How to Read a Book

The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

finished (2020)Mortimer J. AdlerCharles Van Doren1972


1. The Activity and Art of Reading

Reading is not passive; as an activity, there must be an active component. It requires both the participation of the writer and reader: the former to convey meaning, the latter to interpret it. Like any learning, though, the result ultimately depends on the recipient; being well-read is much more about the reader's skill of understanding than the read writers' aggregate ability to convey information. People can read in different ways: to get information, to be entertained, or to understand. Reading for understanding is hard—it requires conscious effort, and is a skill to be gained! But, like the general skill of learning, it is very worthwhile.

2. The Levels of Reading

Reading is learning from an absent teacher: you must be able to fill in missing information, ask questions, and find their answers on your own. There are four cumulative "levels" of reading, which each take skill and build on top of each other:

  1. Elementary Reading: the ability to extract words from marks on the page

  2. Inspectional Reading: getting the gist of a book in limited time

  3. Analytical Reading: diving in, getting the most out of a book w/o time limit

  4. Synoptical Reading: comparing ideas across different books to reach a conclusion

3. The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

The ability to gain basic meaning from text is fundamental to reading; though only theoretically a baseline, though, it is the limit of the extent of reading education in the US in most institutions. To give this ability to every person is a tremendous problem of scale; therefore, American secondary and post-secondary education have little time to spend getting past it. Unfortunately, due to this focus, most students must be in school full-time for 20 years (12 primary/secondary, 4 post-secondary, ~4 graduate) before they learn to read at the synoptical level!

4. The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading is efficient, and often brief. It concerns itself with extracting as much information from a book as is possible in a very finite amount of time, and its practice is broken into two parts. First, skimming/pre-reading: the art of scanning the blurb, table of contents, last few pages, and dipping into the book randomly to learn its structure and get a feel for its text. Then (simultaneously, really), intentionally superficial reading: getting through a hard book, understanding only a fraction of it, so as to have a basis of comprehension to grow through reflection and deeper study. Different books should be read at different speeds: some are barely worth a skim, while others could produce years of worthwhile study! "Speed reading", then, is not so valuable a skill as the ability to differentially modulate one's speed. If it's worth reading very quickly, is it really worth reading (more than skimming) at all?

5. How to Be a Demanding Reader

Any reader who hopes to get value out of a book must approach reading as a serious task: not something done distractedly in comfortable places, with no strong motive or care whether or not a book is completed, but as a specific and focused task undertaken with a goal and steps in mind. To understand a book, it should be interrogated with four questions (each aligning somewhat with the levels of reading):

  1. What is the book about?

  2. What, specifically, is being said?

  3. To what extent is the book true / accurate?

  4. What of it?

The active writer should also mark the book as they go, analyzing and making it their own for future reference and reflection. Highlight or mark good quotes; write summaries and reviews at the heads of chapters or the front of the book; scribble questions in the margins as they come to be. Be an active reader, as you actively learn; soon these many steps will become second nature, flowing together as you learn to comprehend.


6. Pigeonholing a Book

Before reading, it is important to have a classification in mind to adapt your strategy. Books can be either fiction or nonfiction/expository; and if the latter, either history (narrating past events in a certain time/place ("chronotopical")), philosophy (concerning general ideas, accessible through everyday personal experience), or science (general ideas, in some abstract laboratory / experiment). Nonfiction can also be categorized as practical (advice / instructions / normative judgements... what should be) or theoretical (observations, theories... what is).

7. X-raying a Book

The authors recommend that, in the course of reading a book, the reader should seek to understand the different layers of its structure: from (analogous) skeleton to flesh. You should state both its unity (what the whole book has in common) and its multiplicity: what are the distinct parts of the book, and how do they come together in an overarching theme? Indeed, this is a similar process to writing—as two halves of the same whole, reading and writing are clearly similar in the way they communicate ideas. Writers also have something more, though: a question, a motivation to write. The reader should seek to understand this, too, though it may not be evident. Why does a given writer write the work they do? What are they trying to explore or understand; what is the basic question that underpins their creativity? Understanding this can help to reveal a whole work in a new light entirely.

8. Coming to Terms with an Author

"Terms" are different from "words": they're the units of thought, as opposed to the units of expression. A term can be expressed by different words (synonyms), and the same word can constitute different terms based on context (e.g. "reading" in this book). This is one of the most important lessons in analytical reading: to separate an author's vocabulary and terminology, identifying their main ideas and how their arguments revolve around those ideas! Without this concept and practice, it is easy to get confused especially when reading about unfamiliar topics.

9. Determining an Author's Message

Once a book is broken down into its sections and terms, certain sentences will become evident as important. To analyze the author's argument, it is imperative to find the propositions within those sentences, and evaluate each of their truths (and the progression thereof). Remember: it is possible for an author's conclusion to follow perfectly from their premises and still be wrong in your eyes if those premises are flawed! By the combination of key propositions, the author's argument comes into full analyzable view; this point is where a structural analysis meets a logical one.

10. Criticizing a Book Fairly

It is inevitable that at some point a reader will come to disagree with the author they are reading. When should one decide to disagree, and how? First, you must seek to understand the argument that the author is making; without interpreting their words in good faith, it is hard to disagree accurately! It is also crucial to be courteous in disagreement; vitriol lends nothing to the profitable resolution of differences in knowledge or opinion. Further on that, be sure to distinguish those disagreements that are based on knowledge—facts, evidence, verifiable things—and those stemming from more personal, subjective opinions. The former can generally be remedied by fixing the gap in education the two disagreeing people have!

11. Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author

If you disagree with an author, you must have grounds for doing so and be able to articulate them. You should either be able to point out how the author is 1) uninformed (missing relevant knowledge); 2) misinformed (having incorrect knowledge); or 3) flawed in their reasoning from solid premises. If you cannot articulate an objection in one of these categories, you are logically compelled to agree with the author, whether you like their conclusion or not; it's only fair! That said, you may also suspend overall judgement because you believe they lack additional context (agreeing with what was said, but thinking it's missing a critical piece)... for instance, someone with religious beliefs critiquing a secular account of happiness.

12. Aids to Reading

Four general types of aids may be considered in the course of a reader's search of understanding from a book: their own experiences, other books, commentary/abstract guides specific to the book/topic at hand, and reference books (dictionaries or encyclopedias). Before using any of these extrinsic aids, the analytical reader must first seek understanding independently; this is especially true for others' analyses, as they may distort one's view of the material if read beforehand.

13. How to Read Practical Books

Practical books are, in the end, about action. So, they should be judged in such a light: Do you agree that the ends a particular book advocates are worthwhile, and if so that their proposed methods would be effective at achieving those ends? Because the judgment of practical books hinges on the ends actions would produce, it is important that the author gets you to agree they are worthwhile; therefore, the reader of a practical book should be wary against propagandizing and aware of the author's personal context and history. Also, if they agree, the implication is more great: they should be obliged to act accordingly.

14. How to Read Imaginative Literature

Fiction is very different from expository writing: first of all, you must discard your intellectual vigilance and do your best to experience without doubt exactly what the author wants you to. Instead of terms, look for characters and happenings; where you would look for an overarching thesis, understand a plot. Fiction should only be criticized once you have experienced the world and characters the author put in the book; from there, you may critique what they did with the world they created... but never certain facts or premises of its creation (e.g. where the scene was set). Readers learn differently from imaginative literature: they use imagination to internalize an experience, then learn from that directly (instead of absorbing and criticizing logic, as in expository works).

15. Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems

A list of suggestions:

  • Read the stories through as quickly as possible, pressing onwards even if you don't really understand the work, to get a mental grasp of the whole and its unity.

  • For plays and poems, consider reading the works out loud. This way, it's much harder to skip over parts you don't understand; confronting difficult passages leads you to a better understanding.

  • Read and continually re-read such works. They're called "living" for a reason: each time they're revisited, you see and learn something new in them!

16. How to Read History

History is interesting: it's almost a mix of fiction and history, in that it constructs a hypothetical world and narrative but also purports to stick to facts. Those facts are naturally suspect; the witnesses are dead, and single facts are hard enough to corroborate (i.e. in a courtroom) in real time! Thankfully, history is also useful to read because accounts of the past have influenced the more recent past: the stories of conquerors, armies, and innovators we have—accurate or not—continue to inspire and inform the actions of our contemporaries. (Yet more caveats apply, generally around the author's motivation / propagandizing / etc.)

17. How to Read Science and Mathematics

In reading science and mathematics, you should focus intensely on figuring out the problem the author is trying to solve. Most modern science is conducted in specific languages, outside the comprehension of the lay-person; therefore, most scientific reading should be done with either popular science books (aware that their content may be limited) or classics from former eras (e.g. Newton, Darwin, etc). Mathematics is a language; don't be intimidated by it, just seek to understand!

18. How to Read Philosophy

Philosophy concerns itself with abstract questions that can only be answered by pure thought and reflection; What is meaning? What is existence? How should life be lived? Nearly all philosophy is written in one of five forms: a dialogue (just Plato, effectively), a treatise/essay (Aristotle, Kant), a "meeting of objections" (more confrontational, Thomas Aquinas) a more formalized language in the spirit of mathematics (Descartes), or the aphoristic style (common in Eastern thought). The important thing in reading it is to develop and justify your own beliefs; don't take anyone else's thought at face value! After all, even the greatest philosophers disagree constantly.

19. How to Read Social Science

Social science is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult genre to read: easy because the words and concepts are familiar to our daily life, but difficult for precisely that reason, as it makes coming to common terms with the author nearly impossible. The concepts of sociology, anthropology, economics, and politics are the stuffs of newspapers; they're inescapable! Additionally, almost everyone has committed preconceptions and opinions in such issues, which makes it difficult to evaluate arguments objectively. This combination leads to the necessity to read social science synoptically; one work is rarely enough to comprehend a topic.

20. The Fourth Level of Reading: Synoptical Reading

Reading synoptically is qualitatively different from reading analytically: instead of going to an author and seeking to understand their perspective, you come to a group of books with a question and seek the wisdom of each in relation to your goal. Instead of picking up a book, you must first compile a bibliography and inspect each member. Instead of coming to an author's terms, you impose common terms on all authors, translating their thoughts into a common language as best you can. Instead of seeking to understand propositions, you ask a clear question. Then, you array the perspectives of various authors, and evaluate what you think the issue at hand is. Synoptical reading is hard, objective, and detached; you're trying to understand the layout / overview of an issue!

21. Reading and the Growth of the Mind

As you come to understand more about the world, your mind grows. Thus, great books can be distinguished by their timelessness within one life: while informational books can give you more knowledge, truly great books will be read in a completely different way whenever you return to them. They grow with your mind, rather than just being partially forgotten by it! The vast majority of books are informational or have a select few insights which are easily learned and moved on from... it can be good to read these, but mainly to skim and extract said insights. To grow as a person, to gain wisdom—the understanding of the problems and strategies of life—it is best to read, seek out, and continually revisit as many great works as possible.

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