This is a book summary of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (Amazon).
🔒 There was so much good stuff in this book that I couldn’t fit it all into this (already long) book summary. If you’re interested in the most practical and actionable summary out there—including details on how to skim, how to take notes, and more—check out the Premium companion post: How to Read Intelligently with “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler (+ Infographics)
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler was originally published in 1940. It was then revised and co-authored in 1972 with Charles Van Doren.
“Certain things have not changed in the last thirty years. One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different—appropriate—speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed. As Pascal observed three hundred years ago, ‘When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing.'” — Mortimer Adler
- All content in quotation marks is from the author unless otherwise stated.
- All content not in quotation marks is paraphrased from original quotes.
- I’ve added emphasis in bold for readability/skimmability.
- I’ve organized content into my own themes.
Book Summary Contents: Click a link here to jump to a section below
- Active Reading
- Reading as Learning
- Reading for Understanding
- Reading and the Growth of the Mind
- Four Questions to ask while Reading
The Art of Reading: “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler (Book Summary)
About the Book
“This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers. Particularly, it is for readers of books. Even more particularly, it is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.”
- “By ‘readers’ we mean people who are still accustomed, as almost every literate and intelligent person used to be, to gain a large share of their information about and their understanding of the world from the written word. Not all of it, of course; even in the days before radio and television, a certain amount of information and understanding was acquired through spoken words and through observation. But for intelligent and curious people that was never enough. They knew that they had to read too, and they did read.”
- “We must become a nation of truly competent readers, recognizing all that the word competent implies. Nothing less will satisfy the needs of the world that is coming.”
- “If we are disposed to go on learning and discovering, we must know how to make books teach us well. That, indeed, is the primary goal of this book.”
The Art of Reading
“The art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible … We can roughly define what we mean by the art of reading as follows: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading.”
“Activity is the essence of good reading, and that the more active reading is, the better it is.”
- “The one simple prescription for active reading. It is: Ask questions while you read—questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.“
- “Since reading of any sort is an activity, all reading must to some degree be active. Completely passive reading is impossible; we cannot read with our eyes immobilized and our minds asleep. Hence when we contrast active with passive reading, our purpose is, first, to call attention to the fact that reading can be more or less active, and second, to point out that the more active the reading the better. One reader is better than another in proportion as he is capable of a greater range of activity in reading and exerts more effort. He is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him.”
- “What does active reading entail? We will return to this question many times in this book. For the moment, it suffices to say that, given the same thing to read, one person reads it better than another, first, by reading it more actively, and second, by performing each of the acts involved more skillfully. These two things are related. Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.”
Reading as Learning:
Aided Discovery = The art of reading books or learning from discourse; instruction; being taught.
Unaided Discovery = The art of reading nature or the world; learning something by research, investigation, or reflection, without being taught.
- “The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.”
- “We can learn only from our ‘betters.’ We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The person who has this sort of knowledge possesses the art of reading in the sense with which we are especially concerned in this book.”
- “Although the teacher may help his student in many ways, it is the student himself who must do the learning. Knowledge must grow in his mind if learning is to take place.”
- “If you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.”
- “The task falls mainly on you—it is you who, henceforth, must do all the work (and obtain all the benefits).”
- “When we speak of someone as ‘well-read,’ we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.”
- “There are, of course, many books worth reading well. There is a much larger number that should be only inspected. To become well-read, in every sense of the word, one must know how to use whatever skill one possesses with discrimination—by reading every book according to its merits.”
Reading for Understanding:
“This book is about the art of reading for the sake of increased understanding.”
- “Without external help of any sort, you go to work on the book. With nothing but the power of your own mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more. Such elevation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is highly skilled reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves.”
- “What are the conditions under which this kind of reading—reading for understanding—takes place? There are two. First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be ‘superior’ to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer. To the extent that equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.”
- “To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.”
- “Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.”
Reading and the Growth of the Mind:
“Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.”
- “There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will ever be; in fact, many persons’ bodies have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age; only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence, does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.”
