Book Notes: “How to Read a Book”

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
By Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
Touchstone, 2011 (revised and updated edition)

I’d been aware of this book for a long time but finally took it on after Kourosh Dini posted about it. As stated in the title, it’s a meta-book on how to read books better.

Originally written in the 1940s by a Adler, who was an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, the edition I read was last updated in the early 1970s. At the time, speed-reading was in fashion. The book argues we shouldn’t just aim to read faster, but to better understand what we read. To do so, we must answer four key questions:

  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?

Answering these questions doesn’t entail moving linearly from page one of the book to the end. Instead, the authors advocate approaching the work at several levels. For example, you can glean answers to question 1 by inspecting the book’s front and back cover materials and perusing its table of contents. If the book has summaries at the ends of chapters, you can skim the bulk of the book and pause to read those summaries before tackling the entire the text.

Different types books call for different reading approaches, so it’s important to know what you’re reading and why. For example, you can read a book for entertainment in a more casual manner than one meant for enlightenment. The highest level of reading, which the authors call “syntopical,” calls for understanding the book’s context and its relation to other works that deal with the same topic. In other words, reading it in a sort of conversation with other books.

The syntopical reader… tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. Of course, he will fail in this exacting ideal. Absolute objectivity is not humanly possible.

The fourth key question (“What of it?”) is critical. If you’re reading to learn and conclude the book is true in whole or in part, reading it must have some impact on you. Perhaps you change a habit, or break through a long-standing impasse by reframing the situation given the new knowledge. Whatever the case, reading deeply should change you. In reading How to Read a Book, I didn’t follow its advice to the letter. But I’m already reading more deeply and critically, which is what I expected from the book.

See the book in the Open Library.