The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)

Part I. BEGINNING: PREPARING FOR CLASSICAL EDUCATION

Chapter 4. Starting to Read: Final Preparations

If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone, going on without further mediation.

—HAROLD BLOOM,
How to Read and Why

IN THE END, there’s not much a book can do for you: You must begin to read.

What a book (like this one) can do is hold your hand up to the point where you start reading. Most of all, a how-to-read book can assure you that the difficulty you have in reading doesn’t necessarily reflect on your mental ability. Serious reading is hard work.

This should comfort you. If successful reading is a matter of innate intelligence, you can do little to improve yourself. But a task that is merely difficult can be broken down into small and manageable steps, and mastered through diligent effort. Reading the Great Books is no different.

The initial small step is simple: Rather than making a sweeping determination to tackle the Great Books (all of them), decide to begin on one of the reading lists in Part II. As you read each book, you’ll follow the pattern of the trivium. First you’ll try to understand the book’s basic structure and argument; next, you’ll evaluate the book’s assertions; finally, you’ll form an opinion about the book’s ideas.

You’ll have to exercise these three skills of reading—understanding, analysis, and evaluation—differently for each kind of book. If you want to evaluate a history, you must ask whether the historian’s conclusions are supported by the historical facts he or she offers, whether there is enough information, and whether this information is trustworthy. If you want to judge a novel, you should instead ask whether it leads you along a path whose end is different than its beginning, whether its characters have motivations and ambitions and hang-ups that are recognizably human, and whether those motivations and ambitions and hang-ups give rise to the novel’s crises and situations. To assess a science book, you would ask: What phenomena did the writer seek to explain? How did he observe those phenomena? (With his own eyes, by way of mathematical calculation, by deduction from what could be seen?) Is his explanation sufficient? If not, how (or when) does it fall short?

These three sets of criteria stem from the same general impulse: to ask whether the work is accurate. Is it right? (Or, to use Mortimer Adler’s more loaded word, is it true?) But they are as different in practice as the criteria used to judge a Renaissance portrait and those used to evaluate a twentieth-century landscape or a twenty-first-century installation.

So consider the following as general principles for reading, principles that will be expanded and altered in the chapters that follow.

1. When you first read through a book, don’t feel that you have to grasp completely every point that the writer is making. If you find yourself puzzled by a certain section, or not completely sure what the author means by a particular term, turn down the corner of the page and keep on going. You’ll have a chance to come back to that confusing section later on. The secret to reading a difficult book is simply this: Keep reading. You don’t have to “get it all” the very first time through.

In the case of fiction, you may feel overwhelmed by a welter of unfamiliar names, but if you persevere (without feeling that you have to stop and sort everything out immediately), you’ll find that by the third or fourth chapter you have come to know the central characters, almost imperceptibly; those who are not important will have faded offstage. In a work of serious nonfiction, you will become more familiar as the chapters progress with the author’s favorite terms and phrases; you’ll begin to gather a broad, vague, even inarticulate idea of what she’s up to. Don’t stop to look up unfamiliar words unless you absolutely have to. Don’t use scholarly editions, packed with critical footnotes that stop you dead every time you hit a little superscript number. Don’t fret over missing the nuances. Get the big picture, the broad sweep, the beginning, middle, and end. “Understanding half of a really tough book,” writes Mortimer Adler in his classic How to Read a Book, “is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to.” In truth, it’s impossible to fully understand difficult passages until you know how they fit into the rest of the writer’s schema.

So the first stage of reading should be a liberating one. Just read, and keep reading.

Your first reading is your handshake with the book; your goal is to finish with a surface acquaintance that will deepen into true understanding as you read again to evaluate and analyze. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, don’t stop; scribble a question mark in the margin, and keep going. You may well find that the earlier chapters of a book, confusing on first reading, suddenly make sense to you as you reach the book’s middle or end.

2. Underline in your books, jot notes in the margins, and turn the corners of your pages down. Public education is a beautiful dream, but public classrooms too often train students not to mark, write in, disfigure, or in any way make books permanently their own. You’re a grownup now, so buy your own books if you possibly can. In my opinion, a cheap paperback filled with your own notes is worth five times as much as a beautiful collector’s edition.

