How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

How to Read a Book

 

Summary
  1. Describes the different levels of reading and what each level entails. Also, details very useful techniques on how to scan a book to determine if it is worth your time and lays out how to read different genres and types of reading materials.
Key Takeaways
  1. Meant to help you improve your skill in reading
  2. Supposed to read different books at different speeds depending on genre and what you’re hoping to get out of it
  3. 2 ways of learning – discovery and being taught (unaided discovery)
  4. Skim the book before reading it to see if it is actually worth reading – get the author’s main arguments
  5. Superficial reading – with difficult books, read completely without stopping. This will help not “lose the forest for the trees”
  6. Reading speed should vary based on the goal, nature and complexity of the book
  7. In order to read faster and still comprehend, underline passages with your finger/pen and don’t subvocalize
  8. Ask questions while reading – what is the book about, what is discussed in detail, is the book true, why is it important. Write the answers to these questions on the cover page and as you read through it, answer them. 
  9. Must classify a book before reading it.
  10. 4 Different Levels of reading – elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical
  11. Offers suggestions on how to read different types of genres and topics from philosophy to plays to poetry to history
  12. Amazing recommended reading list in the appendix
What I got out of it
  1. How to read is something most of us probably take for granted but when was the last time you were taught how to read? Adler and Van Doren outline how to properly read and this varies depending on the genre as well as your goals in reading the book, article, magazine, etc. The questions and techniques described help you get the most of out of what you’re reading and by clarifying what and why you’re reading something, it makes the material that much more impactful.

