REVIEW - How to Read a Book


How to Read a Book


Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren


Simon and Schuster (1972)




Ian Bruntlett


April 2014



Reviewed: July 2013

First an acknowledgement, On 1st April, on the accu-general mailing list, Huw Lloyd recommended this book. I ordered it and commenced devouring it armed with note paper, a pencil and a highlighter pen. This book is in four parts and I will deal with them in turn.

Part 1, ‘The dimensions of reading’ discusses the basics of reading – why do we do it? And ‘How do we do it?’. There are different stages of reading, the first being Elemental Reading. The second, (the two types of) Inspectional Reading. The first type is systematic reading, the second type is superficial reading. The general idea is that we read different genres of books differently and the level of concentration and study suitable for one work will be inappropriate for another. The final chapter, ‘How to be a demanding reader’ introduces the Essence of Active Reading as four basic questions that a reader should ask (in differing forms) about a book being read. They are: 1) What is the book about as a whole? 2) What is being said in detail, and how? 3) Is the book true in whole or part? And 4) What of it? (is the book significant?).

Part 2 is ‘The third level of reading: Analytical reading’. The first rule is that you must know what kind of book you are reading and to adapt your reading style accordingly. The second rule is that you must be able to summarise the book in a couple of sentences. Rule three is more demanding of the reader and the book – identify the major parts of the book, how they interact with one another and how they, together, create a greater whole. Rule 6 is introduced here – ‘Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain’. It mentions Intrinsic Reading (reading a book quite apart from other books) and Extrinsic Reading (reading a book as part of a collection of related books).

Part 3, ‘Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter’ was extremely rewarding to read. To summarise, it covers, practical books, imaginative literature, stories, plays and poems, History, Science and Mathematics, Philosophy and Social Science.

Part 4 is ‘The ultimate goals of reading’. This seems a strange title to me. However, the contents are still interesting. It introduces the 4th level of Reading – Syntopical reading which is an approach to take when reading different books on the same topic.

Appendix A provides the reader with a recommended reading list. Appendix B Exercises and tests can be used by the reader to see if they have grasped the concepts in this book.

If this review hasn’t answered the question ‘Shall I read this book?’, look up ‘How to read a book’ on Wikipedia.

The bulk of the book (excluding appendices and index) consumes 346 pages. If you have time to read it and you intend to read broadly and not just within your own field, I recommend this book.

Book cover image courtesy of Open Library.

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