MORTIMER ADLER's classic volume ``How to Read a Book'' was first published in 1940. Last week I finally read it. I'm slow, but I do get around to things. Once I plowed my way through nearly 400 pages (counting the index) of practical advice, I was eager to put Dr. Adler's precepts to work. Unfortunately, the only book I had in the house was a copy of TV Guide. Oh well, the longest journey begins with a single step, I think Fred Astaire said. I say if Dr. Adler's rules applied to ``War and Peace,'' his rules should work on real literature as well. After all, I am willing to bet a week's salary that more people in the United States are reading TV Guide at this very moment than reading any Russian novel.
The question to consider, of course, is whether people are reading TV Guide the way it should be read (italics mine). Adler would reply, ``Of course not.'' But there is no reason to give up hope. With some mature thought, with a few moments of guidance, we should all be able to squeeze the last ounce of meaning out of every best-selling magazine.
Adler states that ``One of the primary rules for reading anything is to spot the most important words the author uses. Spotting them is not enough, however. You have to know how they are being used.''
Let's put that first rule to use. Turning to the TV Guide that I have on hand, I find the most important words to be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The days of the week dominate the issue. Since many of the names of the days of the week are derived from pagan gods, I have my doubts that TV Guide is suitable fare for the Christian reader.
Adler expands on his advice by adding: ``There is another and closely related rule: to discover the important sentences and to understand what they mean.'' English teachers who get gray hairs exhorting their charges to write complete sentences will find that TV Guide thrives upon sentence fragments. Finding a sentence, let alone an important one, is a difficult chore. For example:
NATURE OF THINGS An award-winning film about plant and animal life in the Arctic.
No verb there. Here is another example of a typical listing:
WHT MOVIE - Comedy-Drama ``Losin' It'' (1 hour, 40 minutes)
No verb there, either. Also, I wish the person making the listing would make up his or her mind. Is ``Losin' It'' a comedy? Is it a drama? Reading is difficult enough to do when the author knows what he or she is talking about, but it is certainly unfair for an author to turn reading into a guessing game.
I do like, however, the idea of being told how long a given film or performance lasts. That's an idea that can be applied to the Great Books. Librarians should give us some idea how long it takes to read the classics. It took me, for example, two days to read TV Guide, but then I was trying to follow all of Adler's rules. Once a reader gets the rules mastered, reading should become easier. A typical high school reading list might look like this:
``Peyton Place'' (4 hours and 10 minutes) ``Catcher in the Rye'' (3 hours and 54 minutes) ``1984'' (2 hours, 18 minutes, and 43 seconds) ``30 Seconds to a More Powerful Vocabulary'' (30 seconds)
Leaving behind my revolutionary idea for changing the reading habits of our nation, we come to Adler's third rule: ``Know the author's arguments by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.'' Since we have already determined that there are few complete sentences to wrestle with, we can dispose of that rule quickly. It simply does not apply.
Rule No. 4: ``Determine which of his problems the author solved and which he did not, and, of the latter, decide which the author knew he failed to solve.'' At last, we come to the real crux of reading TV listings. TV Guide does not solve problems. It creates them.
On the basis of flimsy evidence, we the readers are supposed to evaluate what programs to see. On the basis of a two- or three-line description, we are supposed to decide how to spend our Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
WOULD you choose to watch ``Losin' It'' just because it runs for one hour and 40 minutes? Would you watch NATURE OF THINGS just because it received some anonymous award? Would you watch any television program just because some highly paid, college-educated, snob-oriented critic liked it? No! No! No!
Writers for TV Guide know they have failed to solve our problem (the basic problem of existence in America - what television program to watch), and that is why a new revised issue of the guide comes out every week. No doubt the state of literature would be improved if the classics were revised each week. Classics such as ``Moby Dick'' and ``The Dialogues of Plato'' are years behind the times. At least TV Guide recognizes its failings and struggles to improve.
To sum up, Adler reminds us that ``Every book has a skeleton hidden between its boards. Your job is to find it.'' No wonder, people in America have given up reading. Who wants to spend his days and nights searching for old bones when he can watch living flesh in full color piped into his living room? Or, as the writer of TV Guide puts it in such splendid prose:
HBO MOVIE - fantasy ``I Go Pogo'' (85 minutes)
Now that I know how to read the way reading should be read, pardon me while I go pogo.