How to Learn

by Lewis Carroll

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote under the pseudoym Lewis Carroll, and is primarily known for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Caroll was a mathematician, photographer, inventor of puzzles and games, and wrote light verse. When he wrote on mathematics and logic it was not without whimsy, as evidenced by the following introduction to his book on Symbolic Logic. In any case, this is excellent advice on how to read any textbook.]
The learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:

  1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark `This is much too hard for me !', and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights . . .
  2. Don't begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set . . . Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
  3. When you come to a passage you don't understand, read it again: if you still don't understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything--in Logic or in any other hard subject--that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one's self! And then you know, one is so patient with one's self: one never gets irritated at one's own stupidity!
If, dear Reader, you will faithfully observe these Rules, and s give my little book a really fair trial, I promise you, most confidently, that you will find Symbolic Logic to be one of the most, not the most, fascinating of mental recreations! In this First Part I have carefully avoided all difficulties which seemed to me to beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age. I have myself taught most of its contents, viva voce, to many children, and have found them take a real intelligent interest in the subject. For those, who succeeded in mastering Part I, and who begin, like Oliver, `asking for more,' I hope to provide, in Part II, some tolerably hard nuts to crack--nuts that will require all the nut-crackers they happen to possess!

Mental recreation is a thing that we all of us need for our mental health. Symbolic Logic will give you clearness of thought--the ability to see your way through a puzzle--the habit of arranging your ideas in an orderly and get-at-able form--and, more valuable than all, the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons, and which so easily delude those who have never taken the trouble to master this fascinating Art. Try it. That is all I ask of you!

From The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, London, The Nonesuch Press, 1939, pp. 1116-19.

This gem is one of many made available on Donald Simanek's home page!

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