- “This is one of the most remarkable things about human beings, and it may actually be the major difference between Homo sapiens and the others animals, which do not seem to grow mentally beyond a certain stage in their development. But this great advantage that man possesses carries with it a great peril. The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise. And this is a terrible penalty, for there is evidence that atrophy of the mind is a mortal disease.”
- “A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all. 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.”
- “There is a second class of books from which you can learn—both how to read and how to live. Less than one out of every hundred books belongs in this class—probably it is more like one in a thousand, or even one in ten thousand. These are the good books, the ones that were carefully wrought by their authors, the ones that convey to the reader significant insights about subjects of enduring interest to human beings. There are in all probably no more than a few thousand such books.”
Four Questions to ask About Anything You Read:
“Knowing what the four questions are is not enough. You must remember to ask them as you read. The habit of doing that is the mark of a demanding reader. More than that, you must know how to answer them precisely and accurately. The trained ability to do that is the art of reading.”
- 1. “What is the book about as a whole?” (Discover the leading theme and subordinate themes/topics—Inspectional Reading)
- 2. “What is being said in detail, and how?” (Discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments—Inspectional Reading)
- 3. “Is the book true, in whole or part?” (You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two—Analytical Reading)
- 4. “What of it?” (If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance—Analytical/Syntopical Reading)
The Four Levels of Reading
“There are four levels of reading. They are here called levels rather than kinds because kinds, strictly speaking, are distinct from one another, whereas it is characteristic of levels that higher ones include lower ones. So it is with the levels of reading, which are cumulative. The first level is not lost in the second, the second in the third, the third in the fourth. In fact, the fourth and highest level of reading includes all the others. It simply goes beyond them.”
1. Elementary Reading:
In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills … As one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy.
Elementary Reading Overview:
- Other Names: Rudimentary reading, basic reading, initial reading.
- Timeframe: Ordinarily learned in elementary school.
- Key Question: “What does the sentence say?”
Elementary Reading Stages:
- Elementary Reading Stage 1: Reading readiness. Corresponds to pre-school and kindergarten experiences.
- Elementary Reading Stage 2: Word mastery. Corresponds to the first grade experience of the typical child (although many quite normal children are not ‘typical’ in this sense), with the result that the child attains what we can call second-stage reading skills, or first grade ability in reading or first grade literacy.
- Elementary Reading Stage 3: Vocabulary growth and the utilization of context. Typically (but not universally, even for normal children) acquired at about the end of the fourth grade of elementary school, and results in what is variously called fourth grade, or functional, literacy—the ability, according to one common definition, to read traffic signs or picture captions fairly easily, to fill out the simpler government forms, and the like.
- Elementary Reading Stage 4: Eighth grade, ninth grade, or tenth grade literacy. The final stage of elementary reading is attained at about the time the pupil leaves or graduates from elementary school or junior high school … The child is a ‘mature’ reader in the sense that he is now capable of reading almost anything, but still in a relatively unsophisticated manner. In the simplest terms, he is mature enough to do high school work.
A Note about Maturity:
He is not yet a ‘mature’ reader in the sense in which we want to employ the term in this book. He has mastered the first level of reading, that is all; he can read on his own and is prepared to learn more about reading. But he does not yet know how to read beyond the elementary level … Only when he has mastered all of the four stages of elementary reading is the child prepared to move on to the higher levels of reading. Only then can he read independently and learn on his own. Only then can he begin to become a really good reader.
2. Inspectional Reading:
Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically … Another way to describe this level of reading is to say that its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time—usually a relatively short time, and always (by definition) too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.
Inspectional Reading Overview:
- Other Names: Skimming, pre-reading.
- Prerequisite: You cannot read on the inspectional level unless you can read effectively on the elementary level.
- Key Questions: “What is the book about?” or “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”
- Main Purpose: The best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time.
- Characteristics: Special emphasis on time.
- Reading Speed: Inspectional reading is accomplished quickly, but that is not only because you read faster, although in fact you do; it is also because you read less of a book when you give it an inspectional reading, and because you read it in a different way, with different goals in mind.
