Classic Book of the Month

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, March 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s the first Tuesday of the month, and book reviewer Emily Whitten joins us again for her classic book selection.

Emily, glad you could join us.

EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: Thanks for having me, Mary.

REICHARD: Last month we talked about two authors, and I see you have two more for us this month. You’re ambitious!

WHITTEN: Well, it’s not like its War and Peace. This is doable.  I want to talk about Mortimer J. Adler’s classic work from 1940, How to Read a Book. I know most of us learned to read back in elementary school. But if you give Adler a few pages, Mary, I think you’ll find he’s chock-full of practical tips to help you read more efficiently. Here’s Adler discussing his book on Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. This was back in 1983:

FIRING LINE WITH WILLIAM B.: In the opening chapter, when I was trying to explain to the reader why one must have a passion for reading. I said, you know, you’ll understand what I’m trying to say if you’ve ever read a love letter. Because anyone who’s ever read a love letter has read every word carefully, looked between the lines, over the lines, turned it upside down to see if you can find anything more there. So the motivation of the person who has read a love letter is the kind of motivation one should have when reading anything worth reading. If your friend male or female said, ‘Shall I tell you why I love you?’ you would listen very carefully. Let me count the ways…’

So, Adler encourages us to read carefully. Just as a baseball pitcher needs a good catcher, authors depend on readers who will think deeply, who will listen well. This book equips you to do just that.

REICHARD: We can always use encouragement to slow down and think more deeply. I find in this meme and internet age my attention span suffers. Emily, you mentioned Adler’s practical tips. Can you give us a few?

WHITTEN: One really simple suggestion—write things down. If you borrow a print book, or listen to an audiobook, you can use a notecard or journal. Otherwise, just make notes in the margin as you read. Underline or star important terms and arguments. Adler even suggests you make an outline of the book on the endpapers—those blank pages at the end of the book. It’ll help you visualize what the author is saying, and you’ll remember more of what you read.

REICHARD: Well I can vouch for that. I’m far better at retaining what I’ve read if I do that.  And I understand people who use e-readers can write in the margins, too. What else?

WHITTEN: I tried out some of Adler’s tips on a book I’ve wanted read for a long time, A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. Sowell, of course, is an American economist who studied at Harvard, Columbia, and earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. He studied under Milton Friedman.

And in addition to teaching and writing many books, he wrote a weekly syndicated news column for 25 years. When he retired from that column back in December of 2016, Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler had this to say:

MOHLER: The conflict of visions Thomas Sowell described was between what he called the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. The constrained vision is modern conservatism, believing that human beings need certain social institutions and that human nature is by its very reality constrained. That’s to be opposed to the more utopian unconstrained vision of modern liberalism. The analysis is brilliant and Thomas Sowell’s work the Conflict of Visions becomes fundamental reading for anyone who wants to understand worldview.

REICHARD: “Fundamental reading”…That’s a ringing endorsement.

WHITTEN: It is, and Mohler’s quote serves as a good summary of the book, which is part of Adler’s approach. Adler would say you’re less likely to fall asleep when you’re active. So start by reading the table of contents. Then flip through each chapter, skimming over the content.

Adler calls this inspectional reading. When you’re done, you should be able to summarize the whole book in a couple of sentences, as Al Mohler did.

REICHARD: I’ve heard the term pre-reading, to set your mind. A more focussed attention is less sleep-inducing than some approaches.

WHITTEN: Ha, for sure! When you’re ready to go deeper, read the book again slowly. Make that outline on the endpapers. As I outlined Sowell’s book, I began to see “moral limitations” at the center of his argument. In the constrained, conservative vision, man is basically fallen and selfish, while in the unconstrained, liberal vision, humans are perfectible.

Sowell then applies these underlying ideas to law, equality, social justice—even the French and American revolutions of the 18th century. Here’s Sowell in a 2008 interview with Peter Robinson:

THOMAS SOWELL AND A CONFLICT OF VISIONS: In France, the idea was if you simply put the right people in charge and created the right institutions, all these problems would go away. In the United States, it was assumed from the outset, that there were very limited things you could do and what you needed to do above all was minimize the damage done by the flaws of human nature. This is why the United States, for example, has a constitution.

REICHARD: Yes, I remember when I was in law school reading case after case I couldn’t help but conclude that the law tries to put boundaries around human nature in order to promote civilized behavior. To curb our tendency to lie, steal, cheat, etc.

WHITTEN: Exactly. While I agree with the constrained vision of man as fallen, Sowell is not a Christian to my knowledge. Because of that, he misses some things. For instance, he doesn’t see God’s revelation in the Bible as foundational to knowledge. As our editor in chief Marvin Olasky put it, Sowell’s “view is that mountains don’t move, so his view works most of the time, but not when God chooses to move mountains.”

REICHARD: Indeed. Thanks for both of these recommendations today, Emily.

WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary.

REICHARD: Emily brought us two classic book selections for this month. Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book and Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. If you’ll visit and look up this particular segment, you’ll find a link to the interviews with Adler and Sowell. You’ll also find out how you can follow Emily Whitten on Twitter.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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2 comments on Classic Book of the Month

  1. Meg says:

    Thus review was informative and interesting.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks, Meg! Appreciate the feedback.

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