How To read A Book - The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
Author : Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren
Publishing Details: Simon & Schuster, Book Price: Rs. 260/-
Recommended for: One and All
Mark Twain once said, “A person who does not read good books is no different from a person who cannot read them.” In this age of information overload where what’s app, blogs, magazines and newspapers are vying to catch the reader’s attention are we more knowledgeable and wiser than our ancestors? Most of us would reply in the affirmative. We may have more information of things around us; but more knowledgeable may be a bit debatable.
(Late) Dr. Gopal Valecha was an Industrial Psychologist and a renowned trainer. While attending his training program in 1997; he narrated an interesting anecdote. After completing his Ph. D. at Iowa State University his guide asked him what can Gopal term as his major accomplishment? He said that from then onwards he can put ‘Dr.’ behind his name. His guide replied, “More than that now you will understand how to read a book.” I found that statement a bit weird but around 7 years later I could understand the significance of that statement. Not that I did my Ph. D. but came across a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.
It was first published in 1940 and later on got translated into French, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian. After reading this classic of 426 pages, I was shocked to know my limitations in reading. Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge and a Doctoral ignorance that comes after it.” The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABCs cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. One of the errors is to assume that to be widely read and well read are the same thing.
The book is divided into four parts:
Part I - The Dimensions of Reading: This covers the first two levels of reading viz. the Elementary Reading and the Inspectional Reading Elementary reading is more to do with grammar, syntax, sentence construction etc. which is generally covered in school.
Inspectional Reading involves skimming or pre-reading. This will help you decide whether you really want to read a book, and whether it requires analytical reading. Time being the major constraint and a number of books needing your attention, inspectional reading helps you make that critical decision. Inspectional reading should not involve more than 15-20 mins. It includes reading the blurb, the preface, and scanning the book to see illustrations, tables to get an overall feel of the book.
Part II - The Third Level of Reading: The Analytical Reading is the complete and thorough reading which requires maximum effort. Inspectional reading is the best option when you have limited time, whereas analytical reading is apt when you have adequate time. Francis Bacon once remarked, “most of the books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and a few to be thoroughly chewed and digested.” Remember analytical reading is primarily for the sake of understanding.
Ponder over a title to understand the classification. A title as well as the subtitle conveys vital information about the book. A group of 25 reasonably well-read people were asked to name the book which shot Charles Darwin to fame. Darwin is known for his theory of Evolution and the participants guessed the book as The Origin of the Species. Having not read the book, they assumed that the book must be about the development of human species. Actually the title of the book is The Origin of Species and discusses the proliferation of the natural world of the great number of plants and animals from a small number of species.
The evolution of human race from apes has been covered by Darwin in The Descent of Man. One reason why titles and prefaces are ignored by the readers is they feel it to be insignificant from the angle of classifying a book.
Part III - Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading: This part contains seven chapters which include reading of practical books, imaginative literature, history, Science and Mathematics, Philosophy and social sciences. One chapter is devoted for reading of stories, plays and poems.
Part IV - Fourth Level of Reading, The Syntopical Reading: When you are carrying out research on a topic and know very well that one book is not sufficient, you need to refer a number of books on the same topic or related topics. You can either devise a bibliography of the number of titles available on the subject or scan few books at random.
Let us say your research topic is: Have the economic reforms really benefitted the country? In such a case you need to refer books not only from the economists, but also the biographies of Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh etc. The other purpose is you need to look at different perspectives of the topic. You may read the complete book or you may read only the specific topic. In case of syntopical reading, the emphasis is more on the reader’s priority than on the book.
To enhance the reading competency, a reading list of 150 great books has been recommended which include works of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Essays of Francis Bacon, Voltaire, novels like Don Quixote, Karl Marx’s Das Capital etc. Exercise and tests to understand the four levels of reading are also provided.
The book provides a great deal of intellectual satisfaction on the pleasures of reading in an interesting manner.
Anti Fragile: How to live in a world we don’t understand
Author : Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Publishing Details: Allen Lane , Book Price: Rs. 899
Recommended for: Sr. Managers and/or those who are preplexed with managing uncertainty.
This book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb follows on his pet theme of uncertainty. One of his early books, Fooled by Randomness shows how the world we live in is more random and unpredictable than we think. The second book Black Swan discusses about random events which can affect not only individuals but also societies and organization. Having come across white swans we tend to think that all swans are white and there is no such thing as a black swan. But the moment such an incident happens, it may disrupt the normal functioning of a system. The Fukushima disaster can be considered as a black swan incident, an extremely rare event which was neither planned for nor thought of. All adequate care was taken to put safety systems in place; however the intensity of the mishap was much more than anticipated. Stated otherwise, the absence of evidence is interpreted as an evidence of absence.
