The AdlerNet Guide, Part II
Analytical Reading and Taking Notes
If you have been following me recently, I’ve been leading readers on a journey to develop better analytical reading skills for the express purpose of reading the Great Books of the Western World (or any classical reading program). The cornerstone of my approach is an analog note-taking system adapted from Scott Scheper’s “Antinet” (i.e. Zettelkasten) that is designed to 1) lead the reader through the steps of analytical reading with better comprehension and recall, and 2) produce a body of notes that replicates and engages the “Great Conversation”. By this, I mean that our notes will reveal the dialectic that built western culture as it emerged over time. Furthermore, we will become active and equal participants in this conversation!
A Quick Primer on Analytical Reading
I’ve mentioned Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book several times in my recent writings. If you haven’t read it yet, and if it’s important to you to preserve or even improve your literacy against the blight of “internet shallows”, I recommend that you briefly pause reading this post and order Adler’s book. It’s an indispensable reference and tool for your AdlerNet project; more importantly, it will teach you the skills required to read and understand challenging texts using nothing more than the power of your own intellect. I have two well-worn copies myself to which I refer quite often.
Armed with Adler’s book, here are the steps I follow when reading a classical or challenging text.
Inspectional Reading, i.e. “Pre-Reading”. The first step involves orienting yourself to the subject and contents of the book or text. This includes reading the dust jacket or book covers, reviewing the front matter, inspecting the table of contents, and skimming a few key chapters. If there is an index, pay attention to which topics contain the most citations. In most cases, you will need no more than 15-30 minutes to acquire a sufficient grasp of what the book is about and how it is organized. (Note: I’ve also found that inspectional reading is sufficient to get what I need from most contemporary business or self-help books, which saves time for reading the classics.)
First Reading. Read through the entire book once rather quickly to get the main ideas and identify its overall structure. (If it’s a long work, break it up by chapter or section). You will not understand the book very deeply after this first reading, nor should you try to. But you should at least grasp what problem or issue(s) the author is trying to solve. I find it helpful to listen to an audio recording of the book at the same time that I’m reading it (usually on a fast playback speed, like 1.3-1.5). This ensures that I don’t repeatedly regress while reading to try to understand a confusing passage.
I always do my first reading with a pencil in hand, so I can underline important terms, put a check next to key sentences or arguments, or jot a “?” next to passages I don’t understand. These marginalia will help focus my attention during the next phase of analytical reading. Although the point of the first reading is just to finish, I do pause after each section (or couple of pages) to summarize key points on a pink bibliographic note card (i.e. “bib card”—see the section on note-taking below). This helps me document the overall structure and ideas that I want to return to during my analytical reading.
Analytical Reading, i.e. “Re-Reading”. Here’s an important truth that years of reading classical works (and books of that caliber) have taught me: if you’ve only read it once, you haven’t read it. Now, this statement is not meant to belittle anyone’s attempts at reading the Great Books. There is something to be gained from even the most cursory exposure to these works. But the real goal of a Great Books reading program is to experience the minds of these authors (something the Schoolmen called connatural knowledge) and imprint whatever value we find there on our souls (i.e. will and intellect). This can only be done through a process of intentional re-reading.
During my analytical reading, I am generally performing three tasks:
a) “Coming to terms”1 with the author by defining the key words and phrases according to the author’s own horizon of meaning.
b) “Determining the author’s message”2 by finding, comprehending, and reconstructing the key passages and/or arguments.
c) “Finding the solutions”3 to the problems the author set out to solve. If I’ve done my reading well, I should be able to critically evaluate how well the author has accomplished it.
Some readers may wonder whether I re-read the entire book word for word during the analytical phase of reading. The answer is no. Since I’ve already read or skimmed through the text once, annotated the margins, and created several bib cards, I can quickly find and return to the passages that need more work. This is also where I begin creating my main note cards (which aid me in completing the 3 reading tasks above). So now we’ll take a look at how note-taking is done in the AdlerNet process.
Analytical Reading with Note Cards
In my last post, I described how to set up 3 types of note card boxes for use in your AdlerNet: the Bibliography Box, the Timeline (or Idea) Box, and the Index Box. Now I’ll review and explain in more detail the types of note cards that are stored in each box and how to prepare them during your analytical reading.