Part 1 – The Dimensions of Reading

Chapter 1 – The Activity and Art of Reading
  • Reading correctly will improve your understanding
  • Today, there are way too many facts and much too little understanding
  • Active reading + skill = better understanding
  • Reading for information (newspaper, magazine, etc.) or understanding are very different things
    • To truly understand something new is often exhausting. Remembering facts versus enlightenment
Chapter 2 – The Levels of Reading
  • Goal of reading a certain book determines how you read it
  • There are 4 levels of reading – elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical
Chapter 3 – The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
  • This is the very beginning stages of learning how to read and put sentences together
  • Our ability to read, when you think about it is incredible. We are able to turn symbols into meaning
Chapter 4 – The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
  • Skim the book before reading it to see if it is actually worth reading – get the author’s main arguments
    • Look at the title, preface, table of contents (very important), index (key words), dust jacket, chapter titles and then jump around and read random passages throughout the book
  • Superficial reading – with difficult books, read completely without stopping. This will help not “lose the forest for the trees”
  • Reading speed should vary based on the goal, nature and complexity of the book
  • In order to read faster and still comprehend, underline passages with your finger/pen and don’t subvocalize
Chapter 5 – How to Be a Demanding Reader
  • Ask questions while reading – what is the book about, what is discussed in detail, is the book true, why is it important. Write the answers to these questions on the cover page and as you read through it, answer them
    • Best practices – Underline, vertical lines in margin, asterisks, numbers in margin to track arguments, circle key words, fold important pages, write questions/thoughts in margins
  • Use empty page to outline book once finished
  • 3 Types of note taking – structural, conceptual and dialectical (shape of the discussion)
Part 2 – The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading
Chapter 6 – Pigeonholing a Book
  • Must classify a book before reading it. Is it expository (gain knowledge) psychology, math, history, etc.
  • Practical (how to) vs theoretical (arguing that something is a certain way)
    • Manuals, guides, etc. vs. scientific/philosophical books
  • Different topics taught differently and must read in appropriate manner
Chapter 7 – X-Raying a Book
  • Strip book to its skeleton – be able to summarize succinctly and relate how the parts feed into the whole, answer what questions the author is trying to answer
  • First stage of analytical reading or finding out what a book is about
    • 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
Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms With An Author
  • Coming to terms means having clear, unambiguous communication between the author and the reader
  • Determine key words and what the author is trying to get across by using it
    • Focus on those that give you trouble
Chapter 9 – Determining an Author’s Message
  • Must know both author’s propositions and his reasons – why we are to believe him
  • Focus on difficult passages – “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom” – Socrates
  • “Translate” author’s message using your own words and try to imagine it playing out. Greatly helps you realize if you truly understand the message and argument
  • Second stage of analytical reading , finding out what the book says (interpreting)
    • Come to terms with the author 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 the problems the author has solved and which they have not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve
Chapter 10 – Criticizing a Book Fairly
  • Reading is a conversation between author and reader
    • Must completely understand their argument before can critique
    • Make sure learning, not arguing is the goal of disagreeing
    • Knowledge (evidence) vs. opinion (unsupported judgment)
Chapter 11 – Agreeing or Disagreeing with the Author
  • Must be aware of emotions, be impartial and know own assumptions
  • Can disagree in 4 ways – author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or argument is incomplete
  • Need specific evidence to convincingly agree or disagree
  • The Third Stage of Analytical Reading, criticizing a book
    • Don’t criticize until have completed your outline and interpretation
    • Do not disagree contentiously
    • Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons
    • Show where the author is uniformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete
Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading
  • Extrinsic aids – experiences, other books, commentaries and abstracts, reference books
    • Should only be used after reading the book and forming your opinions
    • other books often related (philosophy especially) and helps us better understand since we have more context
Part 3 – Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter
Chapter 13 – How To Read Practical Books
  • For practical books, if don’t care about end goal (how to cook, juggle, etc.), it is not worth your time
    • Knowing author’s context and background often helps
Chapter 14 – How To Read Imaginative Literature
  • Imaginative literature tries to communicate the experience itself, one that can only be gotten from reading
  • Don’t fight what imaginative literature makes you feel
  • Relies as much upon what it implies as what is said explicitly. Must read between the lines
  • Don’t criticize for inaccurate “facts”
  • Classify, understand unity (plot) as well as the parts that make up the whole
  • Don’t criticize until fully understand what the author wants you to experience
Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays and Poems
  • They are an end in themselves – can get you to act but don’t have to
  • Read stories quickly and in total immersion
  • Fiction is universal – it serves conscious and subconscious needs
  • Epic poems require much effort but well worth it
  • Plays aren’t complete – must make your own artistic decisions as to how you think it would play out
  • Essence of tragedy is a lack of time
  • Lyric poems are hard to define but read through them entirely and then out loud in order to better grasp
Chapter 16 – How to Read History
  • Can never rely on only one author or POV for history
  • Read history to also learn about the present and the future
  • Must know precisely what the book is or is not about
  • Biographies are either definitive (scholarly), authorized (commissioned) or ordinary (some combination)
    • Take autobiographies with a grain of salt as they can never be totally free from bias
  • For current books, ask the following questions – know what the author wants to prove, who does he want to convince, what special knowledge does he assume, does he use any special language and does he really know what he is talking about?
  • Must be careful when reading digests (condensed or summarized info) as a lot of information is compressed into few words
Chapter 17 – How to Read Science and Math
  • Today, experts write mostly to experts so we must rely on scientific popularization
  • Must clearly know the problem the author is trying to solve
  • Point is not to be competent in the specific field but to understand the problem being presented
Chapter 18 – How to Read Philosophy
  • Adult’s curiosity deteriorates in quality as they tend not to care “why,” only “what”
  • “A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers”
  • Must be childishly simple in our questions and maturely wise in our answers
  • Theoretical/speculative – what is/happens in the world
  • Practical/normative – what ought to be sought
  • Know strengths and weaknesses of different philosophical styles
  • 2 Types of theology – natural and dogmatic
  • Canonical – one and only one right way to read something (such as the Bible)
Chapter 19 – How to Read Social Science
  • Often must read many different works on the same topic in order to gain a good understanding
Part 4 – The Ultimate Goals of Reading
Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading
  • Must determine which books are or are not worth devoting time to
    • Read different works at different speeds
  • 5 Steps – determine which passages are important to you, must use your own language and not that of the authors (translate), formulate questions you want answered, define the issues and different POV, analyze the discussion – answers often lie in the opposing POV
  • This type of reading you must aim for objectivity – must know own mind, opinion and biases
  • For Syntopical reading
    • Create a possible bibliography of books on your subject
    • Inspect all of the books to acquire a clear idea and identify the relevant works
    • Bring the author to terms
    • Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors
    • Define the issues, both major and minor
    • Analyze the discussion by creating questions you want answered
 
Chapter 21 – Reading and the Growth of the Mind
  • To become a better reader, you must read books that stretch your mind
    • Reading for information or fun is great, but that tends not to be the type of reading that pushes you
  • Good book makes you wiser as it opens you up to deeper truths about yourself and mankind
    • Less than 1% of all books
    • Some books only need to be read once, others several times
      • Seek out the ones you want to read over and over as these are the ones that teach you the most
  • To better understand what you really like, ask yourself what 10 books you’d bring with you if you were stranded on a desert island
  • Mind never stops growing so make sure to push its limits
Appendix A – amazing recommended reading list. Everything from Homer to Sartre
Appendix B – very useful reading tests in order to apply the framework they’ve laid out

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