According to the author, there are three types of systems: Fragile, Robust and Antifragile. A system can be considered as any object animate or inanimate or even a collection of objects working in unison. Human beings, animals, technology products, a power plant, ecosystem can be considered as different types of systems having a number of parts which are interconnected and related. The system while functioning faces a number of challenges from the external environment called as stressors. A fragile system becomes weak when subjected to repeated stressors. Think of our ecosystem which gets degraded by vehicular pollution, deforestation etc. and the effect is irreversible which makes it fragile. The second is a robust system which is immune to external stressors. The third is the Anti Fragile, a system which becomes stronger when subjected to stressors. For example, in Greek mythology Hydra is a serpent-like structure having multiple heads. If any of its head is cut, a new one is born. Hydra metaphorically is an antifragile system, as it bounces back in coping with the challenge thus emerging stronger.
The 500+ pages book has been divided into seven parts each termed as a book. The first book gives an overall perspective of the topic. Fragile system is like a Damocles sword, when subjected to a minor challenge in the environment; may lead to chaos. Another concept is the difference between the complex and the complicated. From a systemic perspective, he says a washing machine is a complicated system having electrical and mechanical subassemblies, but it does not have a self-adjusting mechanism and hence it is not complex. A cat on the other hand is complex and not complicated. Manipulation in one part can affect the other. (Remember, how antibiotics used to cure infections may cause side effects like loose motions?) Our approach towards life is treating system as a washing machine (which are linear) and not as a cat (which are complex, interconnected and spiral). For example, during the annual sales conference, the MD of a company having a turnover of say Rs. 50 crores; unilaterally decides that next year he wants the sales team to achieve a target of Rs. 100 crores. He assumes the system to be linear and neither takes the competition into consideration who might be aiming at the same market segment nor factors the probability of his star performers quitting (either for lack of promotion or greener pastures elsewhere) while deciding the ambitious target.
Book II deals with Modernity and the denial of antifragility.
Generally we do not accept the inherent randomness of life and try either to eliminate or minimize it. For example, the indiscriminate use of mineral water (which is actually filtered water) instead of making us healthy tends to reduce our immunity towards virus and bacteria. To cope with air pollution, people put on the air-conditioner the moment they enter the car. However continuous exposure to AC makes people susceptible to cold, fever and allergies. Taking away randomness actually makes our system more fragile. When people drive automatic transmission cars, not only it leads to more petroleum consumption but the body tends to lose the agility and the motor mechanism of operating the clutch, gears and accelerator. This not only makes it routine but also eliminates the adventure and fun of driving a manual transmission car. (Indian traffic which is chaotic is an exception as one has to be alert all the time. Every moment is existentially random!)
Iatrogenic is a term which indicates the long term damages caused by unnecessary intervention are more than the immediate benefits. For example, Thalidomide drug was prescribed for pregnant mothers to reduce the vomiting and the morning sickness. While achieving this objective, a decade later it was found that the drug led to child deformities and was subsequently banned.
Book III discusses the non-predictive view of the world.
Thanks to globalization and the spread of internet, the current situation is characterised by four factors which are: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity(VUCA). Volatility based on the Latin word vocare means to fly. There are few who make the best use of volatility but the majority gets sucked by it. It cannot be dealt with sheer knowledge. For example in the current Acche Din when the stock markets are booming; majority of the people will buy the stocks at stratospheric levels but the few sell the stocks and make profits. The first category of people base their decisions on media experts from TV, newspapers whose approach is techne; more on bookish knowledge whereas the few in minority termed as episteme decide more on the gut feeling and experience.
Book IV is about Optionality, Technology and the intelligence of Antifragility:
Optionality is the ability to choose the options and change the course of action. For example in a rapidly changing job market a mechanical engineer has more options than a textile engineer as the former has a lot of options vis-à-vis the latter in a recessionary market. A person having a job can negotiate a much better salary than the one having no job. Optionality, a substitute of knowledge can thus lead to antifragility.
Book V is about the non-linear and the linear.
Generally we feel that cause & effect a linear relationship. Assume there are two giant boulders of similar size. The first one is broken into 1000 odd pieces. The cumulative damage caused by 1000 odd pebbles is much lesser than that caused by a single boulder. Remember the ‘ultra-safe’ Mercedes car which led to Princess Diana’s death which rammed into a concrete wall at a speed of 140KM/hour? One such impact at such a speed is more fatal than sum total of 10 impacts at 1/10th the speed. The author says we should factor such non-linearities to understand how external events can impact fragility.