If you know that you can turn down the corner of a confusing page and keep reading, or write a question in the margin and continue on, you’ll find it easier to keep going on the first reading. If you have to use library books, invest in adhesive-backed notes (such as Post-its) and use them to mark pages that you’ll want to return to; scribble your notes and questions on them. Bits of paper tend to fall out, though, and any good book will soon look like a papery porcupine. Defacing your book is much more efficient.

Ereaders are perfectly fine—but only if you’re comfortable with the reader’s notation and marking tools. If you find them unusable, go back to the archaic paperback-and-ballpoint-pen method.

3. When you first begin to read a book, read the title page, the copy on the back cover, and the table of contents. This puts you “in the picture” before you begin to read. Do not automatically read the preface. In the case of a nonfiction book, the preface may set the book in context for you, summarize the argument, or tell you just why the book is so important—certainly valuable information to have before you begin to read. But the preface can also give you a fully formed interpretation before you even read the book—something to be avoided. For example, E. V. Rieu’s preface to his translation of the Iliad sums up the plot, tells you about Homer’s use of delayed action, and explains briefly how the reader should understand Homer’s similes and epithets. This makes the reading of the Iliad more rewarding, not less. But Anita Brookner’s introduction to the Scribner edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, excellent though it is in itself, gives you a thumbnail sketch of the heroine’s character and motivations—something you should do yourself before turning to an expert to do it for you.

Generally, you should read the preface only if it has been written by the author (or translator) personally. If the preface or introduction was written by someone else, skip it. Read the first chapter of the book instead, and if you aren’t lost or confused, keep on going; save the reading of the preface until you’ve finished reading the book itself. If the first chapter befuddles you, go back and read the preface before going on.

4. Don’t take extensive notes on a first reading. First-reading notes tend to be far too detailed. You’ll find yourself writing down many observations that seem important but later prove to be irrelevant, and all the note taking will slow you down. Instead, stop at the end of each chapter (or substantial section) to jot down a sentence—two at the most—in your journal. These sentences should summarize the chapter’s content, main assertion, or most important event. But remember: You’re constructing a broad outline, not a specific one. You’re laying down the strokes of a coloring page, not drawing a careful sketch. Leave out details, even the important ones: “Paris and Menelaus decide to fight a duel to settle the war, but when Menelaus gets the upper hand, Aphrodite whisks Paris back to his own safe bedroom” is a good first-reading summary of the third chapter of the Iliad, even though it leaves out plenty of important details. (These summaries also make it easier to come back to a long and complicated book if your reading schedule has been disrupted and you can’t remember what happened to Don Quixote in Chapter 7 by the time you reach Chapter 43.)

5. As you read, use your journal to jot down questions that come to your mind. Record your disagreements or agreements with the writer. Scribble down any reflections or connected thoughts that the book brings to your mind. These questions, disagreements, and reflections should be visually distinct from your summary of the book’s content. You can write your summaries in a narrow column down the middle of your journal page and jot your remarks on the margins, or use one color pen for summary sentences and another for reflections, or keep separate pages for summaries and remarks. Try to note page numbers beside your comments, since you may want to go back and reread some sections of the book later on.

6. When you’ve finished your first reading, go back and assemble your summary sentences into an informal outline, an initial “table of contents.” You don’t yet have enough information to make a real outline, with some points made subordinate to others; all you need to do is arrange the sentences in order.

7. Now give the book a title (four to seven words) and a subtitle.

These won’t be like the titles on the jacket, which were selected at least in part for eye-friendly euphony. Instead, the title should be a phrase that describes the book’s main subject, while the subtitle should sum up the book’s most important points. Aim for a title and subtitle like those of the seventeenth century: The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come: delivered under the similitude of a dream, wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country. Seventeenth-century writers knew that a title which told the reader exactly what was about to happen was the best way to guarantee understanding. So give your book a short title—three or four words that seem to sum up the topic—and then write a subtitle that explains exactly what the book does.

Now you’ve completed the first and most intimidating task of the reader: You’ve gotten all the way through the book. Your first reading has given you a basic understanding of the book’s parts and how they fit together. Don’t worry too much if this series of steps seemed laborious and complicated; they will soon become second nature to you, an intuitive first approach to any difficult book.

You’re ready for the second and third stages of inquiry.

