How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren


How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]According to professors Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, schools don’t teach the higher-level reading skills you need to engage with and enjoy both informational and enlightening literature. You also need such skills to tackle books you might at first think are beyond your understanding. Those very books, the authors say, ultimately provide the most profound, lasting insights. Adler and Van Doren (yes, the Van Doren in the 1950’s quiz show scandal), outline a systematic approach to help you build and sustain new reading abilities. These skills will help you connect with the most difficult, complex or multileveled works. First published in 1940, this revised edition radiates an enjoyable, rare tweedy-professor ambiance. The authors love their pedantically precise syntax: A book “consists of language written by someone for the sake of communicating something to you.” In keeping with the biases of an earlier era, every pronoun is “he” and the prime reading list from the European and American canon has only two women (Jane Austen and George Eliot).[/text_block]

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why conventional reading skills are insufficient for understanding difficult books,
  • How to acquire more sophisticated reading skills and
  • How to apply those skills to analyzing great books.


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Skillful Reading

When you’re curled up with a good book, reading can feel relaxing and effortless. For many people, however, a book is just a first-class ticket to slumberland. But a wondrous alternative awaits – even for reluctant readers. You can learn to embrace reading at a more skillful level that offers much greater rewards, including knowledge, self-awareness and inspiration.

When you read skillfully, you read “actively.” You’re awake and focused. Instead of passively absorbing information, you collaborate with the author. The writer provides the material, but you analyze it, argue with it and question it. Instead of merely adding to your store of information, you increase your comprehension of yourself and your world.

“Elementary Reading”

Unfortunately, most readers never learn how to gain this level of joy and wisdom from reading. Reading education in the US focuses on the skills needed at a beginner’s elementary reading level – the ability to recognize words, comprehend sentences and derive the meaning of new words from context. Once you can read at that level, you’re pretty much on your own. Most high schools and colleges in the US offer no instruction in higher levels of reading. The idea is that the basics are sufficient if you are reading for amusement or information. But, to increase your understanding, you must attain higher levels of reading skill.

“Inspectional Reading”

Imagine you are at a bookstore contemplating whether to buy a certain book. How can you determine, in a short time, if you’ll find the book worth reading? The answer is to “inspect” the book by using “systematic skimming” – or “pre-reading.” Sometimes you’ll be able to get everything you need from a book by skimming it. Other times you’ll decide to bring the book home for a more careful perusal.

Pre-reading is highly active; you approach the book like a detective sniffing out evidence. Start by examining the title page and preface for clues to the book’s subject and its perspective. Read the table of contents and index. Both can reveal the breadth of the territory the book covers. Read the publisher’s blurb. Although the blurb is mostly a marketing tool, it reveals what’s inside the book and explains why it might be worth your time. At this point, you can probably deduce which chapters will matter most to you. Quickly read through these chapters’ introductory and concluding paragraphs. Then flip through the book, sampling sentences or paragraphs. Read the final few pages with care since that’s where many authors sum up their argument.

Even when you plan to read a book carefully, give it a pre-reading. The insights you’ll gain into the book’s plan and design will provide a useful map for your journey deeper into the book.

The other skill associated with the inspectional level is “superficial reading.” When you are reading a difficult book, you might stop when you encounter an unfamiliar term so you can look it up. Or you may want to take time to ponder a complex concept. These habits break your reading momentum and your connection with the book. By pausing and shifting your attention, you lose the flow of the work. Trying to eliminate each obstacle as you encounter it can be so frustrating that you might just toss the book aside. Instead, give the work a first, superficial reading, plowing straight through what you understand and what you don’t. Then give the book a more careful read. Once armed with a superficial understanding of the whole, you’ll be in a better position to untangle the more intriguing aspects or mysterious knots during a deeper, second read.

“Analytical Reading”

At this stage, you thoroughly dissect a book, discovering its structure and outlining – and judging – the author’s arguments. At this level, you read for enlightenment. That requires an active effort to wrest every drop of understanding from the book, regardless of how long it takes. When you read a book analytically, ask four crucial questions that cover the analytical basics.

1. “What Is the Book About as a Whole?”

Start analyzing a book by answering the first essential question. Identify the author’s main point and how he or she develops that theme.

Begin by inspecting the book. Look for clues to what kind of book it is by checking the title, the preface and the table of contents. Determine whether it is fiction or an expository book. If it is expository, is it history, science, biography or another genre? Is it theoretical or practical? A theoretical book aims to convey knowledge for its own sake. A practical book shows you how to turn knowledge into action.

Next, look at the book with “X-ray eyes” to discern its theme: the underlying structure that holds the entire work together. You should be able to summarize this main point in your own words in a few paragraphs or less. List the parts of the book. Outline how they relate to each other and how each division and its subdivisions support the overall structure.

