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How to Read a Book, Revised and Updated Edition

by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doran (Author)

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6,705801,174 (4)None
Investigates the art of reading by examining each aspect of reading, problems encountered, and tells how to combat them.
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How to Read a Book describes techniques for reading more effectively. It focuses on reading for understanding rather than reading for pleasure, so the techniques describe tend to apply less to fiction than to nonfiction. However, the techniques described can be applied, with modification, to fiction if your goal in reading a particular work is more than entertainment.

The authors divide reading into four levels. The first level of reading is basic reading and comprehension. They spend little time on this level on the assumption that anyone who is interested in a book about reading books has probably achieved the first level of reading.

Inspectional reading

The second level of reading they call "inspectional reading". Inspectional reading is reading to get a general understanding of what a book is about. The first inspectional reading technique is "systematic reading" or "prereading". The purpose of this technique is to allow one to quickly decide what a book is about and whether it is worthwhile to spend one's time reading the book. They say a systematic reading should take about five to ten minutes. Systematic reading may be useful if one wants to know if a book answers a specific question or if a book is as interesting as the title makes it sound. The second inspectional reading technique is "superficial reading". Superficial reading is, more or less, the type of reading one engages in for day-to-day reading. When reading a book superficially, the goal is to obtain a general understanding of the book even if some specific parts remain beyond understanding or interest. The authors point out that most reading deserves no more than a superficial reading. Most of my reading comes from blogs, so I agree wholeheartedly.

At both the second and third levels of reading, one ought to be asking these questions of a book: "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 depth with which one answers these questions will, not surprisingly vary with whether one is doing a second level reading or a third level reading.

Analytical reading

The third level of reading, and the heart of the book, is "analytical reading". Analytical reading is a process of really coming to deeply understand a book. The goal in analytical reading is to understand what the author meant when they wrote the book. At the second level of reading, one is satisfied if the book answers one's own questions; at the third level of reading one is not satisfied unless one feels they understand what the author's questions were and whether or not those questions have been answered. The third level of reading is divided into stages. At the first stage, one finds what the book is about by classifying the type of book it is, determining what it is about, defining the major parts of the book, and defining the problems the author is aiming to solve.

The second stage of analytical reading aims to interpret a book. It involves finding the authors key terms, propositions, and arguments and their meanings. This stage also involves determining whether or not the author solved the problems identified in the first stage.

The third stage of analytical reading involves criticizing the book. The authors stress that this stage cannot be undertaken until one understands the book fully. The authors claim that "I don't completely understand what you're saying, but I disagree anyway" is neither a valid nor useful criticism. Beyond that they discuss that a fair criticism should show where the author is uninformed, where the author is misinformed, where the author is illogical, and where the author's analysis is incomplete. If one cannot fit one's disagreement into one of these categories one of two things must be true: the reader did not fully understand the author's argument or one is obliged to dismiss their disagreement and either agree with the author or suspend judgment on the work.

Syntopical reading

The fourth level of reading is syntopical reading. Syntopical reading is a technique for reading many books to answer a particular question. It is like inspectional reading in so far as the goal is to answer one's own questions rather than understand the problems the author is trying to solve. It is like analytical reading in that a fair comparison requires a deep understanding of what the different authors are saying with respect to the question at hand.

The first stage of a syntopical reading is to choose a subject and survey the field for relevant works. This survey includes making a bibliography of works that seem relevant and then doing an inspectional reading of all of those works to determine which ones are actually relevant. The process of surveying may cause one to refine the question that is being investigated.

The second stage is actually performing the syntopical reading. This involves first finding the relevant passages from the books remaining after the first stage. Once those passages have been found, the reader must construct a neutral terminology that the different authors employ or can be interpreted as employing. Like in analytical reading, once the terms have been defined, the reader must determine a set of propositions; this is done by establishing a set of neutral questions and determining how the various texts answer those questions. Given these questions, the reader can define the major and minor issues relating to the topic and analyze those issues in the light of the views of all the authors.

Note that the purpose of a syntopical reading is to allow the reader to determine what different authors say, not to allow the reader to come up with their own opinion. Opinion forming should, ideally, come after the completion of the syntopical reading when the reader has a full understanding of the different opinions and arguments pertaining to the topic.

Conclusions

Overall, I found this book to be a useful presentation of different ways of reading a book. The three facts that will have the most influence on my day-to-day reading are the techniques for effective prereading, the questions to answer when reading a book, and the fact that not all books need to be read in depth. The section about analytical and syntopical readings were certainly useful, but the times when I need to apply those techniques are more rare. That said, I do think that anyone who has ever had to survey a field (especially grad students) should read this book just so they can understand syntopical reading.

