1. Open book.
2. Read words.
3. Close book.
4. Move on to next book.
Reading a book seems like a pretty straightforward task, doesn’t it? And in some cases, it is. If you’re reading purely for entertainment or leisure, it certainly can be that easy. There’s another kind of reading, though, in which we at least attempt to glean something of value from the book in our hands (whether in paper or tablet form). In that instance, you might be surprised to learn that it’s not as simple as opening the book and reading the words.
Why Do We Need Instructions on How to Read a Book?
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” –Francis Bacon
In 1940, Mortimer Adler wrote the first edition of what is now considered a classic of education, How to Read a Book. There have been subsequent editions that contain great information, but the bulk of what we’ll be covering today is from Adler’s words of advice from nearly 75 years ago.
He states that there are four types of reading:
- Elementary – This is just what it sounds like. It’s what we learn in elementary school and basically gets us to the point that we can understand the words on a page and read them, and follow a basic plot or line of understanding, but not much more.
- Inspectional – This is basically skimming. You look at the highlights, read the beginning and end, and try to pick up as much as you can about what the author is trying to say. I’ll bet you did plenty of this with high school reading assignments; I know I did. Think of SparkNotes when you think of inspectional reading.
- Analytical – This is where you really dive into a text. You read slowly and closely, you take notes, you look up words or references you don’t understand, and you try to get into the author’s head in order to be able to really get what’s being said.
- Syntopical – This is mostly used by writers and professors. It’s where you read multiple books on a single subject and form a thesis or original thought by comparing and contrasting various other authors’ thoughts. This is time and research intensive, and it’s not likely that you’ll do this type of reading very much after college, unless your profession or hobby calls for it.
This post will cover inspectional and analytical reading, and we’ll focus mostly on analytical. If you’re reading this blog, you likely have mastered the elementary level. Inspectional reading is still useful, especially when trying to learn new things quickly, or if you’re just trying to get the gist of what something is about. I won’t cover syntopical reading in this post, as it’s just not used much by Average Joe Reader.
Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels. This is where most popular fiction actually falls. For men, think Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Louis L’Amour, etc. These are books that are incredibly entertaining, and a great way to spend a weekend afternoon, but if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t challenge either our minds or manliness all that much. There are some fine examples of manhood in those characters to be sure, but the point is that you won’t get more out of reading them once than you will out of reading them five times. It’s also why these are the types of books that are always on the bestseller lists — they cater to the level that most Americans can actually read at.
How come people can’t read at a higher level? Are we a society full of dopes? Hardly. Adler argues that the reason actually lies in our education. Once we reach the point of elementary reading, it’s assumed that we can now read. And to a point, we can. But we never actually learn how to digest or critique a book. So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.
That’s our task today with this post. Again, I’ll mostly cover analytical reading, but I’ll also touch on inspectional reading, and a couple other related tidbits as well.
As mentioned above, there are certainly times when inspectional reading is appropriate. It’s particularly useful when you’re at the bookstore trying to pick out your next book and deciding if the unknown object in front of you is worth the dough. (The good news is that you can also do this with ebooks — in most cases you can scan the cover, the table of contents, the introduction, etc. before actually buying.) This type of reading is also handy when trying to learn new things quickly, or when you’re just trying to get the gist of something. It’s great for the kind of reading you should be doing to stay current in your career as well; books related to a certain industry can often be full of fluff and chapters that just don’t apply to your particular job, and inspectional reading lets you glean the things that are actually helpful without wasting time on irrelevant material.
You can often get a pretty good feel for a book with inspectional reading by following the steps below. (To get the most out of this, you can actually follow along with a book off your shelf — it will only take 5-10 minutes.):
- Read the title and look at the front and back covers of the book. This seems obvious, but if you pay attention, you can glean much more than you would have originally thought from just the cover of the book. What’s the title? Spend 10 seconds thinking about the title and subtitles. What is it telling you? We often glance over titles, but they often offer deep insight into the meaning of the book. I think of some of the classics I’ve recently read, The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, even Frankenstein. There’s more to these titles than meets the eye. In that last example, I’m told that the book is really more about Victor Frankenstein than about the monster he creates. It’s more about his human character than about horror. Are there images on the cover? What could those images be conveying? An incredible amount of time and money goes into cover art, so don’t neglect it. What does the blurb on the back of the book say? We often quickly scan these, but if we’re paying attention, they give us a great, succinct plot that often reveals what the book is truly about. Now it should be said that sometimes titles, cover art, and blurbs are designed more for marketing and increasing sales than they are about accurately conveying the ideas of the book, but they can usually still provide us with valuable clues as to the book’s content.
