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

How to Read a BookHow to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s not how much you read, but how well–and this book gives you specific, step-by-step techniques to get you to read as well as possible.

First of all, who would be so presumptuous as to advise fellow adults on how to read–a skill notionally possessed by everyone who’s made it through public school? Well, Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher, longtime editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and moving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series; and Charles Van Doren, Adler’s colleague at the Institute for Philosophical Research and author of, among other works, The Idea of Progress. Observing that most of us don’t get very much out of a book when we read it, they set about to help those of us who want to, to get more.

Their method applies mostly to reading nonfiction. While they devote 2 chapters out of 21 to reading “imaginative literature”, and have useful things to say about such reading, I found these chapters to be the weakest, since imaginative literature lies outside the zone that is most conducive to their analytical approach.

But for nonfiction reading they set out a powerful, systematic method for getting the most out of a book.

Not all works deserve equally deep reading. Indeed, most books are simply bad according to the authors, and not worth reading at all. Many others might contain information or ideas that are useful, without being especially significant overall. A few–a very few–are the considered, mature works by the best minds in the history of recorded thought. These, the authors assert, merit our close attention and careful reading and rereading.

So the authors introduce us to the “levels of reading”, of which they set out four:

1. Elementary reading: This is the basic skill of being able to read with comprehension. Do we have it? If not, we need to work on this.

2. Inspectional reading: This is how to assess a book’s promise quickly by examining its table of contents, index, and flap blurbs, and by skimming key parts of the text.

3. Analytical reading: This section of 6 chapters forms the core of the book. Here you learn how to look for the key arguments of a book, summarize these, and discover any special meanings the book’s author is giving certain terms, as well as how to criticize the book fairly and determine where you stand in relation to the author’s main thesis.

4. Syntopical reading: This is the term the authors give to the highest, most demanding level of reading–the level required for serious research that requires the comparison of different texts. Syntopical reading is possible only for those who already have a decent grasp of analytical reading.

The authors admit that to follow their method completely is hard, time-consuming work, and appropriate only for the most worthy texts. That’s why it’s important to master the skills of inspectional reading, which allow us to gain a quick idea of which books deserve this deluxe treatment.

I myself have applied Adler and Van Doren’s methods to only a few books so far, and have not completed the method for any one book (it is indeed a lot of work). The one I’ve gone furthest with so far is an analytical reading of A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy by James Macdonald, a book that, in my view, amply deserves such a reading. Even though I have not got to the end of my analytical reading, by following Adler and Van Doren’s methods I have very much deepened and clarified my understanding of Macdonald’s book, and I know that if I finish my analysis I will be able to say I have truly read it.

I’m currently reading the Organon of Aristotle, and I intend to apply the Adler-Van Doren method to these books when I’m done. I’ve already made a start with the Categories, and it’s already bearing fruit in the form of increased comprehension.

If you’re serious about reading, you owe it to yourself to read this book; and the more serious you are, the more important it is that you make an appointment with this book. Read it well.

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