The final component of this analytical stage is divining the author’s intentions. See if you can summarize the questions the author attempts to answer or the problem he or she has set out to solve. Decide whether these are theoretical questions such as “Why does X exist?” or practical questions like “What is the best course to take?”

2. “What Is Being Said in Detail, and How?”

The second element in analyzing a book requires asking what it really says, down to the smallest elements, and uncovering its ideas, assertions and arguments by examining these rhetorical building blocks:

  • “Terms” – Find the most important words in a book. Determine how the writer uses them and what he or she means by them. Deal with language the author uses and also consider the “thought behind the language.” A word that has one meaning in everyday conversation may take on a different meaning in a book. In Darwin’s Origin of Species, for instance, the important words include “variety,” “selection” and “adaptation.” Your task is to figure out the technical meaning that Darwin assigns to these everyday words. A good author will try to alert you to any special intent, but an analytical reader should apply rational thought and imagination to ferret out the author’s meaning.
  • “Propositions” – Next, scope out the book’s most crucial sentences. These will likely contain the author’s propositions – the ideas he or she finds most meaningful. Earlier, you tried to determine what questions the author hoped to answer. Think of propositions as the answers to those questions. The writer should back up these propositions with evidence and examples. To find a book’s critical sentences, look for those that are not completely comprehensible. It’s likely you will have the most trouble grasping concepts and ideas the author regards as most important. Another tip-off is that a proposition is likely to contain the pivotal terms you identified earlier. You can feel satisfied that you understand a proposition when you can paraphrase it in your own words and come up with your own examples to illustrate it.
  • “Arguments” – An argument consists of a series of propositions that leads toward a conclusion. The author may state the argument in a single, complex sentence or stretch it over several paragraphs. If the argument appears scattered across various places around the book, track them down and synthesize them into a coherent whole. Make a note in the margin when you come across a proposition that builds the argument. Review each proposition. You should understand the entire argument well enough to restate it in a nutshell.
3. “Is the Book True, in Whole or Part?”

Once you’ve performed your rhetorical analysis, identify which problems you think the author solved and which ones remain mysteries. In the last stages, talk back to the book, offering your criticism and judgment of what you read. Address the third essential question, “Is it true?”

4. “What of It?”

How does the book matter or what is most significant about its contentions? When you feel confident you understand the book, respond to questions three and four by taking one of these “critical positions”:

  • You agree with the author – If you agree with the book’s argument, you have finished the analytical reading.
  • You don’t agree – In this case, hold an argument with the author’s conclusions. To do so fruitfully, avoid contentiousness. Acknowledge your emotions about the issue so you can stick to reason, rather than feelings, in your assertions. Acknowledge and reveal your assumptions – unless you recognize that, given your prejudices, you can’t give the author’s conclusions a fair hearing. Finally, aim for impartiality by sincerely attempting to understand the author’s point of view.
  • You suspend judgment – Abstaining also can be an act of criticism. Abstention says the book didn’t offer enough for you to judge its soundness.
“Syntopical Reading”

At this highest level, you will be able to read a range of books on a subject and synthesize their arguments into something new. Start with a problem you want to solve or a question you want to answer. Draw up a list of books that might address that problem. Most likely, you’ll come up with an unwieldy bibliography to winnow down. Draw upon your inspectional reading skills to determine which books merit a closer reading.

When you’ve compiled a catalog of the books that seem most relevant to your inquiry, subject them to the five-step syntopical process:

  1. Find the good parts – The goal of syntopical reading is not to understand the whole book. The goal is to use the book to solve the problem you set or to answer your question. Use inspectional reading to identify passages most pertinent to your investigation.
  2. Define your terms – The authors in your bibliography may use different words for similar concepts. Synthesize a “neutral terminology” that is not specific to any author but that can incorporate concepts from any of them.
  3. Develop propositions – Do the same when you identify a list of propositions. Devise neutral propositions that may not come from any single author but to which each author may contribute answers.
  4. Consider the issues – You can delineate an issue whenever you discover a question that different authors answer different ways. Map out and compare the disagreements.
  5. Analyze – Organize the issues, and outline how they relate to each other.
Why Bother?

The higher levels of reading require mental effort. This intellectually rigorous process is worthwhile because learning the skills of inspectional, analytical and syntopical reading opens a path for you to follow into the great books: the books that will teach, inspire and satisfy you simply because they are over your head.

Like the body, the mind grows stronger with exercise. Unlike the body, the mind’s expansion has no limits. Books can provide the mind-stretching exercise that ensures your growth, and a great book can offer an unending source of such growth.

Reading a great, rich book once is usually not enough. Every time you return to such a book, you’ll discover something more – new ideas, concepts and deeper truths that are – again – just beyond your current knowledge.[/text_block]

About the Authors

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) was a philosopher and a professor at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Charles Van Doren (1926-) taught at Columbia University and the University of Connecticut and was assistant director of the Institute of Philosophical Research.[/text_block]