Book VI is on Via Negativa, Neomania and the Treadmill Effects:
Quite often it becomes difficult to choose between two equally good or bad options. Under such a situation, it is better to decide what not to do rather than what to do. This is termed as Via Negativa. This writer was living in Mumbai in the early 80s and was going through an existential dilemma of life. Getting stuck in a routine job, he did not know what to do with his career but was clear what not to do and that was not to waste time with daily commute of the local trains. He left Mumbai, settled in Bangalore and later on decided to explore training & writing as a career.
Neomania is a term that makes the system critical and vulnerable with very low factors of safety. In financial terms, high leverage or gearing can be termed as neomania. High Leverage indicates use of more borrowed funds than using own funds to buy new assets. This is with an assumption that the benefits in growth may far outweigh the risk of the interest burden. There is a classic case of a renowned luxury hotel chain, which borrowed heavily in the market to the tune of Rs 4500 crores. Due to the unpredictable revenue stream, the company had to pledge the properties in Chennai and Delhi and had to sell off the one in Kovalam and ultimately led the bankers taking the control of the company finances. Kingfisher Airlines is another example of neomania leading to fragility. Remember it not only makes the company bankrupt but also affects the jobs of employees and the taxpayers’ money.
Book VII is about the Ethics of antifragility and the cost paid by the society for the recklessness of the few.
The author talks about the experts ‘having no skin in the game’ who neither have any risk nor any obligations while making the predictions or advising their clients. According to Taleb, due to the randomness there are no experts. Most of the experts only in retrospect justify they had predicted the event correctly. By statistical probability some predictions come true, some don’t. However very rarely do experts accept when their predictions go haywire. In a way the experts ‘postdict’ and do not ‘predict’ Taleb has taken swipes at Joseph Stiglitz, the Economics Nobel Laureate when the latter predicted Martha Stewart as a success story. Martha was later arrested for insider trading and sent to jail. Taleb is blunt, forthright and does not spare even the experts who have created problems with their foolish predictions terming them as Harvard-Soviet combine. For example when a financial expert tells you to buy a stock, the best way to ensure whether his advice is worth listening to or not is to safely ignore whether he hosts talk show on CNBC or teaches at Harvard but whether he has that stock in his personal portfolio. We also see a number of buildings collapsing in the country due to faulty material, poor design etc. Rather than taking such errant builders to court which is a long drawn out task, the author makes a simple suggestion. Make the builder responsible for the building not only for the current generation but also for the next generation.
The book is an intellectual journey on the essential randomness of life and how one can survive and grow in a highly complex and uncertain world. Taleb has dealt extensively on statistics, probability, the mathematical models but also cautions the reader to avoid the highly technical stuff.
The Road Less Travelled, A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth
Author : Dr. Scott Peck
Publishing Details: Simon & Schuster, Book Price:
Recommended for: for One and All
This book was published in 1978. It remained in the New York Times bestsellers list for almost five years and was featured in the Guinness Book of world records.
Unlike other self-help books The Road Less Traveled is a serious book. It does not offer quick-fix solutions but makes you look at life in a wider perspective. It commences with Gautam Buddha’s first noble truth: Life is Difficult. A few years back one of my friends, Parminder, an entrepreneur was going through tough times and feeling quite low. One day he called me over phone to seek advice on managing the cash-flow crisis. On recommending this book, two days later he called me and said, "thanks a lot, my problem has been solved." I asked, "did it solve the cash–flow problem?" "Not necessarily", He said "the opening line, Life is Difficult made all the difference".
For many people the problem is not that life is difficult but we refuse to accept that life is difficult.
The three topics the author discusses about are :
- Discipline : The four components of Discipline are:
- Delaying Gratification
- Acceptance of Responsibility
- Dedication to Truth &
- Balancing between the needs of self and others.
- Love : Here he discusses the myth of romantic love which is infatuation. True love helps the other person to grow spiritually and makes him/her independent whereas romantic love makes you dependent on the other. The former needs efforts and is an act of will.
- Grace : A number of people in spite of going through severe hardships in life have been able to live a happy and successful life. Entropy like gravity is the force which pulls down people which is through lack of discipline whereas Grace is the upward force which helps them in their spiritual evolution.
The book is highly recommended for those who would like to explore the purpose of life and also to get the answers for the existential dilemmas.