Although you’ll folllow the same basic steps in the grammar-stage (inital) reading of most books, the second stage of inquiry—the logic-stage evaluation—differs enormously from genre to genre. Poetry and history may not be worlds apart, but they’re certainly located in different hemispheres, and science may well be orbiting on a minor moon.

The reader needs to approach each kind of book—each list in Chapters 5 through 10—with a distinct set of questions, a unique expectation. But the logic-stage procedure doesn’t change. No matter what questions you ask, you’ll always progress into the second stage of inquiry by doing the following:

1. Go back and reread those sections of the book that you identified as difficult. Can you make better sense of them, now that you’ve arrived at the book’s end? Look back through your written comments: Do they tend to cluster around certain parts of the book? If so, glance back through those pages as well. Finally, reread your summaries. Can you identify which chapter contains the book’s climax, the center of the writer’s argument, or the author’s own summary of his work? Reread that particular section of the book as well.

2. Dig deeper into the book’s structure: Answer questions about how the writer has put his words together. The chapters that follow suggest questions for each genre. Jot your answers down in your notebook. Cite particular sentences, even paragraphs. These notes can be more detailed than those first-reading notes, since by this point you should have a clearer idea of which parts of the book are most worthy of your attention.

3. Ask: Why did the author write this book? What did he or she set out to do? Lay out facts, convince you of the truth in a set of deductions, give you an emotional experience? (We’ll discuss this for each genre separately.)

4. Now ask: How well did the writer succeed? Did he successfully carry out his intention? If not, why? Where did he fall short? Are his facts unproven, his proofs inadequate, or his emotional scenes flat? What parts of the book did I find convincing; which ones left me unmoved?

As you continue to use your journal for this process, the pages will begin to reflect not only the content of the books you’re reading, but the development of your own thought as you grapple with the books’ ideas. Remember that the goal of grammar-stage reading is to know what the author says; the goal of logic-stage inquiry is to understand why and how.

The final stage of reading—your rhetoric-stage pass through the book—has a third goal. Now you know what, why and how. The final question is: So what?

What does this writer want me to do?

What does this writer want me to believe?

What does this writer want me to experience?

Am I convinced that I must do, or believe, what the writer wants me to do or believe?

Have I experienced what the writer wants me to experience?

If not, why?

Uninformed opinions are easy to come by. But thinking through someone else’s argument, agreeing with it for specific, well-articulated reasons, or disagreeing with it because you’re able to find holes in the writer’s argument, or because the writer left out facts which he should have considered and didn’t—that’s difficult. The rhetoric stage follows the logic stage for this very reason. The good reader bases his opinion on intelligent analysis, not mere reaction.

The journal is an excellent logic-stage tool. But in the rhetoric stage of inquiry, you need something more. Rhetoric is the art of clear, persuasive communication, and persuasion always involves two people. In your case, one of these people is the book’s author: The book is communicating an idea to you, persuading you of something. But for you to articulate your own ideas clearly back to the book, you need to bring someone else into the process.

How can you do this? In her Letters to Young Ladies, Lydia Sigourney praises the virtues of “purposeful conversation,” talk centered around particular ideas. In the nineteenth century, women often met in “weekly societies” to discuss their reading—the forerunners of today’s popular book groups. These discussions, Sigourney suggests, are essential to proper self-education, since they “serve to fix knowledge firmly in the memory.”1

The problem with book groups (as you know if you’ve ever been in one) is that the readers who attend them don’t always read the book carefully (or at all), and unless someone takes a dictatorial hand during discussion, it’s apt to wander off fairly quickly into unrelated chat. For the project of self-education, it’s best to find one other person who will agree to read through the Great Books lists with you and then talk with you about what both of you have read.

This reading partner, indispensable in the final stage of reading, can also be useful to you in the first two. During the grammar and logic stages, your partner provides you with some accountability—if you’ve agreed to finish the first reading of a book by a particular deadline and you know someone else will be checking on you, you’re much more likely to make good use of your own reading time to actually finish the book.

During your rhetoric-stage inquiry, when you’ll be looking back through the book for answers to questions about the writer’s ideas, your reading partner can talk to you about those ideas. Perhaps something that you found troublesome, or illogical, was entirely clear to your reading partner; discuss the differences, and discover which one of you is correct. You may find that the disagreement is only an apparent one, brought about by the use of different words for the same concept. Or you may realize that an apparent agreement between the two of you dissolves during discussion, perhaps because you are using the same words to represent very different things. A reading partner forces you to use words precisely and define your terms.

