DRMacIver's Notebook

Against the Classification of Books

Against the Classification of Books

From How to Read a Book, p 64:

We have already discussed a rough classification of books. The main distinction, we said, was between works of fiction, on the one hand, and works conveying knowledge, or expository works, on the other hand. Among expository works, we can further distinguish history from philosophy, and both from science and mathematics.

This is part of a general section about how analytical reading should start with the question "What sort of book is this?"

On page 60, they list this as the first rule of analytical reading:

You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

The authors do not, frankly, justify this very well. At the end of this chapter their argument is this:

Now, just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and their readers is the same as that between teachers and their students. Hence, as books differ in the kinds of knowledge they have to communicate, they proceed to instruct us differently; and, if we are to follow them, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner.

To which I offer the following responses:

  1. A book is not a person, and our relationship is very different to that of a person.
  2. The argument is nonsense for people too.

You can engage with a book however you like. There's no moral obligation to engage with a book as the authors want you to - if you want to read a book of science through a literary criticism lens, or a book of literary criticism through a scientific lens, you can.

Even the practical vs theoretical distinction is dubious: I read a lot of philosophy. This philosophy is, for the most part, eminently theoretical, but I am reading it for practical reasons, to help me make sense of things. This requires me to do a lot of translation by doing the active work of framing practical situations using the tools provided. This is not a style of engagement that a philosopher would generally be receptive to (it depends on the philosopher of course) and they would probably find it quite frustrating. A book can't be frustrated with me, so I'm free to use it however I like.

It's certainly true that treating a science book as a science book and a piece of literature as a piece of literature will result in results that are more... in line with the intent of the author I guess, and you should probably do that more often than not - it's useful to learn the norms before you violate them - but they don't necessarily produce more interesting outcomes, and different reads will tend to help you bridge the gaps between different areas of knowledge.

The second problem is that the idea that coarse grained classifications are anything like enough. People have very individual styles and, yes, those are rooted in their communities of practice, but those communities of practice are only loosely defined by disciplines - they're often very different between subdisciplines, departments, individual teacher / student lineages, etc. You need to do at least as much work to identify those individual differences in engagement as you do to identify the genre.

Instead of asking "What sort of book is this?" I think the questions you should be asking are:

  1. Can I engage with this book in a way that I want to?
  2. If not, where can I learn the skills for doing so?

Knowing what sort of book it is can be helpful for answering the question, but often it is going to be much more about your relationship to the subject matter than it is about the type of book per se.