Thursday, February 13, 2020

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles VanDoren

How to Read a Book
The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren
American non-fiction
Published 1940

This book is so cool and amazing and extremely readable. Mr. Adler and Mr. Van Doren knew how to write constructively and intelligently. The main topic is "the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim."
...a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself. 
In How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren take their readers through a very clear instructional journey of how to read and what to do about it. The majority of their book is to give instruction to those readers who want to learn something, especially for information and knowledge, particularly of non-fiction books. However, about a third of the book is dedicated to how to read novels and stories, poetry and the like. Nonetheless, the instructions are still helpful to reading in general. Here are some of my notes:

Part One: Levels of Reading

There are four levels of reading:
I. Elementary Reading: grade school learning, focused on language and what the sentences say and what words mean.
II. Inspectional Reading: skimming, pre-reading, and investigating what the books is about.
III. Analytical Reading: best kind of reading, chewing and digesting, and focusing on understanding the author.
IV. Syntopical Reading: for comparison reading and building a bibliography.
Reading is the cornerstone of the democratic way of life. 
Inspectional reading is when true reading begins. The first thing you should do before you read a book is to examine it to better understand what it is about. Inspect the title page, the preface, table of contents, index, the chapters, and flip through the pages, even reading a paragraph or two. The authors suggest that during this phase of initial reading, you should read quickly through the book in one sitting. Do not stop to look up words or get stuck on confusing passages. Just keep reading. When you get to analytical reading, then you can invest more time on difficult passages.

How to be a demanding reader

While you read, ask yourself these questions:
1. What is the book about as a whole? What is the leading theme?
2. What is being said in detail and how? What are the main ideas or arguments?
3. Is the book true, in whole or part? After you answer the first two questions, you understand the author; therefore, you are obligated to make up your own mind. 
4. What of it? Why does the author think it is important to know these ideas?

How to make a book your own (I love this part)

Read with a pencil in your hand. Writing in your book indicates "alertness while you read."
Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of by writing in it.  
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Marking (in) a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreement with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. 
Part Two: Analytical Reading

Part Two is an extensive section on the third level of reading -- analytical reading

Stage one: classify the book, determine what it is about; outline the book's parts; and define the problem(s).

Stage two: interpret the author's key terms; grasp the author's propositions; know the author's arguments; determine which problems the author solved or failed to solve.

Stage three: suspend judgment until you fully understand the author; do not  disagree contentiously;  demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and personal opinion by providing evidence for your criticism. In addition, show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete.
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.
To be well read refers to the quality of the reader NOT the quantity of books read!
The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read. As readers, they carried on a conversation with other authors, just as each of us carries on a conversation with the books we read...
This is the section where I needed most instruction because I began to wonder about my own personal understanding of books I have read and how critical I have been. I was very critical, but did that mean that I fully understood the author, OR did I permit my personal feelings to influence my response? I think more often I am guilty of the later accusation. This is something I need to work on.

Part Three: Reading Different Material

Part Three focuses on how different materials, such as practical books, imaginative literature, stories, plays, poems, history, science, mathematics, philosophy, including theology, and finally, social science, demand different ways of reading. 

Part Four: Syntopical Reading

The final section deals with a fourth level of reading: Syntopical Reading, reading numerous books on the same topic. This is useful if you are writing a bibliography for an idea, or if you ever wanted to put together a catalogue of books based on a time period or historical event. Most people would never get to this point, unless they were a researcher or writing a book or thesis. I have always wanted to do this to organize my books according to time periods, but I won't hold my breath that I actually make time to do it.

Finally, the authors close with a word on "what good books can do for us," and they have added a recommended reading list (of mainly non-fictional books) and exercises and tests for the four levels of reading, which I have yet to utilize.

Should You Read This Book?

No, if you only read for mindless entertainment, but yes, if you are a serious, deep reader. Even if you are investing your time in creative fiction, you should be getting something out of it...I hope. This book offers ideas to help you understand how to figure out the author and his message -- how to have a conversation with him. Especially if you read for knowledge and information, this book is like a bible on how to read properly, effectively, and essentially. 