Ideally, your reading partner will read at more or less the same speed as you do, and can devote the same hours to the project of reading. But it isn’t necessary for you to come from similar backgrounds, educational or otherwise. As a matter of fact, a reading partner with a very different background can help you to think more precisely, as you discover that you need to explain, clearly, ideas that you’ve always taken for granted.

If you don’t have a reading partner who can meet with you face to face, you can conduct discussions by letter (or email, as long as you treat these dialogues as formal, requiring proper vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, not resorting to the shorthand of e-communication). In 1814, Thomas Jefferson, obviously feeling isolated on his Virginia mountaintop, wrote to John Adams that Plato is

one of the race of genuine sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first, by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly, by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. . . . But why am I dosing you with these antediluvian topics? Because I am glad to have some one to whom they are familiar, and who will not receive them as if dropped from the moon.2

Like-minded neighbors are providential, but there are advantages to conducting rhetoric-stage discussions by letter. You can file your letters and their answers as informal essays, and glance back through them to refresh your memory about the books you’ve read (and publish them once you become president).

A NOTE ON EVALUATION

The chapters that follow will give you guidance in how to read different kinds of literature: what structural elements to look for, what techniques to keep in mind, and above all, what questions you should ask of each kind of book. Your answers to these questions show your final understanding of the books you will read.

So how do you know whether you’ve gotten the answers right?

Getting “the answer” isn’t exactly the point of the exercise. In classical education, the question-and-answer process is used as a teaching method; today, we call this “Socratic dialogue.” A classical schoolmaster teaches the humanities, not through lectures that tell the student exactly what to think about each book, but through asking selected questions that direct the student’s thoughts in the right way. The purpose of answering the questions isn’t to provide the “right answer,” as you would in a fill-in-the-blank test. You answer them as part of your effort to think about books.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever come up with a completely off-base (or what academics call “perverse”) answer. Ideally, you would have a classical schoolmaster on hand to listen to your answers and gently steer you away from dead ends, toward more productive ways of thinking. In the process of self-education, you have two safeguards: your reading partner, who will listen to your ideas and tell you whether they’re coherent; and the practice of quoting. Whenever you begin to answer one of the questions in the following chapters (for example, in the chapter on autobiography, “For what part of his—or her—life does the writer apologize?”), always quote a sentence or two directly from the work that you’re examining. This helps to anchor your ideas, and forces you to be specific instead of abstract (it’s relatively easy to make big, general statements, but specifics require thought) and protects you from coming up with “perverse readings.” (On the other hand, “perverse” is often in the eye of the beholder, as a glance at any recent journal of literary criticism will suggest.)

Although you should always try to form your own ideas about a book before reading what others think, you can “check up” on yourself by skimming an essay or two of criticism that deals with your reading. Several Web sites offer plot outlines of great books along with very brief essays that survey critical issues: try www.pinkmonkey.com and www.sparknotes.com. Searching Google Books (books.google.com) with the title of the work in question, the author, and a word or phrase such as “critical essays,” “criticism,” or “critical analysis” can bring up published resources for you to glance over. (Check the publisher of any book that appears in your search results; university presses are much more likely to publish non-perverse criticism than self-publishing “presses” such as Xulon, Lulu, or CreateSpace. If you don’t know which publishers are “vanity presses,” the Internet is your friend; do a search for “self-publishing presses” and the top twenty will pop up immediately.)

If you live near enough to a college or university to use its library, search its holdings (you can do this online, in most cases, by going to the university Web site and looking for the “Library” link). Look for collections of essays on a particular book, rather than book-length critical works, which are dense and complex. The “Modern Critical Essays” series, edited by Harold Bloom (1984: Modern Critical Essays; Anna Karenina: Modern Critical Essays, and so on) contains essays by a number of well-known critics and will give you a good overview of the critical take on a work.

