antonines. If they had read the title carefully they could have assumed that the Age of the Antonines was the high point of the Empire, even if they had not known it before. Reading the title, in other words, could have given them essential information about the book before they started to read it; but they had failed to do that, as most people fail to do even with an unfamiliar book.

One reason why titles and prefaces are ignored by many readers is that they do not think it important to classify the book they are reading. They do not follow this first rule of analytical reading. If they tried to follow it, they would be grateful to the author for helping them. Obviously, the author thinks it is important for the reader to know the kind of book he is being given. That is why he goes to the trouble of making it plain in the preface, and usually tries to make his title—or at least his subtitle—descriptive. Thus, Einstein and Infeld, in their preface to The Evolution of Physics, tell the reader that they expect him to know “that a scientific book, even though popular, must not be read in the same way as a novel.” They also construct an analytical table of contents to advise the reader in advance of the details of their treatment. In any event, the chapter headings listed in the front serve the purpose of amplifying the significance of the main title.

The reader who ignores all these things has only himself to blame if he is puzzled by the question, What kind of book is this? He is going to become more perplexed. If he cannot answer that question, and if he never asks it of himself, he is going to be unable to answer a lot of other questions about the book.

Important as reading titles is, it is not enough. The clearest titles in the world, the most explicit front matter, will not help you to classify a book unless you have the broad lines of classification already in your mind. You will not know the sense in which Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and William James’ Principles of Psychology are books of the same sort if you do not know that psychology and geometry are both sciences—and, incidentally, if you do not know that “elements” and “principles” mean much the same thing in these two titles (though not in general), nor will you further be able to distinguish them as different unless you know there are different kinds of science. Similarly, in the case of Aristotle’s Politics and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, you can tell how these books are alike and different only if you know what a practical problem is, and what different kinds of practical problems there are.

Titles sometimes make the grouping of books easy. Anyone would know that Euclid’s Elements, Descartes’ Geometry, and Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry are three mathematical books, more or less closely related in subject matter. This is not always the case. It might not be so easy to tell from the titles that Augustine’s The City of God, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Rousseau’s Social Contract are political treatises, although a careful perusal of their chapter headings would reveal the problems that are common to these three books.

Again, however, to group books as being of the same kind is not enough; to follow this first rule of reading you must know what that kind is. The title will not tell you, nor all the rest of the front matter, nor even the whole book itself sometimes, unless you have some categories you can apply to classify books intelligently. In other words, this rule has to be made a little more intelligible if you are to follow it intelligently. It can only be made intelligible by drawing distinctions and thus creating categories that make sense and will stand up to the test of time.

We have already discussed a rough classification of books. The main distinction, we said, was between works of fiction, on the one hand, and works conveying knowledge, or expository works, on the other hand. Among expository works, we can further distinguish history from philosophy, and both from science and mathematics.

Now this is all very well as far as it goes. This is a classification scheme with fairly perspicuous categories, and most people could probably place most books in the right category if they thought about it. But not all books in all categories.

The trouble is that as yet we have no principles of classification. We will have more to say about these principles as we proceed in our discussion of the higher levels of reading. For the moment, we want to confine ourselves to one basic distinction, a distinction that applies across the board to all expository works. It is the distinction between theoretical and practical works.


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