“The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order,” wrote Mortimer Adler while teaching us the essence of active reading in his timeless manual How to Read a Book.
What is the book about as whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? What of it? These four active reading questions, as well as Mortimer Adler’s magnum opus itself, have helped countless people to rediscover the lost art of immersing themselves in the pages of their favorite authors. But there is one special book category where these questions and rules do not apply — “canonical” books which can also be described as “sacred” or “holy.” Mortimer Adler writes:
A prime example is the Holy Bible, when it is read not as literature but instead as the revealed Word of God. For orthodox Marxists, however, the works of Marx must be read in much the same way as the Bible must be read by orthodox Jews or Christians. And Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book has an equally canonical character for a “faithful” Chinese Communist.
The readers of these books must read reverentially, Mortimer Adler notes. They can not question the authorized or right reading of the book that to them is canonical. As such, the faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error or nonsense in the “sacred” text. Mortimer Adler writes:
The characteristics of this kind of reading are perhaps summed up in the word “orthodox,” which is almost always applicable. The word comes from two Greek roots, meaning “right opinion.” These are books for which there is one and only one right reading; any other reading or interpretation is fraught with peril, from the loss of an “A” [on an exam] to the damnation of one’s soul. This characteristic carries with it an obligation. The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of “true.” If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or a rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered to him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books.
“Here we must stop,” concludes Mortimer Adler. “The problem of reading the Holy Book — if you have faith that it is the Word of God — is the most difficult problem in the whole field of reading.” Complement How to Read a Book with Alan Watts on how we gained the world and lost our soul and Albert Einstein on the essential qualities of a pious person.