How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
Mortimer J. Adler

The Art of Reading

Reading is about expanding your mind and developing a deeper understanding of something. It's not about memorizing a bunch of facts and playing back other people's opinions like a tape recorder. In fact, too many facts can hinder understanding.

Active Reading Means Exerting Effort

Active reading means exerting effort. In general, the more effort the better. Being a skilled reader is about catching every kind of communication the author throws at you.

As you're reading a book, ask yourself four basic questions:

  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?
  4. What's the importance of it?

Reading for Information vs. Reading for Understanding

Think about what goal you have for reading a book – is it about understanding, or simply about gaining information?

If you understand everything the author is communicating, you may only have gained information, not increased your understanding.

Adler defines the art of reading as passing from a state of understanding less to understanding more.

When you first start learning about a subject, the author is in a position of superiority. Your job as a reader is to overcome this inequality.

The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer.

The Levels of Reading

Elementary Reading

This is what most of us learn to do while we're quite young. Unfortunately, we never learn the more advanced levels.

Inspectional Reading

At this stage, we're trying to get a superficial understanding of the book. What is it about, what is the structure, what are its parts?

We should always start with inspectional reading. Otherwise we face the challenge of trying to get a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time we're trying to understand it.

Systematic skimming (or pre-reading)

  1. Study the table of contents – think of it like a road map.
  2. Read the publishers blurb - can be a good summary
  3. Look at the chapters that seem pivotal to the author's argument
  4. Read bits and pieces (a paragraph or two, but no more than a couple pages)

At this stage, you're like a detective looking for clues. You'll also understand if the book is worthy of your time or not.

Superficial reading

When you're reading a difficult book, read it through without stopping. You'll be better prepared for a more in-depth reading. And even understanding half of a difficult book is better than none of it.

Our point is really very simple. Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.

How to Make a Book Your Own

  1. Underlining the major points
  2. Vertical lines at the margin - to emphasize statements or for passages that are too long to underline
  3. Star, asterisk, or other doodad at the margin (sparingly). Do this for the ten or so most important parts of a book (you can also fold a corner on such pages).
  4. Numbers in the margin to show a series of points.
  5. Circle key words or phrases.
  6. Writing in the margin or top/bottom of the page to record questions or as a short summary.

You can also make a personal index of the author's points at the back of the book. After you're done, you can also try to create an outline.

Rules of Analytical Reading

Rule 1: Know what kind of book you're reading (as early as possible)

  • Practical book – teaches you how to do something (or how to live)
  • Theoretical book – teach you something is the case

Rule 2: State the unity in a single sentence (or at most, a short paragraph)

The reader who says, “I know what it is, but I just can’t say it,” probably does not even fool himself.

There are really only a small number of plots in the world. The author's job is to dress up the bare bones.

The plot of Tom Jones, for instance, can be reduced to the familiar formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.

Scientific and philosophical books are not trying to keep you in suspense – they will typically summarize themselves very early on.

Rule 3: Show how the major parts of the book are organized and fit together

Think of a book is like a mansion with many rooms – rooms with different sizes, different uses. You should be able to sketch out how it's organized.

Good readers do this intuitively. You may only want to create a detailed outline for a select few books, for the rest you can be satisfied with a rough notion of the book's structure.

Rule 4: Find out what the author's problems were

What is the key question (or set of questions) they were trying to answer? But beware of the intentional fallacy.

Rule 5: Find the important words and come to terms with the author

Language is an imperfect medium for conveying knowledge. This can be an obstacle. Receiving the author's communication means using the same words with the same meaning.

The most important words are the ones that give you trouble. Use the context of surrounding words to try to uncover the meaning.

You will find that your comprehension of any book will be enormously increased if you only go to the trouble of finding its important words, identifying their shifting meanings, and coming to terms. Seldom does such a small change in a habit have such a large effect.

Rule 6: Mark the most important sentences and discover the propositions

Sentences are grammatical units. Propositions are logical units. They answer questions and convey knowledge or opinion.

Never assume a one-to-one relationship between language and propositions.

Rule 7: Locate the basic arguments in connecting sentences

An essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.

Pause on the sentences that trouble you – not the ones that interest you.

To test your understanding, you should be able to state it in your own words. Make it personal by relating the propositions to your own life. Any good argument can be put into a nutshell.

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

Find out which of the author's problems they have solved. If any have not been solved, do they recognize this?

Rule 9: Seek first to understand before criticizing the book

Disagreeing without understanding is a form of disrespect. On the flip side, agreeing without understanding is silly.

Saying "I don't understand" can be a form of criticism, but only after you have tried your best to understand.

Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonably

You win only by gaining knowledge, not knocking someone down.

Seeking agreement is the highest form of intelligence. It's our emotions that casues us to seek disagreement.

Rule 11: Respect the difference between knowledge and opinion

Present good reasons for any opinion you have made.

You can disagree by saying:

  1. You are uninformed
  2. You are misinformed..
  3. You are illogical.
  4. Your analysis is incomplete.
© 2023 Mike Fiorillo
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