How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler
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Short Summary

A 1940 classic that is the best and most comprehensive guide to the art of reading. It explores the four levels of reading and how to achieve them.

Favorite Quote

"Good 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 up to their level."

—Mortimer J. Adler

Book Notes

The Art of Reading

There are three possible goals for reading. You're either reading for information, reading for understanding, or reading for entertainment.

Reading for Information occurs when you read newspapers, magazines, or online articles. The content you consume may increase your store of information or affect your emotional state, but it doesn't improve your understanding of the material.

Reading for Understanding requires reading material that is initially "superior" to your level of knowledge. There is an inequality in understanding between the writer and reader, but the content is clearly communicated. It's up to you to overcome the inequality in understanding to learn something.

Reading for Entertainment is self-explanatory. It's the least demanding kind of reading, so it requires the least amount of effort. Anyone who knows how to read already knows how to read for entertainment.

Since this book is a guide to intelligent reading, it will focus on improving your skill of reading for understanding. Reading to learn can be achieved in two different ways: learning by instruction or learning by discovery.

Learning by Instruction occurs when one person teaches another person through speech or writing. You're acting on something being communicated to you.

Learning by Discovery is the process of learning something through research, investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.

The art of reading includes all of the same skills involved in learning by discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

If you want to keep learning and discovering, you must know how to make books teach you. There is no limit to the growth and development your mind can sustain once you master the four levels of reading.

The Levels of Reading

There are four levels of reading. They're called levels because each one builds on the one before it. They are:

  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading
  4. Syntopical Reading

Elementary Reading

Also known as initial reading; it's learning the basics of reading. It's learning how to read the words on a page and understanding basic grammar and syntax.

Most people achieve this level of reading in elementary school (hence the name). At this level, the reader asks, "What does this sentence say?"

Inspectional Reading

Characterized by its special emphasis on time, Inspectional Reading is about getting the most out of a book in a given time, often by skimming or pre-reading.

Your aim is to discover whether the book is worth a more careful reading. At this level, the reader asks, "What is this book about?"

Here are some tips on how to skim a book:

  1. Read the title page and preface to get a good idea of the book's subject
  2. Study the table of contents to get a general sense of the book's structure
  3. Check the index to make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered
  4. Read the publisher's blurb on the back (if there is one)
  5. Read the chapter summary statements (if there are any)
  6. Dip in and out of the book reading a paragraph or two to get a sense of the author's style and argument

While skimming is useful for getting the gist of a book, speed reading is a dubious achievement. It's only valuable if you have to read a book that's not really worth reading. Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.

Reading should also be a conversation between you and the author. Marking up a book is an expression of your differences and agreements with the author. There are all kinds of devices you can use for marking up a book intelligently:

  • Underlining
  • Lines at the margin
  • Star, asterisk, or other symbol at the margin
  • Numbers in the margin
  • Numbers of other pages in the margin
  • Circling of key words or phrases
  • Writing at the top or bottom of the page

But getting the most out of a book doesn't stop at marking it up. You also want to take notes to help answer any questions you have. The best place for taking notes are on the page or title page.

There are three kinds of notes you can make:

  1. Structural Notes—Concerned with the structure, not the substance, of a book.
  2. Conceptual Notes—For answering questions about the truth and significance of a book. They are concerned with the author's concepts as well as your own.
  3. Dialectical Notes—Concerned about the shape of the discussion covered by serveral books. Because these notes span several books, they should be recorded in a separate notebook.

Analytical Reading

The best and most complete reading you can do given unlimited time. It requires asking questions about the contents you're reading for the sake of understanding. Specifically, there are four questions you should ask any book:

  1. What is the book about?
  2. What is being said, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
  4. What of it?

There are 11 rules to analytical reading, which will help you answer the four questions. The first four rules make up the first stage of analytical reading, which is concerned with answering: "What is the book about?"

Rule 1: Know what kind of book you're reading, preferably before reading it. Most of this should be covered with inspectional reading.

Rule 2: State what the book is about in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences. The purpose is to discover its theme and main point.

Rule 3: Outline the book. The best books have the most intelligible structure, although they're usually more complex than poorer books.

Rule 4: Find out what the author's problems were. You want to discover the author's intentions for writing the book.

The next four rules make up the second stage of analytical reading, which is concerned with answering: "What is being said, and how?"

Rule 5: Determine the author's key words. These are often the words that give you the most trouble.

Rule 6: Determine what the author is proposing by discovering their most important sentences.

Rule 7: Locate or construct the basic arguments of the book. Ideally, you should be able to state the author's argument in your own words. If you can't, then you do not fully understand their argument.

Rule 8: Find out what the author's solutions are.

The last three rules make up the third and final stage, which is concerned with answering the remaining questions: "Is the book true, in whole or in part?" and if so, "What of it?"

Rule 9: Do not criticize a book until you fully understand it. Do not say you agree or disagree until you can say, "I understand."

Rule 10: If you disagree with the author, do so reasonably.

Rule 11: Give reasons for any critical judgment you make. Recognize the difference between knowledge and opinion when presenting your judgments.

Syntopical Reading

Also known as comparative reading, this is the highest level of reading you can achieve. You read many books on the same (or similar) subject and construct an analysis of said subject. Syntopical reading has five steps:

Step 1: Find the most relevant passages for your concerns.

Step 2: Establish the terms, and bring the authors to them. Force an author to use your language, rather than using theirs.

Step 3: Make the question you are solving for clear. Frame a set of questions that shed light on your problem while allowing each author to answer.

Step 4: Define the issues between the authors.

Step 5: Analyze the discussion. You want to identify and report the major issues or oppositions through a lens of objectivity. Look at all sides of the argument but take no sides.

Reading for Growth

If you're reading to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are over your head.

A good book rewards you for trying to read it. It rewards you in two ways: by improving your reading skills and by teaching you about the world and yourself. It also serves to keep your mind alive and growing.