  1. Thanks for your wonderful presentation. Definitely something I want to read!

  2. I have always loved this book. I've read it three times over the years. It inspires and motivates and I never grow tired of its messages.

  3. EMMA: Well, thanks. There are two versions of the book, and some people say this is the better version, but I've heard that the original one by Adler alone is pretty good bc it includes lots of questions you'll want to ask the authors while you read. But either way, you'll gain something valuable.

    PENGUIN: How ironic that you've read it three times, which seems to be Adler's magic number for reading a book thoroughly.

  4. I read this book a good few years ago, and I've enjoyed your review or synopsis of it very much. I will print it, :) It's very helpful.

    I too have done more criticism based on feelings than fair criticism, but it's true I'm lately trying to fall back to the previous stages/practices. I see that whenever I spend more time on those stages, my opinion becomes more relevant and better informed.

    I need to read this book again. It always inspires me to be a closer reader.

    Not all books, but most of the important reads, I read with pencil in hand.

  5. Thank you for giving a clear idea of the gist of this authoritative guide. I'm glad the authors were willing to devote a third of it to literature that is an end in itself. Adler and Van Doren's book lays greater stress on works of theology, philosophy, and the physical and social sciences, according to Clifton Fadiman's review, than it does on belle-lettres type material as you showed. Charles Van Doren, Adler's co-author on the later edition, wrote The Joys of Reading and there's Fadiman's own Lifetime Reading Plan (4 editions) which is a favorite of mine. Thanks Ruth, for re-acquainting me with this book.

  6. I started this book years ago but never finished (I think I had to return it to the library), but I probably should go back to it. I feel like I tend to be a superficial reader--certainly not as deep as I would care to be. I struggle with the idea of reading a book 3 times though - there's so many books and so little time!

  7. This is a great book. I read it years ago and you give a really great review. One thing I am guilty of is I hate to mark up my books. I know it is necessary for good study and congratulations that you do it. I do highlight things in my books on systematic theology and also Nietzsche. I will also probably be marking up my Marxist Manifesto.

  8. GEORGE: I own Fadiman's New Reading Plan. I have not read it, yet, but my goal was to finish The Well-Educated Mind, and then begin on either Fadiman's list or Classics For Pleasure.

    AMANDA: I agree. Reading three times takes too long. But what is also suggested is to read quickly through the first time, and then for your second and third times, you want to reread slower those sections that were maybe more important or difficult. Rereading really makes a difference in comprehension, too. Having said that, I'm still not ready to reread again and again, yet.

    SHARON: Adler did say use a he probably doesn't mean to deface a book as I do!!!! I've seen people use post it notes or tabs instead of mark in their books. This is another great idea. Then you can write on the post it instead of the page.

  9. I have the Bauer book, TWEM, on Audible and in printed form. Fadiman's new LRP contains numerous selections from world literature that the earlier ones didn't. The new plan also truncated his original 12-page introductory talk which, to me, was not a good thing because I fully appreciated and occasionally re-read what he said in the longer intro. Dirda's lead-in to Classics for Pleasure acknowledges Fadiman's influence too.

    You probably know, Ruth, that Anne Fadiman has written her father's biography, as well as several excellent sets of essays about reading of her own, not to be missed.

  10. I'm afraid I mostly read at the Elementary Reading level since I read for pleasure. But I often do, because of the blog and Goodreads, take notes when something strikes me or when I get an inspiration on how to present it in review form. I would like to get better at analyzing what I read, however, and will check this out in future.

  11. RUTHIELLA: Another great option for learning how to read (better) is Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Educated Mind. She has a more layman's approach for those of us who are not scholars or have all day long to sit and read and reread books! You may want to check that out, too.

  12. GEORGE: No, I did not know that. Something else I will have to investigate. Thanks.

  13. Thank you Ruth, for introducing me to Francis Schaeffer and Viktor Frankl. I've started on Schaeffer.

    Anne Fadiman's memoir is titled, "The Wine Lover's Daughter."