By Alex Fader
“In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. …You have a much better chance of understanding [the Great Book] on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once.”
When the heavy volume entitled the Iliad arrived at my door, I was excited to begin cracking into the Great Books. Yet the scope of the work and the unusual prose were daunting. I pushed through the difficulty of the text and, with the help of the OGB seminars, felt as if I gained a solid understanding, even if far from complete.
And yet the words above of Mortimer Adler gnawed at me. I marked up the book and asked myself questions as I went—for we are told that is how to read a book and make it our own. Still, I only read it once.
Mortimer Adler admonishes us in our first book for OGB to read everything twice. I remember first coming across this part of How to Read a Book and thinking of it as an unobtainable ideal. These books are long and hard and a struggle to get through the first time. Who has time to read it twice?
Nevertheless, I have taken steps towards this ideal, and I believe the efforts have borne fruit. One may ask, “what is the book about as a whole?” during the first read through, but a second reading allows for more in-depth exploration. Was there a question in seminar worth exploring further? Was there a theme that you continued to ponder after the last page? Do the assumptions and conclusions you initially reached hold up under scrutiny?
Below are some ideas and strategies as you strive for Adler’s ideal:
1) Try a new translation
This is particularly relevant for Ancient Greek. Given the vast differences between Greek and English, the translator always profoundly influences the text. It may be due to the period of the translation or his or her native tongue. Political views and historical understandings will affect each rendering. Reading different translations will reveal the subtle power of word choice. For example, compare the first lines of the Fagles and the Wilson translations of the Odyssey.
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.”
“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed, and for their own mistakes, they died.
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
2) Focus on the works that speak to you
While I may reread the Iliad one day, the themes it touched on did not draw me in as deeply as the Odyssey. After reading the Odyssey I wanted to grapple further with the questions of responsibility to family and country, intelligence vs. cleverness, and what it means to come home. Reading Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and The Eumenides seemed packed full of meaning, yet my interest waned with The Libation Bearers. I find it easier to pick up the book for a second reading having an independent investment in the work, and the motivational fuel comes from the questions to ponder and struggle with.
3) Just the high points
I assume that none of us live in the idealized world of How to Read a Book, where you sit before the fire, pencil in hand, and read a Platonic dialogue straight through once … and then twice. OGB breaks the books down into manageable, although not easy, weekly and monthly reading goals. You can use these preset demarcations as a guideline. Try marking seemingly important sections as you make your way through the text, and then leave a day or two before seminar to focus in on those sections/chapters/etc. This is a good place to experiment with different methods and see what works.
4) Before seminar
If you have time to get through your readings twice before seminar, you will be much more prepared. It should allow you to create a richer seminar experience. We all have a day job though, and this may be unobtainable. Nevertheless, consider the possibility when the readings are shorter, or focus on just the high points of a selection as mentioned above.
While all of the Great Books may deserve a thorough reading, the same can’t be said for every page and paragraph. I often try to remind myself of the following quote from HTRAB: “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”
5) After seminar
Of course, for most of us, myself included, we feel lucky to get through the assignment at all before seminar. Family and work take priority. However, the Great Books should be a lifelong endeavor, so don’t let these weighty tomes collect dust on the shelf for too long. Even years later I bet the second reading will be a richer experience. Were there topics or questions that perplexed you during seminar? What better time to really consider such questions and seek a greater level of understanding than a second reading at your leisure.