I have no criticisms of the book, but while reading it there were several topics I wished it had addressed in more detail. The output of even the first stage of analytical reading would make for useful notes, but the authors did not really address techniques for note taking. They were of the opinion that the most effective way to take notes is to mark up the book itself, but this is not always practical (library books, internet, small margins, etc.).

Another issue I would like to have seen addressed in more detail is how to do a partial analytical reading of a book. The authors admit that one rarely needs to do a full analytical reading of a book and that many books are not worth the effort, but they do not address in detail what steps are most important in a partial analytical reading. Should one go through the first stage and not the rest or should one go through all the stages of analytical reading but for only one issue that the author addresses or should one do something else completely? Perhaps there are multiple ways of doing a partial analytical reading and it is up to the judgment of the reader to determine which is appropriate at a given time.

Finally, this is rather outside the scope of this book, especially as it varies by field, but is a question I often struggle with. When doing a syntopical reading, how does one go about amassing the initial bibliography? If you know the term you can search the library or the internet or amazon, but what if you only have a vague idea of a topic? How do you go from a hard to search for general question to a set of useful search terms? Since this edition of the book was published in the 1970s, answers would have changed, but this is something I have always wanted to know. ( )
  eri_kars | Jul 10, 2022 |
Interesting read with some solid helpful tips. Given the books age, however, as it goes, science and society have moved on in some ways. This makes the book useful both as a reference, but also as a time piece of the era it was written in and what sort of ideas people had about reading critically decades in the past. Even back then, debates abounded about how children should be properly taught to read, the author laments schools pushing out classics as is still a complaint even today, and what was considered "new" and "revolutionary" when this was written. I'd say some of the tips are also just not useful these days, and the aids section is especially useful for the modern era. There are many good points that stick out to me that I think modern readers need reminding; reading lots of books doesn't make one well read nor can you really form an accurate opinion about anything after only encountering it once. I also liked the idea about books being given the "time they deserve". Books only meant for cheap entertainment should be read quickly, and dense, more thought-provoking work should be taken slowly and reread. There's nothing wrong with those cheap entertainment books, but time should be set aside to engage with challenging books too, for our own enrichment. I like the section about vocabulary and terms as well, and I appreciate the author's attempts to push the idea that scientific and mathematics focused books are not scary and unreadable for the average person, they simply require gaining some skill to understand them like all skill based things in life.

Again, as this book is quite old, culture marches on. The author's opinions are very progressive for the time, but language in the book skews a bit unintentionally sexist. Religion features heavily in some sections, which isn't surprising for the time period, but may be off-putting to modern readers not used to engaging in older works where that was more common in serious works. The language may be, ironically, too dense for some modern readers who would most need the help in this book, to read through it. Still, I think it's worth a read. Just go into it remembering this book is quite old, originally written in 1940s, and may require some breaks to get through. The book rec list at the end is a good starting point in helping to understand the foundations of Western literature. I'd say it's still missing some key books, as the author's suggestions are quite Greco-Roman and Christina focused, and other big European works are missing. That's also not to get into the list being devoid of much of anything related to other groups contributions, but again, book was written nearly a century ago and it's still a pretty decent starting list regardless. Whether you're Christian or not, the bible is essential reading for understanding common symbols and stories in Western lit as much as Homer's works are. There is no denying that. Overall, given how some books from only a decade ago can come out aging very badly, I'd say this 80 year old book didn't have that many issues in that regard. Some may prefer to read it more as an occasional reference, but I'd suggest giving it one read-through before using it in that way. ( )
  somerainstorms | Jun 7, 2022 |
Changed the way I interact with books. It changed the way I read. ( )
  MamaBearBooks | Apr 12, 2022 |
Informative, not to be read from cover to cover.
I will probably reference to it in the future, although most of the things are just common sense when it comes to speed reading and reading literature other than nonfiction.
Nonfiction guide is great and really important if we want to gain from the book we are reading! ( )
  maemini | Feb 13, 2022 |
Taking into consideration that it was first published 80 years ago, this book isn't bad at all. However, most of the proposed reading techniques and methods are somewhat basic and obvious and offer nothing the general reader in our time doesn't already know or apply. ( )
  TonyDib | Jan 28, 2022 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Adler, Mortimer J.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Van Doran, CharlesAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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How to Read a Book was originally published in the early months of 1940.
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Please distinguish Mortimer J. Adler's later Revised and Updated Edition co-authored with Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Best-Selling Guide to Reading Books and Accessing Information (1972), from his original work, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940). See Wikipedia on How to Read a Book.
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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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