Books & Reading · Nature Study & Science

Getting Started with a Difficult Book

Have you ever been intimidated by a book? I have. Currently that book is Adventures with a Microscope, scheduled in AO year 7. Eleven of the fifty-nine adventures are scheduled in year 7 (but you have to choose which 11 to do). For term one the book sat on the shelf. I didn’t know what to do with it. The table of contents listed things like “No. 19. — We Go Bear Hunting”. Cute, but rather cryptic.

Then last Christmas Jeanne at Oh Peaceful Day rode to the rescue on a white horse. She published (for free) a guide to Adventures with a Microscope. She notes in her guide that while microscopes have not changed, certain supplies have changed names, or are not needed, or are not generally practical for a homeschool lab. She then outlines what is needed. The best thing is that she lists what is being studied for each adventure – no more surprises.

So we opened the book and made a bit of progress in the first half of term 2. We read the introduction, over 2 weeks. At that point real life interfered. Several times. The most exciting of which was a water pipe blowing the connector off and flooding half the house. So we didn’t actually do any adventures with our microscope. My son did enjoy the introduction, here is the science journal entry he did about the parts of a microscope:

Science Journal for year 7 (12yo)
Science Journal for year 7 (12yo)

The book was mentioned again at the AO forums, and I replied that I hadn’t gotten far with it. Which made me feel sheepish, since Jeanne had taken her valuable time to write a study guide which I hadn’t seriously tried to use. I dug the guide out of my files, and glanced through it. There are quite a few adventures with pond water, which I am looking forward to exploring. However, the pond is currently frozen. And I wanted something easy to start with, not chasing tiny creatures around the field of view (did I mention college chemistry was more than a few years back?). Well, I found the perfect adventure in Jeanne’s guide: Adventure No. 56 “We Approach the Science of Criminal Detection”; fingerprints and forgeries, Jeanne notes. Which will not swim around on the slide! So I’ve officially sticky-noted “#56” in my bullet journal as one of the adventures we will attempt this term. (If you are curious, the other will be adventure #1 – hair.)

Now, does the addition of a study guide mean my son and I will sail through this book, learning everything it has to offer? No. We will have questions. I might will get stumped. We will have to reread sections trying to figure out what we have to do next. But does that mean we will be wasting time on this book? NO! In fact, it is necessary that we work if we are to gain knowledge and understanding.

Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you insight you do not already possess. — How to Read a Book, chapter 9; emphasis in original

If a book is so beyond you that questioning a passage or attempting to puzzle out the author’s meaning fail, what then? Thankfully the authors of How to Read a Book (HTRAB) have a solution for that as well:

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. — HTRAB, chapter 4

But what is the value in this? Reading when you (barely) understand? The value is much greater than you think:

What you understand by reading the book through to the end – even if it is only fifty percent or less – will help you when you make the additional effort later to go back to the places you passed by on your first reading. And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough 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. — HTRAB, chapter 4

Did I mention that How to Read a Book is scheduled in Ambleside Online? I know I sound like I’m selling something at times, but I am so impressed by the thoroughness of the AO curriculum, I can’t help but talk about it. I can’t wait to start HTRAB with my older two sons next year.

2 thoughts on “Getting Started with a Difficult Book

  1. Thanks for sharing this ongoing saga. Knowing that others hit bumps in the road and must get back on track and figure it out is encouraging. Very sorry to hear about water in your house. I hope all is well again.

  2. Oh dear friend, I came here feeling despondent, and you have made me feel sooooooo much better. Thank you so much for your kind words here. I’m glad the guide has been useful. x

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