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How to Read a Book (1972)

by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren

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6,128611,171 (4.01)81
Investigates the art of reading by examining each aspect of reading, problems encountered, and tells how to combat them.
Recently added byDawnDrain, GreatBookStudy, private library, dedode08, Salomo, SeanK1964, JakeCL, anthony_agbay, DarvDombach
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Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
It's admittedly outdated but still useful. The condescending tone was irritating at times. Use a summary of the book if you want, but we should all learn to read well.
  helenar238 | Oct 8, 2020 |
This book was originally published in 1940 by Adler and updated in 1972 with the help of Van Doren. At least when in comes to their approach to reading nonfiction, a more apt title might be “How to Attack a Book.” Their approach features a systematic process of extracting most if not more than the author intended to convey. It also contains some savvy advice on how to measure the truth of the assertions in the book. Whether you take the authors’ advice to heart or not, you will have to admit that their exposition is a prime example of lucid expository prose.

According to them, there are four levels of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopic, which they proceed to explain in depth.

Personally, I have always held that “syntopic” reading is essential for book reviewers. What this term means is that in order to evaluate a book on a particular subject, you must gain familiarity with other works on the same subject or in the same genre.

For example, when reading a book purporting to be the history of an event or an individual, you need to understand how the perceptual and ideological lenses informing the history leads to quite different (and selective) accounts. It also helps to ascertain what sources were used and which ones were omitted, thereby shaping the story and altering the narrative. As students of epistemology have long noted, histories are far from value-free, and history too exists within a complex ideological web.

Analogously with fiction, it is useful to have a familiarity with particular genres and sub-genres, so one can more usefully evaluate how well an author represents the field. The authors also advise that you should enter the author’s world on his or her (Adler and Van Doren would never use a singular ‘their’) own terms. The book should be believable even if improbable.

The authors even give advice on how to read what they call “canonical” books. By that, they mean books like the Bible, the Koran, and Das Kapital, that true believers think contain “the Truth,” no matter how improbable the authors’ assertions appear to nonbelievers. The true believers often have to engage in some exotic mental gymnastics to create new meanings of common words while we nonbelievers can treat the books like imaginative literature.

As an added bonus, Adler and Van Doren created a list of 137 authors of “Great Books” that they deem worthy of exhaustive study.

Evaluation: The book is a bit dry, but well worth reading, especially for students of literature.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Jul 3, 2020 |
This is a useful guide to in-depth reading so you can get the most out your books. The authors provide step-by-step instructions on inspectional, analytical and syntopic reading. This type of reading is more useful for expository books, but the authors also briefly discuss how to critically read novels, poetry, history, philosophy, and science books.


The main point the authors make is that reading books effectively comes down to reading them actively, motivated by a sincere desire to understand, learn, and grow. Without that motivation, the reader is really just going through the motions and won't get the maximum benefit of the book. Advanced readers will have picked up most or all of the strategies and techniques discussed in this book through trial and error. Therefore, this book would be most valuable to less skilled readers in that it should expedite the development of these reading skills, and it should reinforce (and validate) this skill for those who are already skilled readers.


The main detraction of this book is its overly verbose prose and repetitiveness, especially in a book designed for people who aren't skilled at reading. This is rather unfortunate, since those people that really need the help this book can provide are probably not going to get very far with it. On the other hand, maybe the repetitiveness is useful for reinforcing the methods and techniques discussed in the book?


This book would be of most use to college/university students, possibly high-school student and people who want to get more out of their reading experience. This is not a book one reads for fun, this is a self-help instruction manual. Some effort on the part of the reader is required.



( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
I wish I could say the book was very helpful to me but it wasn't. The year it was first published was 1940 and it very much shows that. It doesn't stand the test of time very well. It mentions the TV and Radio as mere distractions from reading books. I'm guessing if it knew about the eventual existence of audiobooks it would consider them blasphemous.

After I realized what I was getting into, I shifted my focus from reading a practical, self-help book to reading a historical slice of academia.

There are a few advice that can be extracted but they're all common sense like "match the speed reading to the difficulty of the book", "here are 10 ways you can write on the sides of the book to extract useful information", "read a book twice if it was above your level" etc.

It's basically a historically frozen love letter to the institution of reading and writing. If you take it as so you might find it entertaining because it's lacking in utility in 2018. ( )
  parzivalTheVirtual | Mar 22, 2020 |
A lot of useful information regarding the best way to read any written media. However, since the author have a philosopical background, a lot of his example might be difficult for most people. ( )
  wayanadhi | Feb 4, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Adler, Mortimer J.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Van Doren, Charlesmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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How to Read a Book was originally published in the early months of 1940.
This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers.
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Investigates the art of reading by examining each aspect of reading, problems encountered, and tells how to combat them.

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