While reorganizing my books recently, I reread Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972) and, the author of its original version’s (Adler in 1940) being a co-author of The Great Ideas Program, decided to recommend it here.
The back cover of How to Read a Book describes its contents thus:
“You are told about the various levels of reading and how to achieve them‒from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. You are told how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science.
“Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list [of works in Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books] and supply reading tests [on works included in Great Books of the Western World] whereby you can measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension and speed.”
Here I’ll just distinguish between the four levels of reading identified in How to Read a Book and summarize the steps the authors recommend taking in the third level of reading, analytical reading. I won’t consider approaches to the different kinds of reading matter identified above or duplicate the reading list and reading tests.
Adler and Van Doren call the first level of reading Elementary Reading because it is ordinarily learned in elementary school. It could also be called rudimentary reading, basic reading, or initial reading. It includes at least these four stages: reading readiness (acquired in pre-school and kindergarten experiences), learning to read very simple materials (typically acquired in first grade), a stage characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context skills (typically acquired by the end of fourth grade), and mature reading characterized by refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired (typically acquired by the end of elementary or junior high school). The question asked of the reader at this level of reading is “What does the sentence or paragraph say?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 3 to this level of reading.
Adler and Van Doren call the second level of reading Inspectional Reading. It could also be called skimming or pre-reading because it begins with systematically skimming or pre-reading the book, but it also includes a superficial reading of the book, a reading through it without stopping to look up or ponder what the reader doesn’t understand right away. Its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time, usually a relatively short time and always too short a time to get everything out of a book that can be gotten. Questions typically asked at this level are “What is the book about?” and “What are its parts?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 4 to this level of reading.
Before proceeding to consideration of the next level of reading, Adler and Van Doren give some tips on becoming a demanding reader. They identify four questions a reader must ask about any book: 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? and What of it? They suggest several ways a reader can mark a book to make it his or her own, such as underlining major points and important or forceful statements. They describe three kinds of the notes a reader will make in and about books‒structural in inspectional reading, conceptual in analytical reading, and dialetical in synoptical reading. And they encourage readers to form the habit of reading because “one learns to do by doing” (How to Read a Book, page 53). These tips constitute Chapter 5 of How to Read a Book.
Adler and Van Doren call the third level of reading Analytical Reading. They devote two or three chapters to each of the three stages of analytical reading identified by them, and they conclude their consideration of the level by summarizing the rules for analytical reading that they presented in those chapters:
The First Stage…Rules for Finding Out What a Book Is About
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. [Chapter 6]
2. Select what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. [Chapter 7]
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. [Chapter 7]
4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. [Chapter 7]
The Second Stage…Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. [Chapter 8]
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions b dealing with his most important sentences. [Chapter 9]
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. [Chapter 9]
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. [Chapter 9]
The Third Stage…Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. [Chapter 10]
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. [Chapter 10]
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. [Chapter 11]
12-15. Show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical and wherein his analysis or account is incomplete. [Chapter 12]
The above rules concern reading a book in itself without reference to other books. However Adler and Van Doren recognize that sometimes reference to other books is necessary for full understanding of a book. Thus in Chapter 13 of How to Read a Book they discuss these aids to reading: relevant experiences, other books (especially the so-called great books), commentaries and abstracts, and reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. They recommend “that outside help should be sought whenever a book remains unintelligible to you, either in whole or in part, after you have done your best to read it according to the rules of intrinsic reading” (How to Read a Book, page 169).
Adler and Van Doren identify the fourth level of reading as Synoptical Reading. Although it could also be called comparative reading because it involves reading many books and placing them in relation to each other and to a subject about which they all revolve, it involves more than mere comparison of texts, its also enabling the reader to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. Before doing a project of synoptical reading, the reader must know that more than one book is relevant to a particular question and know which books should be read, thus creating a bibliography. Then the reader should inspect (skim or pre-read) all the books in the bibliography, giving him or her a clear enough idea of his or subject to make analytical reading of some of the books worthwhile and allowing him or her to cut down the bibliography to a more manageable size. Adler and Van Doren identify and discuss five steps in synoptical reading: finding the relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms, get the questions clear, define the issues, and analyze the discussion. How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 20 to this level of reading.
Adler and Van Doren conclude the body of How to Read a Book by considering what good books can do for us.
“A good book [rewards] you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second‒and this in the long run is much more important‒a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable‒books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” (How to Read a Good Book, page 341)
That’s one of my reasons for rereading Great Books of the Western World, or at least those parts of it discussed in The Great Ideas Program. The other is to provide me with a foundation for sharing my love of good books with my family and friends through Bob’s Corner.