Hermann Duncker 1931

How Should One Read?

First Published: in Der Marxist, Blätter der Marxistischen Arbeiterschule, vol. 1 (Fall 1931), no. 2, pp. 27-30.
Source: Hermann Duncker: Introduction to Marxism. Selected Speeches and Writings, VEB Edition Leipzig, Leipzig, 1963, 2. enl. ed., pp. 40-44.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
Transcribed: Geoff
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

Of course, we are concerned here only with the reading of serious and really enlightening literature: that is writings and books which are not just read once only. Indeed one could say that, if such writings cannot be read several times with advantage, they do not deserve to be read even once. From the pursuit of superficial literature for entertainment's sake the belief arises now and again that one can skip quickly through a book and then be finished with it. That is of course a foolish principle for any literature which really has something to say. When even so vain and affected a bourgeois scholar as Prof. Sombart does not feel embarrassed to admit, in a booklet, that he had read the "Communist Manifesto" a hundred times and yet still finds new stimulus in it, then a worker thirsting for learning cannot regard it as "beneath his dignity" to study over and over again writings like the "Manifesto" and many more by Marx, Engels, Lenin and others.

This brings us straight away to the basic assumption that the reader also owns the book in question. It must be the aim of every class-conscious worker by hand or by brain, little by little to acquire for himself a small library of the works most important to him. One cannot be dependent on a lending library. One must have the most important books always within reach, be able to use them constantly, having them to hand for personal use. So there is no other way than of buying them. The worker must, of course, be prudent and careful when buying. He must get a rough idea of what he ought to have first and foremost.

A good home library will, through personal selection, gradually grow and grow on the bookshelf and should include only works which will be of lasting use and which can be lent out for propaganda purpose.

As for making marks in books, it should be remarked before anything else that with too much underlining the very object of marking an important place gets lost. I have seen books where practically every word was underlined. That is nonsensical. One should in fact only underline the most important things, the very special features, in order to have them easily to hand for future use. One can of course bring out the mistakes of the author by using different coloured pencils.

But it would be best of all to plan, at the same time, an index at the end of the book, for all marked and under lined passages. If there is a passage which seems to characterise a particular question well, for example religion, trade unionism, dictatorship, parliamentarism, then one writes the corresponding reference word the home-made index, and enters next to it the number of the page referred to. As a rule there will not be so many reference words that one is obliged to arrange them in alphabetical order. If an index has already been provided by the publisher, it will be useful to underline the relevant page number under the printed reference word, where one has found something particularly noteworthy. Otherwise one can easily be smothered under an abundance of references which often only mark matters of no importance. The preparation by the reader himself of an index tailored to suit his personal interest is certainly a good method of making the study of the book more profound. We would refer in particular to the importance such an index has for lecturers and tutors who often have to speak on a given subject without much preparation beforehand, and for this purpose would wish to make use of material from this or that book which they have read a long time ago.

Another useful aid in the reading of a book is to try and visualise more accurately the outline, the construction of the author's thoughts. Literary work, after all, requires a logical and consistent sequence of thought. One can learn to sketch a useful outline for any subject, partly by visualising how good writers construct their books.

Apart from the sequence of the chapters which, of course, express the principal line of presentation even in their titles, it is particularly important to define and summarise the main lines of thought in each chapter. Each chapter falls into a series of passages visible in the typographical lay-out. At the end of each passage one should reflect what is actually the principal thought therein, and write in the margin the key word by which it can be recognised. Thus one may even find that the break between the passages is not really essential and so one need not confine oneself slavishly to giving each passage a key word. But by and by large accurate analysis of the passages and their sequence will impress on one's consciousness the thought construction of the chapters and the marginal key words will afford a general view of the whole. The control and checking of one's own work at the end of each passage is at the same time the best means of exercising restraint in reading, going forward slowly but surely in order to unlearn the headless and frivolous in-one-ear-and-out the-other style of reading with which we are familiar from reading newspapers. Finally it is to be recommended that one puts down, either at the beginning, or on the final page of the book a note of when the book was first studied and possibly a short appreciation noting in what way the book has pleased one in particular. It is interesting thus to compare it with what seems important and essential at a later re-reading.

It will be seen how one "grows into" a really good book and how it gives one new rays of light all the time. As for books one can only borrow, one should copy the important passages from them. At the age of seventeen, Marx wrote to his father:

"I have made a habit of making excerpts from all the books I read... and jotting down reflections underneath."

Among the papers left by Marx there are 200 notebooks full of such excerpts. In this connection one should not forget to make a note of the origin of the passage extracted and possibly also the date of the excerpt.

Collective reading. Up to now we have only considered the individual reading of a book. But collective reading of a book offers special advantages. Working through a book together, comrades, who in any case begin the reading from different standpoints, attain a deepening strengthening of understanding which for the most part they would not reach in the quiet of their own room. Competition acts as a spur to initiative of each one. Through the obligation imposed by the collective one is carried over points at which one would have "taken it easy" if left to oneself. This mutual help makes the self-study group the best basis for reading. In this connection the following rules seem to be important.

1. If possible the book to be read should be in the hands of each participant in the group, so that while one is reading the others are not staring around but each one is following what is being read with his eyes.

2. Each participant should join in the reading. It is best if all read in turn, each participant taking one passage. At the end of each passage one outlines the content of what has been read and possibly discusses it.

3. At the beginning of each study evening, one person gives a brief resume of the content of the theme dealt with on the previous evening.

4. One member of the group must be in charge of "technical direction" and prepare for the reading to some extent.

There will certainly be no lack of reading material as long as there is a genuine will to study. Serious and steady intent will help on to get over a single ruined evening and the technical difficulties. After all, what did Lenin say in his great speech to the Young Communists in October 1920:

"But you would be committing a great mistake, if you attempted to draw the conclusion that one can become a communist without acquiring what human knowledge has accumulated. It would be a mistake to believe that it is sufficient to learn communist slogans, the conclusions of communist science, and that it is not necessary to acquire the sum of knowledge of which communism itself is a consequence."

(Lenin's Selected Works: Vol. 9, p. 470, "Tasks of the Youth Leagues".)