How to Read a Book
|How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
|Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
|Buy This Book:
I wish I had read this book earlier, it’s an absolute must for anyone who wants get more serious about their reading. It teaches you how to supercharge your reading in order to learn and to understand. Most of us learn how to read superficially, when we are little, and never improve upon that. Learning from the books, using the same reading techniques that we use, when we read for pleasure, is very ineffective and there are many ways to optimize it. This book provides great strategies and very actionable advice about how to become a better reader and learner.
The Goals of Reading
The goal a reader seeks — be it entertainment, information, or understanding — determines the way he reads. The effectiveness with which he reads is determined by the amount of effort and skill he puts into his reading.
Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher.
- Reading for entertainment
- Reading for information: may increase our store of information, but cannot improve our understanding (newspapers, magazines, etc.)
- Reading for understanding: trying to read something that at first you don’t completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader.
- initial inequality of understanding
- the reader must be able to overcome this inequality to some degree
How to Be a Demanding Reader
Ask questions while you read — questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true, in whole or part?
- What of it?
The Levels of Reading
Level 1: Elementary Reading
- as one masters this level one passes from non-literacy to at least beginning literacy.
- this level of reading is learned in elementary school.
- The child’s first encounter with reading is at this level.
Level 2: Inspectional Reading
- Inspectional reading’s aim is to get the most out of the book within a given time — usually a relatively short time, and always too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.
- Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.
Level 3: Analytical Reading
- Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading — the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.
- “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” - Francis Bacon
- Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.
Level 4: Syntopical Reading
- When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which the all revolve.
- the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books
Systematic skimming or pre-reading
Skimming or pre-reading is the first sublevel of inspectional reading. Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading. Secondly, skimming can tell you lots of other things about the book, even if you decide not to read it again with more care.
- Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at its preface.
- Study the table of contents.
- Check the index.
- Read the publisher’s blurb
- Look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s argument.
- Turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that.
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.
Pigeonholing a Book
- [Rule 1] You must know kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
- just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and readers is the same as that between teachers and their students. Hence, as books differ in the kinds of knowledge they have to communicate, they proceed to instruct us differently; and, if we are to follow them, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner.
X-raying a Book
- Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers. Your job as an analytical reader is to find it.
- [Rule 2] State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences.
- [Rule 3] Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.
- The author made his [structure of the book] in order to write a good book. You must make yours in order to read it well. If he were a perfect writer and you a perfect reader, it would follow that the two would be the same.
- [Rule 4] Find out what the author’s problems were. The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers.
Coming to Terms with an Author
- [Rule 5] Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author. The first part is to locate the important words, the words that make a difference. The second part is to determine the meaning of these words, as used, with precision.
- one word can be a vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words
Determining an Author’s Message
- The author’s propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinions unless they are supported by reasons. If it is the book and the subject with which it deals that we are interested in, and not just the author, we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.
- [Rule 6] Mark the most important sentences in the book and discover the propositions they contain.
- [Rule 7] Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.
- Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.
- “State in your own words!” That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition.
- There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read. […] Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?
- Find if you can the paragraphs in the book that state its important arguments; but if you arguments are not this expressed, your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the propositions that come the argument.
- If the book contains arguments you must know what they are, and be able to put them into a nutshell.
- [Rule 8] Find out what the author’s solutions are.
Criticizing a Book Fairly
- The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging.
- Do not begin to talk back until you have listened carefully and are sure you understand. Not until you are honestly satisfied that you have accomplished the first two stages of reading should you feel free to express yourself. When you have, you not only have earned the right to turn critic, you also have the duty to do so.
- [Rule 9] You must be able to say, with erasable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”
- [Rule 10] When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.
- Do not disagree hopelessly.
- No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.
- [Rule 11] Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.
- After he [the reader] has said, “I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks to the author:
- “You are uninformed”
- “You are misinformed”
- “You are illogical — your reasoning is not cogent”
- “Your analysis is incomplete”
Summary of the rules
- Rules for finding what a book is about
- Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
- State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
- Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
- Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.
- Rules for interpreting a book’s contents
- Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
- Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
- Know the author’s argument, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
- Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
- Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge
- Do not begin your criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
- Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
- Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make.
- Show wherein the author is uninformed.
- Show wherein the author is misinformed.
- Show wherein the author is illogical.
- Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
- In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.
- When you read a book analytically, you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.
- Surveying the field preparatory to syntopical reading
- Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
- Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.
- Syntopical reading of the bibliography amassed in stage 1
- Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in stage 1 in order to find the most relevant passages.
- Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing.
- Establish a set of neutral propositions for of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.
- Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.
- Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.
How to Read Practical Books
- The most important thing to remember about any practical book is that it can never solve the practical problems with which it is concerned. A theoretical book can solve its own problems. But a practical book can only be solved by action itself.
- Agreement with a practical book implies action on your part.