Rookie Reco: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

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

In my undergrad I took a class called “Historiography” which is the study of how history is written. It’s a class for history nerds to be sure. I joked that the class only existed to turn college students into cynics. The reality was that I learned how to read history critically, that is, with an understanding of the biases and perspective brought to bear by the author. But if I describe the class to a non-history major their eyes almost instantly roll to the back of their heads as they fall into a comatose state.

Adler’s book has a similar effect. Who wants to read a book about reading books? It has been around for almost eighty years at this point. I will probably use this for the Book Club later, but this will hopefully get your interest piqued. Officially this will be filed under a recommendation. You should read this book. And if you do, you will be mocked for reading a book entitled How to Read a Book (as my 9-year old daughter mocked me).

Now if you have not read the book, you might read what follows and think Adler is out of his mind. You might think that if this is the case no one can read a book. But keep in mind that Adler is not talking about how to read for entertainment. He is talking about how to read for understanding and personal growth. Further, he is giving the ideal standard, not what everyone will do every time. Also, Adler is of the opinion that most books are not worth your time to read carefully. What follows is a summary of the core argument of the book.

Reading is an Activity

In chapter 1 Adler notes the degradation of print by modern media which presents challenges for us today. The goal of reading for understanding is to bring the reader from a state of understanding less to understanding more. This might seem obvious, but this is why good books are hard books. Now there are books that are hard because they are poorly written. Adler isn’t talking about those. His main point is that reading is not passive. Reading is an active, complex skill that only gets better through practice.

The 4 Levels of Reading (16-20)

1) Elementary Reading
Main Goal: Acquire the basic skills for reading.
Key Question: What does the sentence say?

2) Inspectional Reading
Main Goal: To learn about a book through systematic skimming in a limited amount of time (20 mins to an hour) so that you will be prepared to read it closely or abandon it altogether.
Key Questions: What is this book about? What is the structure of this book? What are its parts?

3) Analytical Reading
Main Goal: To increase the reader’s understanding.
Key Questions: Many organized questions (see below)

4) Syntopical Reading
Main Goal: Read along with other books to construct an analysis of a certain subject. Construct a conversation between authors.
Key Question: What does this say about this subject in relation to other books on the same subject?

The Essence of Active Reading: 4 Basic Questions (47)

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?

These questions might seem basic, but how often do you actively ask these questions as you read a book? Question 3 is particularly important. It presses back against our tendency to dismiss authors totally or accept what they say uncritically.

Also write in your books! I prefer to use a pencil over a pen. I just started using note cards as well. What about dogearing pages? As the saying goes there ate those who use bookmarks and there are monsters. You don’t want to be a monster do you?

The First Stage of Analytical Reading (95)

Since Adler’s primary focus is on Analytical Reading I will not summarize the others. Adler breaks Analytical Reading into three stages across fifteen points.

1) Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

2) State what the book is about with the utmost brevity.

3) Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

4) Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading (134-135)

5) Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

6) Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

7) Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

8) Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; as as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

The Third Stage of Analytical Reading (162)

A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

9) Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.

10) Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

11) Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make.

B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

12) Show wherein the author is uninformed.

13) Show wherein the author is misinformed.

14) Show wherein the author is illogical.

15) Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

Why this is actually helpful

The value of reading like any activity is defined by the goal. Why am I reading this book? Am I trying to find a piece of information? Am I looking to be entertained? Am I trying to increase my understanding? How we answer will determine the way we approach the book and the amount of mental energy we need to exert.

Also Adler is very freeing in several ways. First, many if not most books are poorly done so don’t feel bad about putting it away. Second, not every book needs or deserves close, analytical reading. Now 15 “rules” can be overwhelming especially for the rule-follower types. But these are actually guidelines. I was greatly helped by the section on “Inspectional Reading” or “skimming.” That does count as reading! I realized that much of the third level (analytical reading) I learned at graduate school. But in that section I also found new points and helps to improve my reading.

Look, we have limited time upon this earth and there are more books than you can read in a lifetime. Adler’s book gives ways to decide what I am going to read and how much effort I am going to give it. If you do read this book you can just focus pages 1-184 and the last part of the book. That is the heart of it. The rest of it is Adler applying his method to various subjects. I plan to go back as needed to see his what he says about history, poetry, etc.

Finally, reading this way makes us better thinkers. In analytical reading steps 1-8 are dedicated to simply understanding what the author is saying. Adler dismisses the notion of “hate-reading” as a waste of time. If we can’t say accurately what the author is arguing then how can we say we disagree in total or in part? It’s basically saying something we hear too often in religion and politics, “I don’t know what the other guy believes. All I know is that I am against it.”

Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.

Page 336

Bottom Line

This book is intellectually stimulating. It is a bit of a dry read at points. Meat and vegetables in this one. It is certainly worth your time. You will be glad you read it.

What about you? Do you have a certain method for reading and marking up your books? What are your goals for reading? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!

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