Inspectional Reading Types:
The first thing to realize is that there are two types of inspectional reading. They are aspects of a single skill, but the beginning reader is well-advised to consider them as two different steps or activities. The experienced reader learns to perform both steps simultaneously, but for the moment we will treat them as if they were quite distinct … The two steps involved in inspectional reading are both taken rapidly. The competent inspectional reader will accomplish them both quickly, no matter how long or difficult the book he is trying to read.
- Inspectional Reading 1: Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading. Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading … Skimming can tell you lots of other things about the book, even if you decide not to read it again with more care. Giving a book this kind of quick once-over is a threshing process that helps you to separate the chaff from the real kernels of nourishment … You should know a good deal about the book at this point, after having spent no more than a few minutes, at most an hour, with it.
- Inspectional Reading 2: Superficial Reading. In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away … Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these. Keep on in this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you … You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once … Do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. This is the most important rule of all; it is the essence of inspectional reading. Do not be afraid to be, or to seem to be, superficial. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time.
3. Analytical Reading:
The third level of reading we will call analytical reading. It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far … The art of analytical reading applies to the reading of a single book, when understanding of that book is the aim in view.
Analytical Reading Overview:
- Other Names: Thorough reading, complete reading, good reading—the best reading you can do.
- Prerequisites: Effective elementary and inspectional reading.
- Timeframe: A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers.
- Main Purpose: The best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time—preeminently for the sake of comprehension or understanding.
- Reading Speed: Analytical reading is ordinarily much slower than inspectional reading, but even when you are giving a book an analytical reading, you should not read all of it at the same rate of speed. Every book, no matter how difficult, contains interstitial material that can be and should be read quickly; and every good book also contains matter that is difficult and should be read very slowly.
Analytical Reading Stage 1:
Rules for finding what a book is about: “What is the book about as a whole?”
- Analytical Reading Rule 1: Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
- Analytical Reading Rule 2: State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. Direct your attention toward the unity of the book. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).
- Analytical Reading Rule 3: Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. Direct your attention toward the complexity of the book—treating the parts as if they were subordinate wholes, each with a unity and complexity of its own. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole. State the parts that make up the unity.
- Analytical Reading Rule 4: Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve. The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. Find out what the author’s problems were.
Analytical Reading Stage 2:
Rules for interpreting a book’s contents: “What is being said in detail, and how?”
- Analytical Reading Rule 5: Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. Coming to terms is the first step beyond the outline. The first part is to locate the important words, the words that make a difference. The second part is to determine the meaning of these words, as used, with precision. The main point is that one word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words. You must spot the important words in a book and figure out how the author is using them. Unless the reader comes to terms with the author, the communication of knowledge from one to the other does not take place. For a term is the basic element of communicable knowledge. If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms. For the communication to be successfully completed, therefore, it is necessary for the two parties to use the same words with the same meanings—in short, to come to terms. Since this is one of the primary achievements of the art of writing and reading, we can think of terms as a skilled use of words for the sake of communicating knowledge.
- Analytical Reading Rule 6: Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain. His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. If it is the book and the subject with which it deals that we are interested in, and not just the author, we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.
- Analytical Reading Rule 7: Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences. Find if you can the paragraphs in a book that state its important arguments; but if the arguments are not thus expressed, your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the propositions that compose the argument.
- Analytical Reading Rule 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. Find out what the author’s solutions are. When you have applied this rule, and the three that precede it in interpretive reading, you can feel reasonably sure that you have managed to understand the book.
Analytical Reading Stage 3:
Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge: “Is it true?” and “What of it?”
General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette:
- Analytical Reading Rule 9: You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.” Complete the task of understanding before rushing in. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
- Analytical Reading Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously. There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong. Practically, of course, it may get you ahead in the world for a short time. But honesty is the better policy in the slightly longer run.
- Analytical Reading Rule 11: Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make. View disagreement about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable. Give reasons for disagreements so that issues are not merely stated but also defined. In that lies all hope for resolution.
Special Criteria for Points of Criticism:
Of these last four below, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Failing in all of these, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of the last point.
- Analytical Reading Rule 12: Show wherein the author is uninformed.