If you continue to wonder whether your ideas are valid or completely off base, you can use a college or university in another way. Call the department secretary (the English department for novels, autobiographies, poetry, and drama; the history department for history; you’re probably out of luck if you’re reading science) and ask whether you could make an appointment to visit a faculty member during office hours. Tell the secretary which book you want to discuss; she should be able to direct you to the right instructor. Have your ideas written out before you go (this doesn’t need to be a formal “paper,” just a string of paragraphs expressing your thoughts). Tell the instructor you’ve been reading Moby-Dick, or the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, describe your own ideas, and ask what you’ve missed. Don’t overuse this resource (you’re not paying tuition, after all), but in most cases an instructor will respond graciously to one or two requests for help. Universities, particular public ones, do have an obligation to “town” as well as to “gown,” and asking for an appointment or two is not the same as asking for regular weekly tutorials.

College instructors are generally overworked; you’ll get a better response if you call during the summer or over holidays. And don’t ask for appointments right at the beginning, middle, or end of a semester, when new class syllabi, midterms, and finals fill every instructor’s horizon.

A NOTE ON THE LISTS THAT FOLLOW

The lists that follow allow you to read chronologically through six different types of literature: fiction; autobiography; history and politics; drama; poetry; and science and natural history.

When you read chronologically, you reunite two fields that should never have been separated in the first place: history and literature. To study literature is to study what people thought, did, believed, suffered for, and argued about in the past; this is history. And although we do learn from archaeological discoveries, our primary source of information about former times has always been the writings of people who lived in the past. History can’t be detached from the study of the written word. Nor should literature be removed from its historical context. A novel can tell you more about a writer’s times than a history textbook; an autobiography reveals the soul of an entire society, not just the interior life of an individual man or woman. The sciences suffer when they are treated as a clear lens into “truth,” because the theory of the biologist or astronomer or physicist may have as much to do with the scientist’s society—and the questions that preoccupy it—as it has to do with pure discovery.

Writers build on the work of those who have gone before them, and chronological reading provides you with a continuous story. What you learn from one book will reappear in the next. But more than that: You’ll find yourself following a story that has to do with the development of civilization itself. When you read through the poetry list, for example, you’ll begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, progress on through the Odyssey, the Inferno, John Donne, William Blake, Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes (among others). The structure of the poetry will change as each poet moves beyond what former writers have done. But beyond these technical differences, the concerns of the poets shift and change as the world itself hurtles toward modernity: away from the nature of heroism and the quest for eternal life, toward the difficulties of simple existence in a chaotic and planless world. When you’ve finished with this particular list, you’ve done more than read poetry. You have learned something about the spiritual evolution of the West.

Although you can choose any of the lists to begin with, they are arranged from the least intimidating form of reading (the novel) on up to the two most intimidating (poetry, difficult because of its highly stylized language, and science, which scares most readers who gave up on math as soon as the SATs were over). The reading techniques suggested for some of the later chapters also build on techniques described earlier. So if you want to skip the fiction list and go straight to autobiography and politics, consider reading through my introduction to the fiction list first.

Do not feel bound to read every book on the list. If you read only two or three books on each list, you’re likely to miss most of the benefits of reading chronologically. But if you simply cannot wade through a book after a good solid try, put it down and go on to the next book on the list. Don’t jettison the whole project because you can’t stand Paradise Lost. Even literary scholars have books that they have never managed to get all the way through. My bête noire is Moby-Dick; I know it’s one of the great works of American literature, but I have made at least eight runs at it during my adult life and have never managed to get past midpoint. I even took an entire graduate seminar on Melville, did a presentation, and got an A without finishing the book. (Which says something about the state of graduate education, but that’s another topic.)

Some books speak to us at one time of life and are silent at another. If a book remains voiceless to you, put it down and read the next book on the list.

You don’t have to progress all the way through grammar-stage reading, logic-stage inquiry, and rhetoric-stage discussion for every book. If a book enthralls you, linger over it. If you just barely make it through the first reading and close it with relief, there’s no reason to feel that you must go on to the next stage of inquiry.

A final disclaimer: List making is a dangerous occupation. No list of “Great Books” is canonical, and all lists are biased; they reflect the interests of the person who drew them up. These particular lists are not meant in any way to be comprehensive. They do not even include all of the “greatest” works in each field. Rather, they are designed to introduce readers to the study of a particular area of thought. In some cases, I have included books because of their popularity or influence, not because they are the “best”; Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, is unsatisfying as autobiography and irrational as political philosophy, and Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique has enormous flaws in the way it handles historical data. But Friedan’s book started a revolution, and Hitler’s started a war. In both cases, these books are important because of their cultural influence; they caused readers to look at American marriages, or the problem of national identity, with new interest. Their popularity is part of the history that you are studying when you read chronologically.

