How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, published 1972
“Literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well”
HTRAB seeks to be a remedy for those described above who have read many books but understood little of any of them. As the authors define it, good reading is active reading, that is, it involves note-taking and and highlighting (write in your books to make them truly yours) and question-asking, with the ultimate question being, “What has the author tried to communicate to me and, assuming I’ve understood him, what do I think of what he has said?” A book is an absent teacher– it is ultimately your responsibility to answer on your own and for yourself the questions you might pose to it.
The 4 levels of reading
The authors set out four levels of reading, which are hierarchical in terms of complexity and skill required, and cumulative, in the sense that each level includes the skills and complexity of those below it while adding unique qualities of its own. The levels are:
Elementary reading is exactly what it sounds like, the most basic level of reading that all people learning to read initially experience. At this level of reading, one begins to comprehend the letters and words they form as being connected to or representative of concepts, actions, etc. Unfortunately, at this level of reading, comprehension doesn’t go much beyond this and even more tragically, few readers ever seem to graduate beyond this level, even during and after time spent in college. For elementary readers, books are full of words one must step and stumble over, but little meaning is ever found in them.
Inspectional reading is the beginning of true “reading for understanding”, which is the kind of reading HTRAB is primarily focused on. Inspectional reading is both a level of sophistication and a specific tool that can be used to heighten overall understanding and reading skill for one who “reads well.” It is a skill in the sense that an inspectional reader is able to draw out of a book its essential meaning and something about the way in which the author goes about it (as opposed to an elementary reader, who never quite gets that far, missing the meaning forest for the crowd of symbolic trees). It is a specific tool in that inspectional reading entails a deliberate process by which a reader examines the preface and introductory material of the book (or the first few pages) and the conclusion or epilogue (or last few pages) in detail, surveys the table of contents (if available) and index to get a feel for the overall structure, order and topics covered in the book and then jumps around at random through the middle of the book reading passages and pages of interest that appear to be central to the author’s theme and argument. In this way, an inspectional reader quickly learns what the book is about, how the author goes about elaborating upon it and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not it’s a message and artifice worthy of the readers attention and time.
Without this process, or at a minimum, familiarizing oneself with the table of contents, a reader who starts at the first page and tries to plow through is only making his reading more challenging because he is attempting to learn what he is attempting to understand (the topic and structure), at the same time that he is trying to understand it.
The three primary questions answered by an inspectional (summary) reading are:
- What kind of book is it?
- What is it about as a whole?
- What is the structural order of the work whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?
Tools to prepare you for reading well
The authors suggest four essential questions to be asked by an active reader:
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true, in whole or in part?
- What of it?
These are questions the reader should have always in the back of his mind as he reads, and which he should be able to answer confidently by the time he finishes.
The authors also recommend several techniques for “making a book your own”:
- Underline major points and forceful statements
- Make vertical lines in the margins for passages worthy of quoting at length
- Stars, asterisks or other markings in the margins where the ten or twelve most critical points are made throughout the book
- Numbers in the margin to catalog the points of an argument being made sequentially
- Numbers of other pages in the margin indicating where in the text an idea is revisited or referenced
- Circling of key words or phrases, similar to underlining
- Writing in the margin or top or bottom of the page or at the end of a chapter as endnotes, to record questions (and answers), a simplified thesis of what you have read or to catalog a sequential argument in concentrated form
Several other techniques and methods are discussed in HTRAB which are critical to reading well. One is to study the title of the book and learn what you can from it. Authors usually take care in naming their books and the titles give significant clues about what the book is and is not about. Another is to practice stating the unity of the book– in a sentence or a paragraph at most, explain what kind of book it is, what it is about and list the devices the author employs to explore that theme. A final tool is to keep in mind the author’s intentions at all times– every book is written ostensibly to solve a problem, which the book is supposed to be a solution for, which begs the questions, “What is the problem the author wanted to solve by writing his book?” and “What solution does he offer to the problem in writing his book?”
The process of analytical reading
The third level of reading, and the most critical for all who wish to learn to read well, is the analytical level. At the analytical level, the primary intention of the reader is to be thorough, complete and to read for understanding. Some of the tools previously discussed are, in fact, part of the analytical reading toolkit. In total, the process or “rules” for analytical reading are:
- Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
- State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
- Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
- Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve
- Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
- Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
- Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
- Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed
- Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book (do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say, “I understand.”)
- Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
- Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make
- For criticism, special criteria apply such as: show wherein the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete
I made a note of some other helpful tips for reading well analytically:
- the important words (in the sense of being critical to the author’s argument) are the one’s that give you the most trouble
- one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it
- if you never ask yourself any questions about a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you insights you did not already possess
- it is best to do all you can without outside help because if you act on this principle consistently you will find you need less and less of it (and take more and more from your reading)
Bringing it all together: syntopical reading
Syntopical reading is the reading of multiple books, with similar topics, in order to synthesize a “conversation” amongst and between the authors. The beauty of this method of reading is it allows one to pit perspectives and arguments from differing backgrounds and even differing time periods into one intellectual commons. It also allows the reader to get a “full measure” of the literary world’s treatment of a given subject. It can be performed by either multi-inspectional reading of various titles, or multi-analytical reading of those same titles.
The steps of a successful syntopical reading are:
- Creative a tentative bibliography of your subject
- Inspect all of the books in the bibliography to ensure they’re germane and to get a clearer perspective of the subject itself
- Inspect the books amassed to find the most relevant passages to the subject matter
- Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology that all authors can be assumed to agree with, even if they didn’t employ such terminology themselves
- Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted to have provided answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not
- Define the issues, major and minor, by lining up the authors’ respective viewpoints on one side or another
- Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues so as to throw maximum light on the subject
Despite my efforts at being analytical, this review was something of an inspectional survey itself. One thing I took away from my reading is that I do a lot of the things mentioned in the analytical reading process, although I actually neglect a lot of the inspectional reading elements and now realize their value. The reading also confirmed some of my biases by throwing into stark relief the inadequacies of many other people’s reading efforts I am aware of, either from direct personal experience or via interaction with their “interpretations” of ideas gleaned from things they have read. It is somewhat dismaying to realize how few intellectual opponents would qualify as “well read” analytical book users, and how inadequate their attempts at criticism are in light of this. One would be more satisfied to think one’s opponents were both more competent, and more honest, than that.
At the end of HTRAB, the authors provide a number of special tips for the reading of specific kinds of works (poems and plays, history, social science, hard science and math, etc.), as well as a bibliography of “great books” (similar to that found here) and a short essay on what reading well can do for an individual. Aside from the hopefully true suggestion that the mind-exercise provided by reading well can actually help one sustain the vitality and quality of their life even into old age, the discussion of the growing relationship one can develop with truly “great” books is comforting, as well. I think for me personally this passage resonated because of my own experiences reading what I refer to as “acts of philosophy” even when their subject matter is not philosophy per se (endlessly re-readable books like Security Analysis and Human Action which seem to give up new secrets and ideas with each new pass through).
Despite my epistemological misgivings about HTRAB (for example, could HTRAB, in and of itself, assist a person currently capable of nothing more than elementary reading to rise above themselves?), I do believe it itself is a title worth revisiting in the future. My first foray amongst its pages was admittedly quick and inspectional, and there were many passages I will admit I skipped just so I could get to the end and get this up on my blog. It may or may not be a “great” book (I believe I will suspend judgment on that for now), it is undoubtedly a “good” book with much to recommend it and I would encourage anyone who is interested, as well as my future self, to pick it up and give it a read.