Completed: How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent
Reading Completely Revised and Updated for the 1970’s
Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren
1972 edition

Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it. (11)

The main premise behind How to Read a Book is learning how to read difficult materials—of any sort, not just books—and gain understanding of what is being read. Adler and Van Doren focus most of the book on expository, or non-fiction material, devoting only two chapters to “imaginative” literature: novels, plays, and poetry.

The limited discussion of imaginative literature was disappointing to me, for it is in the reading of imaginative literature that I feel weakest as a reader. In contrast, the reading for some of my college classes really forced me into making my own discovery of many of the principles for reading analytically, which discussion takes up the bulk of the book. In fact, at one point I was making my own notes in a nice little outline format and had to laugh because the chapter I was in the middle of was offering guidelines for outlining!

So, I would say this isn’t for everyone. I do think that if not this book itself, at least the principles it outlines should be taught to every college-bound high school student. It definitely contains excellent guidelines for anyone who will be doing research, especially anything requiring reviewing many sources. If your primary interest is reading fiction better, however, I just didn’t find it as helpful. It should be noted, however, that the ability to read analytically and syntopically is incredibly valuable, not just in college-level work, but also for the analysis of any sort of material which is trying to sway us–almost everything we read.

Not to say I found this a waste of my time. Sometimes it is useful to see things you’ve done instinctively clearly delineated. The section on “Inspectional Reading” was also new to me, and the chapters on imaginative works were related back to the analytical section—I just would have preferred to see these fleshed out some more.

Adler and Van Doren categorize four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Elementary is the sort of reading we all should theoretically master by the time we start high school, or during our early teens—the basic understanding of printed words and the ability to use context to work out unfamiliar words. (Unfortunately, this is not always achieved, as evidenced by the need for remedial courses in colleges.) Inspectional reading is the ability to pick up a book and in a short time analyze it to determine its value. It involves the systematic skimming of the book at hand, including reading through any preface or introduction, the table of contents, the index(!), and skimming through the book itself looking for critical points. First, this is not meant for imaginative literature, so anyone who hates “spoilers” can breathe easy. Second, this actually seems like a very practical method of reviewing books prior to an actual read to ensure that they won’t be a waste of time. By the time an inspectional read is finished, we should theoretically know what the book is about and what the author’s main premise is. We should be able to determine if it is a book that will increase our knowledge, or if it is one we will just get mad at!

Analytical reading is the process of really digging in and gaining a complete—or as complete as possible—understanding of the book. There are four questions the reader should be able to answer at the end of an analytical reading:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it? (What is the significance?)

The last step of analytical reading, the “what of it,” refers to when we voice informed criticism: agreement, disagreement, or a suspension of judgment (due to insufficient argument by the author). Adler and Van Doren emphasize that the book must be understood before any criticism can be made, and that all criticism must come from solid reasoning. It should be noted that it is the reader’s responsibility to put in the necessary effort to come to an understanding. (Adler and Van Doren do acknowledge the existence of “bad books” which cannot be understood by their rules.)

Finally, syntopical reading, a term coined by the authors refers to the comparison of many different sources on a topic. This is perhaps the least applicable to readers outside of an academic setting or those who are particularly interested in research on a given topic.

Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth. (204)

Although I was disappointed in the brevity of the discussion of imaginative literature, Adler and Van Doren made some interesting points. Whereas expository books can be judged by their truth and clarity of thought, imaginative books are much harder to judge. However, just as with expository literature we must have an understanding before we criticize, so with imaginative literature: “…don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciated what the author has tried to make you experience” (213). This is really interesting to me, because I think many readers have a tendency to judge a novel or a play or a poem by our emotional reaction to it. Adler and Van Doren don’t discount this, saying explicitly not to resist the effect a work has, but they contend that our criticism should be based on what is good or bad, rather than like or dislike.

Finally, for anyone who was curious if the authors really meant for us to reread all of the “great” or even “good” books we pick up, their answer is no. When something is too difficult to understand with only one reading, then certainly yes. In general, however, they only suggest rereading those books which you will go back to again and again and find something new every time: the great books.

5 thoughts on “Completed: How to Read a Book

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

    1. I wouldn’t typically accept a comment selling something, but as this does directly apply to the post at hand, I’m letting it through.

  2. Adler is so very famous in his addressing of literature; I have taken courses from the University of Chicago to be certified in teaching the Jr. Great Books program (a deriviative of Great Books for adults). I’ve not read this particular work of his, because I always figured I could read, but I know that I don’t read nearly enough nonfiction/analytical books. Sadly, I suppose, I’ve chosen fiction and classic literature above all other genres.

    1. Other than when in school I’ve also mostly concentrated on fiction over non. Is this good, bad, indeterminate? I’m not sure there’s a good answer; it probably depends on what we are seeking from our reading. Where perhaps it is our loss is when we become unable to fairly evaluate important topics of the day for our lack of knowledge and understanding. I am reminded of high school biology: my teacher felt it important to give us a solid understanding of topics involving genetics, as he knew that we as a society would shortly be addressing concerns of genetic engineering, cloning, etc. Where Adler’s method could be of benefit (for those of us who don’t read so much nonfiction) is in equipping us to evaluate the sources we might read on such topics (including newspaper and magazine articles, political speeches, etc.) to understand what bias or agenda might or might not be behind it, or to even just plain understand the topic.

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