- Pay special attention to the first pages of the book: the table of contents, the preface, the prologue, etc. These are incredibly useful pages. The table of contents will give you an outline of the entire book, which with non-fiction can tell you much of what you need to know right there. It’s a little harder with fiction, and many novels don’t have a table of contents, but take advantage of the ones that do. Especially with novels that are considered classics, you’ll often get all kinds of introductions and prefaces. For instance, my 50th anniversary one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings has a very detailed three-page table of contents. That’s followed by a “Note on the Text” that gives me a bit of its publishing history and Tolkien’s process in writing. I then have a “Note on the 50th Anniversary Edition” that tells me that certain changes were made using Tolkien’s notes and journals. There’s then a foreword from Tolkien himself that tells a little bit of his own purpose in writing. And then I get to the prologue, which is part of the book itself. Even reading just the first sentence tells me, roughly, what the entire series is about: “The book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.”
- For non-fiction, skim headings and read the concluding chapter. The headings will actually often tell you the bulk of what you need to know of any non-fiction book. The text beneath the headings is often just fleshing out that main thought or theme. You can also read the conclusion to get a feel for what the author thought the main purpose or point of the book was. This is a little harder with fiction, as you don’t often get much for headings (outside of chapter titles), and at least for me, I certainly don’t want to know the end of the book. Although, I do know a fair amount of people who do; I still don’t understand that.
- Consider reading some reviews of the book. Your most likely destination will be Amazon. Often the top-rated review on Amazon offers a lot of information about the book – a summary and/or some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, you also have to take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt. Some negative reviews are from people who perhaps read a chapter and didn’t like something (see below regarding how to critique a book), or didn’t read the book at all! And sometimes people simply have an axe to grind against the author and are trying to “sabotage” them. And sadly when it comes to positive reviews, authors and publishers these days will sometimes pay for fake reviews of the book (a good clue for this is a whole boatload of 5-star reviews posted on the very same day/week the book is released). So look at the aggregate rating the book has received, then read a few 5-star, 3-star, and 1-star reviews and evaluate their credibility in order to get a better overall sense of the quality of the book.
You don’t need to do this type of reading for just anything. Only undertake it if you really want to get the most out of the book in front of you. Even Adler mentioned that not every book deserves this thorough treatment. But, many do. To read a great book and simply throw it back on the shelf to collect dust is in many ways a waste. The tips below apply to both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ll note where something may differ.
Let’s find out how to get the most out of what we read:
First, look up a bit about the author and the other books he/she has written.
New York: Touchstone, 1940, rev. ed. 1972. 426 pgs.
By David A. Tomar
People don’t read anymore, at least not like they used to. Universal primary education combine with texting and social media to ensure that most people read at a basic level but no further. Attention spans and critical thought flop around feebly like fish out of water because even as the breadth of literacy is wide as the ocean, its depth is a shallow puddle.
How to Read a Book:
The Classic Guide to
by Mortimer Adler &
Charles Van Doren
This shallow seascape underscores precisely the reason we need texts like How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Reading enthusiasts, scholars, and even casual fans of the written word are all liable to read important and thought-provoking books, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to read such books. This book is a how-to manual for intelligent, ambitious, or otherwise serious reading. This text won’t force readers out of the shallow end—only the readers themselves can choose to do that—but it will show them how to dive deep if they dare.
The authors, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, are accomplished writers with a litany of education books to their credit. They are also the major brains behind the “Great Books of the Western World” series (54 vols.; 1952), and serve as general editors at Encyclopedia Britannica. This book reflects the shared wisdom and counsel of two of the most influential educators of the 20th century. It’s no surprise that this book is widely considered a masterpiece, an unusual distinction for a practical academic text. It’s a #1 bestseller on Amazon and appears on other essential lists like Brainpickings.org and Goodreads.com. It’s also required reading at many classical schools and universities.
How to Read a Book is like a stepping stool designed to help people reach a higher shelf in the library. Above the children’s books and the pop fiction and magazine aisles, one can find upper-level books whose comprehension requires more than elementary skill. This text is not about how to understand words written on a page, but about how to read a specific type of book, the kind with heft and significance than. More specifically, it is a guide to intelligent reading. The authors presume their audience is literate, at least at an elementary level. This book is written to raise the reader up to a more serious, mature level of literacy.
The text of this book is divided into four sections, not including the preface (5 pgs.) or appendices (74 pgs.).
Part 1, The Dimensions of Reading (pgs. 1-58), surveys the reading levels and describes how to do elementary and inspectional reading.