You should feel free to add to the lists or to subtract from them. They are intentionally short; expand them. They may not include your favorite author; pencil him or her in. They may include works that you think are trivial or offensive; cross those off.

Make the lists your own. Above all, don’t feel that you need to write the list maker and complain.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON FORMATS

Many of the older books on these lists are available in multiple editions. I have attempted to find editions that combine readability (decent-sized fonts that don’t offend the eye), affordability (so that you can buy the books and writein them), and, where possible, an absence of intrusive critical commentary. (Footnoted or marginal interpretations have the potential to distract you from the book’s actual content; at worst, they give you the wrong interpretation of a book’s meaning before you’ve had a chance to think about it yourself.)

I have not listed all available ebook editions for each title, but electronic versions are fine as long as you are comfortable making use of the notation and bookmarking tools provided by your particular ereader. It’s vital that you write down your thoughts and reactions as you read.

Be careful when ordering ebook versions of books in the public domain. Often, the edition you view is not the one that downloads, and it is very easy to pay money for a sloppy, badly edited ebook that’s worse than a free online version.

The same is true of print books. If you’re ordering a paperback of a public domain title, be sure to look for one from a reputable publisher, rather than a print-on-demand version (CreateSpace, Lulu, Blurb, Lightning Source, and many others). Anyone can snag the text of a public domain book and throw it up for sale using one of these services, and you’re as likely as not to get a smeary, unedited, badly bound pile of pages in exchange for your credit card number.

Many of these books are available as audiobooks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with listening instead of reading for your first read-through. You’re still experiencing the text. But make sure that you select an unabridged, non-dramatized version; otherwise, you’re getting an interpretation, not the book itself. (And you’ll still need a print or ebook version for your second and third levels of inquiry.) I have not listed all available audio versions, but have noted when one is particularly well-done.

Consult this book’s website, http://susanwisebauer.com/welleducated mind, for additional recommended editions and links to public domain ebooks.

THE FOURTH STEP: PRACTICING GRAMMAR-STAGE READING SKILLS

Six principles govern the “first stage” of reading:

1. Plan on returning to each book more than once to reread sections and chapters.

2. Underline or mark passages that you find interesting or confusing. Turn down the corners of difficult sections; jot your questions in the margin.

3. Before you begin, read the title page, the copy on the back, and the table of contents.

4. At the end of each chapter or section, write down a sentence or two that summarizes the content. Remember not to include details (this will come later).

5. As you read, use your journal to jot down questions that come to your mind.

6. Assemble your summary sentences into an informal outline, and then give the book a brief title and an extensive subtitle.

If you completed The Third Step, you’ve already practiced some of these skills in summarizing and reacting to Chapter 4. Now use all of the principles of grammar-stage reading on the first ten chapters of Don Quixote. This massive novel is the first work on the Great Books list in the next chapter. Its length may be intimidating, but a first reading of its opening chapters will reassure you: the story is engaging, and the style accessible.

1. Read the title page, back cover, and table of contents. (I recommend the 2003 Edith Grossman translation, or the abridged version done by Walter Starkie.)

2. In the case of Don Quixote, Edith Grossman has provided a Translator’s Note; read through it and note down in your journal, under the heading “Preface,” any important points that you’d like to remember. Personally, I would hold off on reading the introductory essay by Harold Bloom (I’d want to make my own run at the book first).

3. Read the author’s prologue. Summarize its main points in two or three sentences.

4. Read Chapters 1–10. At the end of each chapter, write down two or three sentences that will remind you exactly what happened. If you find yourself particularly interested in a passage, bracket it and turn the corner of your page down. Jot any questions or remarks into the margins of your journal.

5. Now go back and make your own table of contents, using your summary sentences from Chapters 1–10. You’ll probably want to boil each summary down into a single sentence: what’s the central event in each chapter? This should become your chapter title for the table of contents.

6. If this were the entire story of Don Quixote, what would you title it? What would your subtitle be?

 

1Sigourney, Letters to Young Ladies, p. 147.

2Thomas Jefferson, Crusade Against Ignorance: Thomas Jefferson on Education, ed. Gordon C. Lee (New York: Columbia University Teacher’s College Bureau of Publications, 1961), pp. 110–11.