The Bibliography Box
The AdlerNet “Bib Box” contains the literature notes which, when assembled together, give a fairly complete summary of the book as a whole. I keep 3 types of cards in this box:
Pink bibliography card. (See “First Reading” above). On the front of this card, I first list the publication information (author, title, publisher etc.) Then I turn it over and jot down brief notes lengthwise on each section. I include the page or section number, as applicable. The notes themselves are usually not complete quotes or ideas. I treat them more as “section headings”. Sometimes I’ll also list a few main headings on the front of the card, in outline format under the publication info.
How many bib cards do you need for each book? I’ve heard that Niklas Luhmann, the creator of the original Zettelkasten, routinely wrote up to 4 bib cards per book (and he referenced over 15,000 books in his ZK!) While reading Aristotle recently, I found it helpful to write out one bib card for every 1-2 “Books” (i.e. chapters) of Nicomachean Ethics, for a total of 7 cards or so. (You can probably get away with less.)
Orange “terms” card. (See “Coming to Terms” above). On this card, I list all the words I underlined during the First Reading signifying an important concept or a word that stumped me. Then, using only the author’s words and context to guide me, I’ll attempt to write my own definition. Only after I’ve “come to terms” with the author in this way will I refer to a dictionary (and even then, it’s usually only to clarify some technical point.) Be sure to include the page number where the term first appears. For Aristotle’s Ethics, I wrote out one terms card per Book, consisting of 7-10 definitions each.
White narration card. In classical rhetoric, narratio was the presentation of key facts or arguments to support a given position. I incorporate this practice in my “narration cards,” which present a brief summary of each chapter in my own words to ensure I have understood the author. It also enhances my recall. This is usually the last set of cards I write out, after my analytical reading is complete.
When I’m done reading the book, I secure all these cards with a rubber band and store them alphabetically in the Bib Box under the last name of the author.
The Timeline Box
Now we have arrived at the “meat” of a Great Books reading program, i.e. the Great Ideas. I keep two types of cards in this box (or three, if you include the historical “Memory Pegs”—see last post). Both cards below are written during the re-reading process, typically after defining the terms.
Blue excerpt card. (See “Determining the author’s message” above). The excerpt card is a direct quote of a key passage from the reading. During my first reading, I usually put a check mark or the letter “Q” (for “quote”) next to an important or particularly eloquent passage. Then I’ll copy it out word for word. This slow but critical process accomplishes 3 things: 1) It helps me analyze a difficult passage; 2) It aids memorization and improves my writing skills through the mimetic process; 3) It causes me to “enter” the author’s mind for a deeper level of understanding.
White response card. (See “Finding the solutions” above). Right after making an excerpt card, I like to write out a response in my own words. This response may be a re-articulation of the author’s words, a clarification, or my own reaction to it. It’s also a good time to begin evaluating how well the author is making his case or to point out any omissions or errors in the argument.
How many excerpt cards should you write? I suppose it depends on two things: how much time you have and the number of passages you feel are essential for understanding the author’s argument. Use the notes on your pink bib cards to guide you to key passages. Again, in my recent reading of Aristotle’s Ethics, I tended to write about 3 excerpt cards per Book.
The Index Box
The Index Box contains the alphebetized lists and collections of our note cards. It’s a key component of working with Adler’s Syntopicon and the Great Ideas. You have probably noticed the cryptic alpha/numeric card numbers in the photos above. We will explore how this all comes together in the next post on installing our note cards.
Putting it Together
Now that you understand the elements of analytical reading and note-taking, here’s how to put it together during your study:
Inspectional reading: no note cards generated.
Complete quickly - audio books are your friend!
Write out pink bib cards of main takeaways for each section.
First, define the author’s terms using orange term cards.
Next, copy 2-3 key quotes for each chapter (section etc.) on blue excerpt cards.
Next, write your corresponding white response card to each excerpt.
Last, write a white narration card summarizing each chapter or section in your own words. (Optional but helpful)
Now we’ve got a stack of cards and the question is what to do with them? The last part of this process is to install our cards in our boxes. This is where the magic happens and we will discuss it in the next and last post in this series! Thanks for reading! Please post any questions in the comments.
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Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Touchstone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 96.