Why You Should Read “How To Read A Book”

Cover of "How to Read a Book (A Touchston...

The other day my son saw me reviewing Mortimer Adler’s classic work on reading and said “that’s the dumbest title for a book I’ve ever seen. If you don’t know how to read one, how can you read THAT one?” Hard to argue with his logic – if by “read” you mean move through the book from beginning to end, understanding most of the words. If you can’t do that, obviously you can’t “read” any book. The problem was my son had not “come to terms” with the way the word “read” was being used by the author. One of the many skills I learned from this classic book.

Adler makes the distinction between being widely read and well read. Any kind of reading will do to move through lots of books from cover to cover but being well read means reading for understanding. His constant theme is that reading should move us “from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.” And reading for that result requires work. How To Read A Book outlines what that work is and how to do it.

Adler teaches four levels of reading, each of which builds on the other:

  • Elementary Reading– this is the meaning my son associated with the word “reading” when he made his comment. It is simply being able to understand the meaning of the words on the page and know what’s being said. Most adults are competent here in their native tongue but if you’ve ever learned a foreign language you’ve experienced a return to this level of reading for a while.
  •  Inspectional Reading– This is getting a feel for the book before reading it with more attention and care. It involves inspecting the sign posts in the book (Forward, Preface, Index, Chapter Headings and other divisions) as well as a cursory reading of large portions of the book. Setting us up to better understand the book when we read it in depth, this step also allows us to remove some books from our list before investing too much time in them.
  • Analytical Reading– This is the heart of Adler’s method. Most of the book is devoted to understanding this level. Analytical reading is moving through a book so that, in the end, you understand what the author said and determine if what he said is true. In short you move from “understanding less to understanding more.”
  • Syntopical Reading – This level of reading is concerned not with one book but with many books on the same topic. If I want to thoroughly understand something, especially something controversial, I must read about it from more than one author. Syntopical reading is the tool used to do that and Adler does an excellent job of showing us how to do it.

Other helpful things in the book are chapters on how to apply Adler’s method to various types of books (practical, philosophy, history, etc.) as well as a list of recommended “great books” for consideration. There are also some practice passages in the back so you can try using the tools taught in the book.

This is a foundational book for anyone passionate about reading. It should be read and re-read over the course of a reader’s life.

To help you get started with Adler, you can download an earlier version of the book for free as a PDF here. If you’d like an outline of the book to use as a reading aid, there’s an extensive one here and a more streamlined one here.

If you’d like to purchase a copy through Amazon, you can do so here.

Have you read Adler’s book? If so, what are your thoughts on its importance?

Are there other books you consider essential for readers?

3 Replies to “Why You Should Read “How To Read A Book””

  1. One of my girls saw me reading that book and said, “now that’s not going to do anybody much good.”

    It’s been a while and I think I need to revisit it… especially now that I’m a Kindle fanatic. One of the things that changed when I read Adler the first time was that I started scribbling “NB” in margins all the time. As a Kindle user, I find I’m doing more highlighting and less note-taking…

    1. I find that true also. Making notes is more cumbersome on the Kindle (though a bit easier via the iPad app) than it is with a ‘real’ book. But it is easier to retrieve the electronic notes than the ones written in the margin. There are always trade-offs I suppose.

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