Part 2, The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading (pgs. 59-190), is probably the most important section of the book as it describes in meticulous detail how to thoroughly analyze a book by effectively mastering its content.
Part 3, Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading (pgs. 191-305), lays out reading strategies for different types of writing, including practical books, imaginative literature, stories, plays & poems, history, science & math, philosophy and social science.
Part 4, The Ultimate Goals of Reading (pgs. 306-346), covers the fourth level of reading (Syntopical Reading) and waxes eloquent in the final chapter, “Reading and the Growth of the Mind.”
Appendix A, A Recommended Reading List (pgs. 347-362), indexes the author’s personal “Great Books list.” Appendix B, Exercises and Tests at the Four Levels of Reading (pgs. 363-419), is a teaching aid for instructors who might implement the Adler-Van Doren reading principles in their respective classrooms.
Adler and Van Doren write in a systematic, clear, and somewhat dry style, but since this is a practical book (as opposed to a theoretical book), it’s true merit is in its usefulness. In that regard, this book succeeds in doing exactly what it promises. It equips readers with operating guidelines for higher-level reading. But don’t expect a “barn-burner.” Adler and Van Doren’s strength—in this book—is not in bright, colorful language or narrative styling, but in their clarity, rigor, and insightfulness.
Most of the book is consumed with outlining principles for different levels and styles of reading. But interspersed throughout are different satisfying insights like:
- “We must know how to make books teach us well.” (pg. 15)
- ”There are only a small number of plots in the world.” (pg. 79)
- “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it.” (pg. 49)
- “You must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying.” (pg. 242)
- “If the book belongs to the highest class—the very small number of inexhaustible books—you discover on returning that the book seems to have grown with you.” (pg. 343)
In some ways, this book is a hard read. Keep in mind that the authors are encyclopedists by trade. Their patient and thorough attention to details can set a slow intellectual pace. Fortunately, the authors use lots of numbered lists and clear outlining, allowing for quick skimming and easy review. Adler and Van Doren are coaching adult-level reading skill, but rightly use elementary and intermediate language as their vehicle. The text is largely comprised of short sentences, lay terminology, and otherwise accessible language. This book is not a hard read in that sense. But it is meticulous in its instruction.
When reading this book, one gets the impression that Adler and Van Doren are privy to the secret inner machinations of education. While the rest of us are skimming and scanning subjects to gather surface level information, Adler and Van Doren are peeling back layers, exposing the machinery underneath the learning process. They aren’t just reading books, or writing about books. They write about how to read books. And when they write, it’s not just a free-flowing imaginative essay on their romantic dance with literature. They set forth teachable and actionable steps or instruction manuals on how the machinery of reading works. And like any instruction manual, the reader can apply its principles making that same machine for themselves. For example, their outline of analytic reading, rendered verbatim below, would be right at home as a laminated posterboard on a classroom wall.
The authors embrace their place as educators, by reviewing their lessons at the end of each chapter. The result is a user-friendly text tailor-made for instructional use.
Now, to be fair, even when Adler and Van Doren are given their due respect as heavyweights in the philosophy of education, they do reflect their era. The preface and first chapter could use some updating with the latest discoveries in reading education. And a few pages or an appendix critiquing the speed-reading craze would be wonderful. Also, the book could use a chapter on how to read religious/theological literature. Furthermore, their penchant for systematization can seem simplistic. Books don’t always submit to the neat clean labels that Adler and Van Doren use, nor will all their recommended rules work in every case. Plus, Adler and Van Doren’s clear, consistent explanations aren’t themselves proof that their system is altogether correct, or that that the Adler-VanDoren reading method is the only or even the best way to read at these higher levels.
This book is merely an explanation of their recommendations for higher-level reading. The real test for practical books is practice. And in that regard, this book passes with flying colors. Each of the reading rules proposed has proven vital in my own studies spanning elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical levels of reading. Their explanations and justifications are fair and reasonable. And when applied adroitly for one’s own needs, this book can be an invaluable tool for serious readers.
Educators have a lot of options with this book, but it is not without its drawbacks. While it is (or should be) required reading for English teachers and reading teachers, it isn’t as universally suited for their students. The book is thick, at 426 pgs, and it’s narrow enough and “top shelf” enough to be poorly suited to elementary level readers. It simply isn’t aimed at the basic or intermediate literacy levels.
For students just entering adult-level reading, How to Read a Book is quite helpful when used correctly. For these students, the book can be sampled into excerpts and outlines.
Overall, How to Read a Book can be considered a classic in its field and an important part of any serious adult-level reading program. In the ocean-wide, puddle-deep lake of literacy, Adler and Van Doren chart a course to the deep end.