Summary of How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is a classic guide on the art of reading. It not only explains why reading is important but also provides techniques for deriving the most value from the written word.
1. The levels of reading
• Elementary Reading: Basic ability to read the written word, typically taught in elementary schools.
• Inspectional Reading: Skimming or superficial reading. The aim is to get the most out of a book within a limited time frame.
• Analytical Reading: A more thorough and systematic way of reading. The goal is to truly understand the content, arguments, and structure of the book.
• Syntopical Reading: Reading multiple books on the same topic and comparing them. This is the most complex reading level, requiring the reader to construct an analysis that might not be present in any of the books. We call it syntopic processing
2. The art of skimming
Skimming helps a reader quickly understand a book’s main points or structure. Adler provides techniques for this, like reading the table of contents, checking the index, or reading the opening and closing chapters.
3. Reading actively
Adler emphasizes active engagement with the material. This means asking questions, taking notes, and mentally arguing with the author.
4. Deepening understanding
When reading analytically, one should understand the book’s main thesis, the arguments presented, and the structure in which ideas are presented. The reader should also be able to criticize a book, recognizing where the author is unclear, too complex, or possibly incorrect.
5. Reading different kinds of books
Different types of books require different approaches. For example, reading a novel differs from reading a textbook or a historical analysis. Adler provides guidelines for reading various genres, including fiction, history, science, philosophy, and social sciences.
6. Syntopical reading
This is a process of reading multiple works on the same subject and comparing and contrasting their views. It involves identifying relevant passages, translating terms and concepts, framing questions to be answered, and analyzing the discussion to present an informed view of the topic. In our spd rdng system, we call this technique syntopic processing (syntopic = synthesis of topics) and we think it’s one of the best techniques to work with several texts simultaneously to synthesise the findings.
7. The ultimate goals of reading
Adler argues that reading has two main goals: increasing knowledge and gaining insight. Through these processes, one can grow in understanding and wisdom.
In summary, “How to Read a Book” is a comprehensive guide that offers techniques to enhance the reading experience and maximise the acquisition of knowledge. It emphasizes the importance of being an active reader and engaging critically and thoughtfully with texts.