Thursday, August 06, 2009

How To Read a Book

Mortimer Adler

I just recently finished reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. It was the third edition of the original which was published in 1940.

I found it quite helpful in improving my approach to reading, and so I decided to share some of the highlights today.

First thing, before I begin, I have to say that while this guy was not a Protestant believer, he was a guy who knew books - he read a lot of them, and pretty much from every age. In the back of the book he has a recommended reading list which lists the books he considers the 137 greatest books ever written, from Homer and the Old Testament to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Calvin's Institutes, to the writings of Isaac Newton and Leo Tolstoy.

He was a Syntopical reader

Okay, now onto the helpful stuff

The book is not primarily a guide on how to become widely read, but how to become one who can read well, thus the name of the title. Not far into the book he states that he is aware that there are many out there who have read widely but have not read well, and cannot recall what they learned from what they read, they are poorly read, he says.

Oh, shame on me.

He makes a good contrast between passive reading and active reading.

"reading can be more or less active... the more active the reading the better... He [the reader] is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him." Pg 5

He makes a big deal of the difference between reading for information and reading for instruction. He explains that reading for information is what happens when we read a newspaper, or magazine, or some book which informs us about something we don't know, or don't know very well. Reading for instruction is when we read with the purpose of actually increasing our understanding, or as he puts it, reading to be enlightened.

One way of explaining this he says is that, it is that it is the difference between being able to remember what's in the book and being able to explain it.

"Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it."

One of the signs, he says, that our understanding is growing is when we feel the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth. If we read though the entire work and find it has matched our current skills and talents and was altogether thoroughly intelligible to us, we are merely increasing our store of information, and our understanding remains at the level it was before we began the book.

Towards the end of his book, Adler asserts that the great majority of the several million books that have been written in the Western tradition alone-more than 99 percent of them-will not make sufficient demands on you for you to improve your skill in reading.

Adler Describes the Art of Reading a Book in This One and a half minute Interview

In the beginning of the book, he also makes a case for books as a means of education stating the difference between aided and unaided discovery (Pg 13), and Present and Absent teachers. (Pg 14) When learning by books we must ask questions of the books, since we can't ask a teacher, and we must find the answers by ourselves.

Adler asserts that there are four levels of reading. They are to be taken as consecutive co-dependent stages, not as separate methods for reading. Level 2 depends on Level 1, and so Level 4 would depend on Levels 1,2,3.

The Four Levels of Reading

1.) Elementary Reading
Basic reading skills, passing from non-literacy to literacy

2.) Inspectional Reading
Getting the most out of a book within a given period of time, much shorter period than needed for a full read.

3.) Analytical Reading
The best reading you can do. Reading preeminently for the sake of understanding. (Very demanding of the reader)

4.) Syntopical Reading
Reading several books on a particular subject with the purpose of constructing an analysis of the subject, which may not be found in any of the books. (The most demanding reading)

An Aged Adler, Still a Reader

Because serious readers will spend most their time reading analytically, he devotes most of the book to that. Adler explains that analytical reading consists of three stages.

Stage 1: Rules for Finding What a Book is About

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. (Know what kind of book you are reading)
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. (A single sentence, a few at most)
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve

Stage 2: Rules for Finding What a Book Says (Interpreting Its Contents)

5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. (Find the most important words and through them come to terms with the author)

6. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. (Mark the most important sentences in the book and discover the propositions they contain)

7. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. (Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences)

8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Stage 3: Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge

A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say "I understand.")

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

12. Show wherein the author is uninformed
13. Show wherein the author is misinformed
14. Show wherein the author is illogical
15. Show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete.

I found Adler quite helpful in urging me onto more active and lively reading. His counsel on becoming a demanding reader is very practical. In short, as far as I know this is probably the greatest book on the subject of reading methodology that has been written to date. I hope you found something of this post helpful. I enjoyed reading the book and writing this article.

Soli Deo Gloria,


Reform your life and doctrine, meet with God in the text


WhiteStone said...

That was very helpful to me and I must come back and read this again. Hmmm, maybe I'll print it out so I can have it with me. I've often noticed that I read superficially and have wanted to be more indepth with my reading. While I recognize that it takes "time" to read well, I also recognize that I am often simply being sloppy. What a waste of time that is.

Scott said...

Great article - thought provoking and helpful. When I came home for lunch today, I called my three little girls to my side and we watched the video together. Then I read out loud to them the contents of your post hoping to impress on these young ladies how to make the most now of their time reading and hoping also to encourage them in a lifetime of meaningful reading.

I heard Piper say: "the pencil has 100 eyes." I've been repeating this phrase often and purpose to always read with ruler and pencil in hand.

Laurie M. said...

Wow, gotta get a copy of that someday. Like Judy, I'm thinking about printing out your outline so I can have it handy.

BTW, the
General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette" would do well to guide us in all discourse - in particular theological and political discussion. Listen carefully and thoroughly, differ respectfully and politely, understanding the difference between opinion and fact and having solid reasoning with which to back up your position. All this requires patience and self-control. Fantastic points! I've got a lot of improvements to make. Thanks for a compelling post.

Jonathan said...

Regarding Stage 3 (Rules for Criticizing a Book), do you think Adler expects the reader to jot down one's criticisms (perhaps in the back of the book), or is it a purely mental activity (pondering it for a hour or so)?

Joshua said...


Great question. Adler ureges the reader to write his thoughts down in the book.

The Margins, and just below the footnotes, or the top of the page seem to work best,. The back of the book is not so bad either, but not as quick to referece as the others.

I dont follow all these points every time I read a book, but I have found underlining and writing notes throughout the book to be a great method for thinking and remembering.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Joshua.

Come, rejoice with me in the glorious truth that death died in the death of Jesus Christ! Everyone is now welcome to come and freely take the water of life. (Rev 22:17)