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How to Read a Book

The key to the mastery of any art is twofold: getting down solid fundamentals, and mastering the process. I have often alluded to the Mortimer J. Adler’s process for reading a book for understanding on this site, but I have yet to enumerate exactly what that process looks like. So what follows is just that: the process Professor Adler recommends in his best-selling, classic guide to intelligent reading, How to Read a Book.

Before you dive in though, keep in mind that not all the step will apply to all books, and also that, as I’ve said before, most books are hardly worth reading at all, let alone reading analytically.

There are two types of reading we’re going to talk about today: inspectional reading and analytical reading.

Simply put, inspectional reading is the best possible reading of a book in a limited amount of time, while analytical reading is the best possible reading reading of a book without time constraints. Analytical reading is typically to be conducted only after you have inspected a book, though when you master the art of reading you will be able to combine these types of reading into one.

To prepare you for the analytical stage of reading, an inspectional read-through is often vital.

I. Inspectional Reading

1. Systematic skimming/pre-reading

  • Read the title, table of contents, preface, editors note, introduction, publisher’s blurb, etc.
  • If applicable, read the index and get a general idea of what the major topics, terms, ideas, and themes of the book will be.
  • Casually flip through the book looking for summaries (often found at the end of chapters), introductions, and parts that will help give you a better idea of what you’re dealing with and the author’s main positions — “tasting” the book, to use Francis Bacon’s term.

After this stage you should be able to answer the question: what kind of book is this? and also have a general idea about what the book is about and the main argument being made (though the focus of this level of reading is primarily on answering what kind of book you’re reading).

2. Superficial Reading

  • Quickly read through the book without worrying too much about unfamiliar terms and ideas that you don’t immediately grasp.

After this you can put the book aside if it’s not worth a deeper reading, or, if you recognize that you have something to learn from it, then you can go to work reading it analytically, maximizing your resolution of the ideas and arguments being conveyed and made.

Thus ends an inspectional reading. Adler then lays out a series of rules to help guide the reader seeking understanding through an analytical reading of a book.

II. Analytical Reading

1. Rules for Discovering What a Books Is About

  • Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. This is also referred to as pigeonholing a book. Is it a work of philosophy, history, an epic, science, poetry, etc. 
    • Is it theoretical or practical?
      • A theoretical book is a book on the nature of things, and primarily deals with facts. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case.
      • A practical book is a book that teaches you how to do something, and tries to convince you to take certain action. They will typically be based on theoretical facts, but then go further by making judgments from them.
      • Be aware, however, that books are not usually purely theoretical or purely practical, and that there often will be some theoretical and some practical parts.
  • State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. Find the nodal points or themes of the book. You should be able to express this in a few sentences at most.
  • Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. Outline the book in a way much like how I am here outlining How to Read a Book. Don’t go crazy — you should primarily focus on finding the basic structure of the book, outlining how the author’s arguments and/or themes proceed.
  • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve. If you want to understand the unity of a book, you’re going to have to know why it would have a unity in the first place. So you should know what the primary and secondary problems the author is trying to solve are.

2. Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents

  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. The difference between a term and a word is that a term is the meaning of a word, while the word is the symbol that coneys meaning. We want to know how the author is using a word, not a word’s common usage. If you can do this, you will be able to understand what the author means with his argument.
    • You can discover which words the author is using in a special way in two main ways:
      • 1) By paying attention to the words that are clearly important to the author.
      • 2) By noticing when the author is using a word that you are having trouble understanding his usage of. When you encounter this you should take a closer look and try and determine what he means by it.
    • Use the context in which the word is being used to determine what an author means by a term.
  • Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
    • The proposition is the fundamental unit of meaning in a sentence.
    • You find the main propositions by finding the key sentences.
    • You find the key sentences by paying extra attention when you come across:
      • Sentences that express judgement.
      • Sentences that you are having difficulties understanding.
      • The sentences the author clearly marks as important — what with punctuation, underlining, or bold typeface.
      • The sentences affirming or denying the main problems of the book.
  • Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
    • Order the propositions so you can perceive the progression of the author’s argument.
      • An argument involves more than one statement.
      • An argument can be inductive or deductive.
      • Be aware of what the author says he must assume and what he must prove.
  • Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as of the latter, decide which the author knew he failed to solve.
    • Did he solve the problem or problems he set out to solve?
    • Did he raise new ones in the process?
    • Did he admit to knowing that he failed to solve some or all of the the problems he set out to solve?
    • If you know the solutions to the problem or problems, you can reasonably say that you understand the book.

That is the core process of analytical reading as outline by Mortimer J. Adler in How to Read A Book. In the book he goes on to give general maxims to criticizing a book, and then discusses syntopical reading — the reading of multiple books towards understanding singular topic (think things like love and progress), but we’ll save the enumeration of those for another time.

When you’re starting out with this process of reading, it will probably break down into three separate read-throughs of the book (otherwise known as the three stages of analytical reading). The first time through you’re figuring out what kind of book it is and what it generally is about. The second time you are seeking to understand the book. And finally, after you can legitimately say that you understand the book, you read through it with the purpose of criticizing it as a communication of knowledge. I’ll cover Adler’s maxims on that last one in my next post.

One thought on “How to Read a Book”

  1. Hello,

    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 all readers, 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:

    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

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