Book Review: How to Read a Book – Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Here is a classic that will help you become a better reader, and as a result, a better thinker. How to Read a Book – A Classic guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bound to make you re-evaluate your reading habits. No matter what level of reading you do, the tips and advice that the authors offer are priceless. Especially, for those who are engaged in higher education or research, the book is a goldmine of advice on how to read analytically and gives a thorough step by step process on how to go about being an active reader. First published in 1940, the book has remained a must-read for any serious student and academic and I, for one, add this on to your recommended reading list, today.

How to Read a Book          The book is broken down into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of reading: The dimensions of reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to different kinds of reading matter, The ultimate goals of reading. The authors go to painstaking details in illustrating how one should tackle each, with examples to guide you, in the process.

In short, the first part of the book is about reading actively, with the purpose of making sense of the content in the book and also to discover the meaning of what is being said. They offer some practical tips for dealing with difficult books, such as:” 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.”(pg.36) They ask the reader to do this, to “inspect” the book to grasp what you can. They recommend coming back to it later, trying to grasp the fuller meaning of the book. They also offer advice on reading speeds, depending on the difficulty of the book and one that must be kept in mind. As an active reader, the authors ask us to ask the following four questions, of each book: 1. What is the book about, as a whole? 2. What’s being said in detail and how? 3. Is the book true, in whole or part? 4. What about it?

In the second part, the authors talk about the various elements of analytical reading, primarily asking us to come to terms with the arguments that the writer is making, by determining the message- at times reading in between the lines, if need be. They call for looking for the various parts of the book, its organization, and their relation with each other and also looking at how the author has defined the problem or problems that are to be solved. They caution us to be careful about criticizing any book before we fully understand what the author means. This means, parsing out the arguments, propositions, and phrases that they are using and being careful not to misinterpret them. Only then, can one criticize it? They further point out that the criticism should be along the lines of what are the logical inadequacies, flaws in argument and structure, rather than giving our own opinion. In this, they offer a rather scholarly etiquette of evaluating and judging any piece of writing.

The third section is about reading different kinds of books such as fiction, social sciences, history, math and science, and philosophy- each one calling for a different orientation and style. The last part of the book deals with syntopical or analytical reading, i.e, two or three books of the same kind and what they say about a subject. This is outlined in five steps that the authors suggest: 1. Finding the relevant passages – that speak to the issue(s) that you have in mind, as a reader 2. Bringing the authors to terms, meaning identifying the terms and phrases that you are interested in, and getting the multiple authors to speak to those terms. In other words, it is about forcing the author to use your language, rather than his. 3. Getting the questions clear: This can be done by establishing a set of neutral propositions, that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors gives answers 4. Defining the issues and finally 5. Analyzing the discussion: To ask, if the issues under discussion are true, what do all the authors say about it, and wherein they differ or agree.

In conclusion, it is good to remember their advice about tough books:” Great books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively. To keep the joy of reading, you must have not only the will to do so but also the skill- the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first sight seems to be beyond you.”

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Simon and Schuster, New York, First published in 1940


0 responses to “Book Review: How to Read a Book – Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren”

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  2. Hi

    It seems that I have found another person who enjoyed reading this book. I finished it not so long ago, and some of its lessons I’ve already forgotten, but I am sure that it’s a book that I will return to over and over again to hone my reading skills. I think that’s perhaps how it was meant to be used as it is a practical book after all. At least I want to remember that the authors themselves wrote that it was.

    I didn’t really do the exercises and tests however. I think I’ll come back and do them a bit later.

    Did you do them?


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