Critical READING (of any book)


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I figured I'd start this thread to ask others how they critically read a book, and since this forum centers on Objectivism, then specifically I'm asking how readers of Objectivist texts read critically.

I'm not a literature major, but I did take a year long course in which I could dissect three sentences and turn it into a three page paper; however I know that there may be more questions to be asked. Also, I did used to make slogans and study media so I do understand how language, tone, and semantics can be used in advertising, marketing, and artwork as well.

So, the questions that readers ask themselves are:

Charles Anderson writes:

As I read a book, I check all the facts the writer claims are true against my own knowledge. There may be some that I have no knowledge of, but generally there are enough that, if I do that, I can develop an assessment of the writer's judgment.

When I do not have independent knowledge of his description of the facts, I may look up those facts elsewhere or I may just file them away to be checked against future reading.

I also study the author's use of logic carefully. Many writers are clearly very irrational and unable to use logic correctly.

I also look for evaluative assessments. For instance, the writer might say that Jones does not know what he is talking about because Jones thinks people should exercise self-responsibility or some such argument. This argument means nothing to me if it reveals a wrong viewpoint.

I examine the author's assumptions and their plausibility or certainty. I look to see if he has made it clear that he has made an assumption.

I am also very wary of the argument from authority in many forms. If he says that Smith, the foremost authority on anthropology, says that all societies exhibit an abhorrence for incest, then I am not impressed, unless I know the work of Smith directly. Of course, I may know his work and find it frequently dubious.

I also check his conclusions against my lifetime of conclusions. If his disagree with mine, but still seem plausibly to be backed up by the evidence he has marshalled, I have to closely re-check how I had come to my earlier conclusions and I will want to recheck his facts and his logical arguments.

Some of these techniques are hard to apply to a book such as PARC, where I have limited knowledge of the historical events and people and where so many authors may be lacking in detachment. But, many of these techniques could be applied to PARC. For instance, Valliant makes a great many assumptions and every time the assumption is that which favors Ayn Rand as a virtuous and innocent woman and all fault resides in someone else. There is a systematic bias operating here. He states something as a fact for one argument, but states something different for another. If I grant his facts for the sake of argument, he proceeds in many cases to make a fallacious argument. Or in other cases, he proves a point, but then greatly exaggerates its significance. He often presents his arguments in a manner that mixes up the order of events. He very frequently states an interpretation of an event or a statement, though other interpretations suggest themselves to me and I find that these competing interpretations require evaluation, which he does not give them.

I ask myself these:

Before of how words are used. Look at the sentence structure, the choice of word, and where that word is put. Beware of the TONE of a sentence, and think about why the author used that tone. Is he/she acting benevolently, or is there an unlerdying phenomena behind it? Is the author trying to prove a conclusion and using RHETORIC and certain premises to prove a *certain* conclusion? Could a different analogy be used instead that was *fair* and *balanced*? Is the author appealing to emotion, intellect, or both? Why?

Then, what *kind* of book is this? What is it's purpose? How are people portrayed, with what words, sentence structure, and emotion? What is the tone? Could you rewrite what this author wrote in a DIFFERENT style-- such as that of a research paper (plain observation, data, conclusion), or a newsreel, or a commercial? Which one of these styles is more conducive to the author's tone, and WHY? Does the book sound like a researched piece, an autobiography, or a sound bite?

Lastly, what are the reactions to this book? Who gives it a thumbs up/down? What is their reasoning behind it? What words do these critiques use? How do these people behave, write their reviews, and view the authors? What does this tell me? How do the authors behave *back*?

One warning that repeats, over and over in my head: Watch out for RHETORIC! Don't get drawn in by language unless you *let* yourself!

If anyone can add, that will be great; I think this is valuable information for beginners coming into any new knowledge (not just Oism) and teaches anyone willing to learn how to think more critically. Goodness knows that I do miss things and could refer to a primer full of questions now and then.

Also, Jody, since your wife is in the literature field, would she have any general comments to make on literary theory and critique? I will ask my technical writing friend tomorrow on the same issue :)

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As I was reading your post I had occasion to think about whether I have ever laid out how I formally critique a book or paper, and at the same time knowing I by habit do a lot of the thing you mentioned.

Although being somewhat of a sceptic by nature, It would probably pay me dividends to be more aware of how I ingest information.


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You obviously read quickly. I don't think I read as fast as you do from the enormous amount of material you are always citing. However, there are two very good pieces of advice I learned for critical reading:

1. I flip through the book before reading it to get a feel of what is going to be covered, and especially look through things like the Table of Contents and the Index and even dwell a bit on illustrations. I often do this even when I am in the middle of book, normally when I pick it up the next day. This also stimulates my curiosity.

2. I use a pointer, leading my eyes by tracing a line under the words I read. This is usually my finger, but sometimes it is a pencil or pen. (On the computer screen I often highlight the sentence I am reading with the mouse. This is really useful with long paragraphs that are hard on the eyes.) I don't do this all the time, but I find that it helps in getting through boring parts without going out of focus. It also makes repeating something that I didn't understand on first read easier. (As I am a creative person, I sometimes have problem with focus, so I can read a sentence and have no idea of what I just read - I was daydreaming about a tangent that was suggested earlier. There's nothing to do when I catch myself except to reread what I missed.)

There is an aspect to textbooks and nonfiction that most people do not perceive, but I find interesting. I mentioned this in a small discussion of a book by Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult. Here is a quote from that post:

I translated a total of about 35,000 pages of text in Brazil. Much of this was public bids in telecommunications, but there were also long legal papers, technical manuals in all kinds of areas, laws, etc. What happens with long technical texts is that a single work usually has several authors, each taking a chapter or two. When you translate as much as I did, you get a feel for different writing styles in the same work.

Often a work is not written by the same author, despite only one author being given. Regardless of why this could be (research staff, I presume, in the case of the Walker book), it is entirely possible that one chapter will be filled with excellent information and the next will be more dubious. This often is due to the author relying on different people or sources.

This is something to look out for, if you can develop the "feel" for it. If you notice the style of writing of a dubious part, you will find that when this style returns later, the information is dubious there also. The same goes for the good sections.


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Alas, Lydia is so involved in her studies for the PhD that I fear she will have to take a rain check for the time being, though she always sends her best to those I hang out with here. She says this site has done wonders for me. So, what I'm saying is that you will have to put up with me in the mean time, and I hope to address you comments. Funny that this comes at a time that I just started re-reading Harold Bloom's "How To Read and Why."

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Alas, Lydia is so involved in her studies for the PhD that I fear she will have to take a rain check for the time being, though she always sends her best to those I hang out with here. She says this site has done wonders for me. So, what I'm saying is that you will have to put up with me in the mean time, and I hope to address you comments. Funny that this comes at a time that I just started re-reading Harold Bloom's "How To Read and Why."

Well, then I send my best wishes for her in her studies! I did look up books on literary theory; and I did ask my literature friend. What I've found that is that one can approach reading from differing--- almost philosophical--- perspectives in lit. theory; except that I would be interested in coming at it from a nonpartisan position. My friend then said that I might benefit from studying linguistics...

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