How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972)

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972)
Part 1. The Dimensions of Reading.
Chapter 1. The Activity and Art of Reading
The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of Magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements- all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics – to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind”, he has performed acceptability without having had to think —> the more active the reading the better.

Reader and writer are active, what is passive is the book like the analogy with baseball, catcher and pitcher are faster, the ball is passive.
The Goals of Reading: reading for information and reading for understanding.

The first sense is the one in which we speak of ourselves as reading newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase our store of information but they cannot improve our understanding.

The second sense is the one in which tries to read something that at first he does not understand.

By learning is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other info you possess.

If he (reader) manages to acquire that greater understanding, he is reading in the second sense, He has indeed elevated himself by his activity through indirectly, of course, the elevation was made possible by the writer who had something to teach him.
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 forms the insights he possesses and his potential reader lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer.
In short, we can learn only from our betters.

Reading as Learning: The difference between learning by instruction and Learning by Discovery.
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. This distinction is familiar in terms of the differences between being able to remember something and being able to explain it.
If you remember what an author says, you have learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about a book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened.
Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.
Being informed is prerequisite to been enlightened. The point, however is not to stop at being informed.

We can gain knowledge without being taught.
There must be discovery- the process of learning something by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.
Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns.
Chapter 2 – The level of Reading
1- Elementary Reading: Person is merely concerned with language as it is employed by the writer. this level of reading, the question asked of the reader is “what does the sentence say”.
2- The second level is Inspectional Reading, It is characterized by its special emphases on time, when reading at this level, the student is allowed a set of time to complete an assigned amount of reading. Still another name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. Upon completing an inspectional reading of a book no matter how short the time you had to do it in, you should also be able to answer the question, “ What kind of book is it- anovel, history, a scientific threatise ?
3- The third level is Analytical reading, Analytic reading is through reading on good reading – the best reading can do if inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading, that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”. Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.
4- Syntopical Reading: Another name for this level might be comparative reading, when reading sintopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolver.

chapter 3- The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

The first stage is known by the term “reading readiness”. This beings it has been pointe out, at birth, and continues normally until the age of about six or seven.
Reading readiness includes several different kinds of preparation for learning to read. Physical readiness involves good vision and hearing. Intellectual readiness involves a minimum level of visual perception such that the child can take in and remember an entire word and the letters that combine to form it. Language readiness involves the ability to speak clearly and to use several sentences in correct order, personal readiness involves the ability to work with other children to sustain attention, to follow directions and the like.
In the second stage; children learn to read very simple materials. Basic skills are introduced at this time, such as the use of context of meaning clues and the beginning sounds of words. By the end of this period pupils are expected to be reading simple books independently with enthusiasm.
The third stage, the third stage is characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and by increasing skill in “unblocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context clues.
Finally, the fourth stage is characterized by the refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired.


It is of paramount importance to recognize that the four stages outlined here all the stages of the first level of reading, as outlined in the previous chapter.
They are stages of elementary reading.

CHAPTER 4- The second level of reading: Inspectional reading

Inspectional Reading is a true level of Reading.
Inspectional reading is a true level of reading. You must be able to read an author’s text more or less steadily, without having to stop to look up the meaning of many words.

Inspectional Reading I: Systematic skimming or Pre-reading.

Skimming or pre-reading is the first level of inspectional reading. Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a mere careful reading. Secondly, skimming can tell you lots of other things about the book, even if you decide not to read it again with more care.
The habit of skimming should not take much time to acquire.

1. Look at the title page and if the book has one, at its preface. READ EACH QUICKLY. Note especially the subtitles or other indications of the scope or aim of the book or of the author’s special angle on his subject.
2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure, use it as you would use a road map before taking a trip.
3. Check the index if the book has one – most expository works do. make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and of the kinds of books and authors referred to.
4. If the book is a new one with a dust jacket, read the publisher’s BLURB.
5. Look now at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument. If these chapter have summary statements in their opening of closing pages, as they often do, read them.
6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that.
Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea, alert for anything that will make it clearer.
Inspectional Reading II: Superficial Reading

What is the right approach? 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 understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you.
Reading footnotes when prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.
If you insist on understanding, everything on every page before you go on to the text, you will not get very far.

A good speed reading course should therefore teach you to read at many different speeds, not just one speed that is faster than anything you can manage now.
Inspectional reading is faster- analytical reading is ordinarily much slower than inspectional reading, but even wen you are giving a book on analytical reading.

Fixations and Regretions. Speed vs Comprehension
Summary of Inspectional Reading: Every book should be read no more slowly that it deserves and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.
Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea, it is necessary when you don’t know if the book is worth reading carefully.

Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. Race through even the hardest book, you will then be prepared to read it well the second time.


Keep awake. Read as active as possible

The Essence of Active Reading: The four basic questions a reader asks.

Ask questions while you read – question that you yourself must try t answer in the course of reading.
– What is the book about as a whole?
– What is being said in detail and how?
– Is the book true, in the whole or part?
– what of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance, Why does the author think it is important to know these things?
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.

How to make a Book your Own.

The pencil then becomes the sign of your alertness while you read.
Full ownership of a book comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it-is by writing on it.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake. Second, reading, if it is active is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written.
Third, writing your reaction down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.
Devices that can be used:
– underlining
– vertical, lines at margin
– starts, asterisk
– numbers in the margin
– numbers if the pages in numbers
– circling of key words/phrases
– Writing in the margin or at the top of bottom of the page.