- Analytical Reading Rule 13: Show wherein the author is misinformed.
- Analytical Reading Rule 14: Show wherein the author is illogical.
- Analytical Reading Rule 15: Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
4. Syntopical Reading:
The reading of two or more books on the same subject … Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement. The second requirement is a great deal harder to satisfy than the first.
Syntopical Reading Overview:
- Other Names: Comparative reading.
- Prerequisites: Both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as anticipations or preparations for syntopical reading.
- Timeframe: A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers. A college degree ought to represent general competence in reading such that a graduate could read any kind of material for general readers and be able to undertake independent research on almost any subject (for that is what syntopical reading, among other things, enables you to do).
- Main Purpose: The special quality that a syntopical analysis tries to achieve can be summarized in the two words “dialectical objectivity.” The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides.
- Characteristics: The most active, effortful, complex, and systematic kind of reading. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. It is not an easy art, and the rules for it are not widely known. Nevertheless, syntopical reading is probably the most rewarding of all reading activities. The benefits are so great that it is well worth the trouble of learning how to do it.
How Syntopical Reading Works:
- Syntopical reading involves reading authors widely separated in space and time, and differing radically in style and approach, as if they were members of the same universe of discourse.
- When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve.
- With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.
- The conscientious syntopical reader may resort to one obvious device and use it as much as possible. That is, he must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language.
The Paradox of Syntopical Reading:
- Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read. Another way to state it is in the form of what may be called the fundamental problem of syntopical reading, namely, that if you do not know where to start, you cannot read syntopically; and even if you have a rough idea of where to begin, the time required to find the relevant books and relevant passages in those books may exceed the time required to take all of the other steps combined.
Syntopical Reading Steps:
Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading:
These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.
- Pre-Syntopical Reading Step 1: Create a tentative bibliography of your subject.
- Pre-Syntopical Reading Step 2: Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. Inspectional reading will not acquaint you with all of the intricacies of the subject matter, or with all of the insights that your authors can provide, but it will perform two essential functions. First, it will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. And second, it will allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size.
Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography:
Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.
- Syntopical Reading Step 1: Finding the relevant passages. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in order to find the most relevant passages. Above all, remember that your task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you. In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read. In this sense, syntopical reading is the most active reading you can do. Analytical reading is also active, but when you read a book analytically you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.
- Syntopical Reading Step 2: Bringing the authors to terms. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not. In interpretive reading (the second stage of analytical reading) the first rule requires you to come to terms with the author, which means identifying his key words and discovering how he uses them. But now you are faced with a number of different authors, and it is unlikely that they will have all used the same words, or even the same terms. Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around. The reader who cannot see through the language to the terms and propositions will never be able to compare such related works. This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really comes down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his. Syntopical reading, in short, is to a large extent an exercise in translation—creating a neutral terminology that applies to all or most of the authors examined.
- Syntopical Reading Step 3: Getting the questions clear. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not. The second rule of interpretive reading requires us to find the author’s key sentences, and from them to develop an understanding of his propositions. Propositions are made up of terms, and of course we must do a similar job on the works we are reading syntopically. But since we ourselves are establishing the terminology in this case, we are faced with the task of establishing a set of neutral propositions as well. The best way to do this is to frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors gives answers.
- Syntopical Reading Step 4: Defining the issues. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern. Define and arrange the issues produced by differing answers to the questions. If a question is clear, and if we can be reasonably certain that authors answer it in different ways—perhaps pro and con—then an issue has been defined. It is the issue between the authors who answer the question in one way, and those who answer it in one or another opposing way.
- Syntopical Reading Step 5: Analyzing the discussion. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated. The first four steps correspond to the first two groups of rules for analytical reading. Those rules, when followed and applied to any book, allowed us to answer the questions, “What does it say?” and “How does it say it?” In our syntopical reading project, we are similarly able at this point to answer the same questions about the discussion concerning our problem. In the case of the analytical reading of a single work, two further questions remained to be answered, namely, “Is it true?” and “What of it?” In the case of syntopical reading, we are now prepared to address ourselves to similar questions about the discussion.
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