What is literacy? Lionel Yaceczko on “How to Read a Book”

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Ray Bradbury once remarked that, to destroy a culture, burning books is not necessary; all that is needed is to convince people to stop reading them. And, of course, the easiest way to sway people from reading is to keep them illiterate. Indeed, this is also the best way to rob them of their liberty.  Frederick Doublas once remarked that “once you learn to read you will forever be free.” 

Now, it may be true that more people are literate today than ever before. Some statistics indicate that around eighty-six percent of adults in the world can read and write at a basic level. Compare this statistic to data from the early nineteenth century, when only twelve percent of people in the world could read, and there is indeed much to celebrate. 

But, what about other forms of literacy? Are people more culturally literate now? Can they read deeply, for understanding and not merely for a surface-level comprehension? What does it even mean to be literate? As educators–and particularly educators drawing from and adding to the liberal arts tradition–it is paramount that we consider such questions.

Here to talk about reading and its many forms is Dr. Lionel Yaceczko, lover of languages and teacher of Classics at The Heights School. In this episode, Dr. Yaceczko sits down for a discussion of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. Using Adler’s book as a springboard, we first run through the three kinds of reading, specified by the end to which they aim: 

  1. Reading for information 
  2. Reading for entertainment 
  3. Reading for understanding

Second, Dr. Yaceczko helps us tackle what he calls the perennial problems that can make reading difficult, namely vocabulary and syntax, as well as some of the stumbling blocks that are particular to contemporary readers.  Third, we consider Adler’s four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary 
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical 
  4. Syntopical

In particular, Dr. Yaceczko delves into the third level of reading–analytical–the preparation for which Adler argues ought to be the goal of a liberal arts education at the secondary school level. 

To be sure, the development of the capacity for analytical reading is no small task, but it is well worth the effort; for the difficulty of the endeavor comes from the loftiness of the goal. Despite the ardor of the task, rest assured: with patience our sons–and ourselves–may little-by-little grow into better readers. After all, the attainment of any goal, no matter how lofty, begins with small steps; it is from the valley that one ascends to the heights. 

Show Highlights 

  • What is the most controversial thing we teach at The Heights? 
  • How Classics are the most egalitarian form of elitism
  • What is literacy? 
  • The three kinds of reading and what this means for literacy 
  • Why is reading great books so difficult?
  • Two perennial problems for readers
  • Adler’s four levels of reading 
  • Syntopical and Collocative reading 
  • What Analytical reading is and why liberal arts high schools should foster it 
  • How reading and writing inform each other 
  • What makes a work of literature beautiful?
  • Can true beauty be popularized?
  • The three steps to reading deeply
  • What parents can do to help their sons overcome the challenges of analytical reading
  • Love: the strongest motivator

Suggested Reading 

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer J. Adler

Also on the Forum 

Forming Deep Workers with Cal Newport

Eulexia: The Goal of Deep Reading by Lional Yaceczko 

Summer Reading with a Purpose with Tom Longano 

How to Master the Art of Reading Outside by Tom Longano  

Dr. Mehan on Children’s Literature and Human Flourishing: Introducing the Handsome Little Cygnet 

Mentioned in the Episode 

A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg

Timaeus by Plato 

Great Expectations by Jane Austin

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Lionel Yaceczko

About the guest:

Lionel Yaceczko


Dr. Yaceczko has taught regular and online courses to all ages at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, as well as summer programs for inner city boys in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Lionel’s research is focused on Late Antiquity (ca AD 180-800), with a doctoral dissertation on education in the later Roman Empire. His articles have been published in Studies in Late Antiquity, The Medieval Review, Crisis Magazine, HeightsForum.org, and Cavalcade. He has also worked in academic publishing. Lionel lives in Laurel with his wife Janet (another Latinist) and children Stanislaus, Sarah, Thom, Lio and Diego.