The 3 kinds of Note-Making

the notes you make at this level of reading are, therefore not structural but conceptual. They concern the author’s concepts, and also your own, a s they have been deepened, or broadened b your reading of the book.
1. Note-making structural. structure of the book
2. Conceptual
3. Shape of the discussion: syntopical reading or dialectical
Forming the Habit of Reading
Now there is not other way of forming a habit of operation than by operating. That is what it means to say and learns to do by doing.
After practice, you can do the same thing much better than when you started.


THE IMPORTANCE OF CLASSIFYING BOOKS: The first rule of analytical reading: 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.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THE TITLE OF A BOOK: One reason why titles and prefaces are ignored by many readers is that they do not think it us important to classify the books they are reading. They do not follow this first rule of analytical reading.
PRACTICAL VS THEORETICAL BOOKS: We must pass from knowing ‘what is the case’ to knowing ‘what to do about it if we wish to get somewhere’. this can be summarized in the disconnection between knowing ‘that’ and knowing how theoretical books teach you ‘that’ something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.
KINDS OF THEORETICAL BOOKS: The traditional subdivision of theoretical book classifies them as history, science or philosophy. If a theoretical book emphasizes things that lie outside the scope of your normal routine, daily experience, it is a scientific work. If not, it is philosophical.
Now, just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. the activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and their reader is the same as that between teachers and their students.
X-RAYING A BOOK: Rule 2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences. This means that you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible.
Rule 3. 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.
Mastering the Multiplicity: the art of outlining a book.
The requirement that you outline the parts of a book, and show how they exemplify and develop the main theme, is thus supportive of your statement of the book’s unity.
Discover The Author’s Intentions.
Rule 4: Find out what the author’s problems were the author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer of answers.

The first Stage of Analytical Reading.
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author trying to solve.
Coming to Terms with an Author
Coming to terms is the first step beyond the outline.

Words Vs Terms

A term is not a word-at least, not just a word without further qualifications. If a term and a word were exactly the same, you would only have to find the important words in a book in order to come to terms with it.

RULE 5 Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.
You cannot locate the key words without making an effort to understand the passage in which they occur. If you mark the words that trouble you, you may hit the very ones the author is using specially.


The answer is that you have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do not understand.
The surrounding words are the context for the words to be interpreted. The reader has all the material he needs to do the job.
If you make a list in one column of the important words, and in another of their important meanings, you will see the relation between the vocabulary and the terminology.

determining an author’s Message.
His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinions unless they are supported by reasons.


Sentences and paragraphs are grammatical units, They are units of language. Propositions and arguments are logical units, or units of thought and knowledge.
Propositions are the answer to questions. They are declaration of knowledge or opinion. That is why we call sentences that express them declarative, and distinguish sentences that ask questions as interrogative.
Rule 5 : Fine the important words and come to terms.
Rule 6: mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.
Rule 7: Locate or construct the basic argument in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.

Finding the Arguments.
Find if you can the paragraphs in a book that state its important 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 proposition that compose the argument.

If the book contains arguments, you must know what they are, and be able to put them into a nutshell.
If the first place, remember that every argument must involve a number of statements.
In the second place, discriminate between the kind of argument that points to one or more particular facts as evidence for some generalizations. The former kind of reasoning is usually referred to as inductive, the latter as deductive.
In the third place, observe what things the author says he must assume, what he says can be proved or otherwise evidenced, and what need to be proved because it is self-evidence.

Rule 8. Find out what the author’s solution 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.


Bacon’s recommendation to the reader: “ Read not to contradict and confute; not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider”.
Rule 9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand’ before you can say one of the following things: I agree or I disagree or I suspend judgment.
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.
Rule 11: Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment to make knowledge, if you please, consists in those opinions that can be defended, opinions for which there is evidence of one kind or another. If we really know something, in this sense, we must believe that we convince others of what we know.

the first thing a reader can say is that he understand or that he does not. In fact, he must say he understand in order to say more.

The first is this since men are animal as well as rational, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions yu bring to a dispute, or those that arise in the course of it.
Second, you must make your own assumptions explicit. Otherwise, you are not likely to admit that your opponent may be equally entitled to different assumptions. Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions.
Third and finally, each of the disputants should at least try to take the other fellow’s point of view.

If you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree.
You cannot say, as many students and other do, “ I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions”. All you can possibly mean by saying some thing like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions and prejudice.



Too often, we use that phrase to mean that quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.

Common experience is available to all men and women just because they are alive. Special experience must be actively sought and Is available only to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it.
not only are many of the great books related, but also they were written in a certain order that should not be ignored. A later writer has been influenced by an earlier one. Reading related books in relation to one another and in order that renders the later one more intelligible is a basic common-sense maxim of extrinsic reading.

Reading a commentary, particularly one that seems very self-assured, thus tends to limit your understanding of a book, even if your understanding as far as it goes is correct.
The ordering of knowledge has changed with the centuries. All knowledge was once ordered in relation to the seven liberal arts –grammar, rhetoric, and logic; the trivium.; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, the quadrivium

The first group consists of rules for discovering the unity and part-whole structure, the second consists of rules for identifying and interpreting the books component terms, propositions, and arguments, the third consists of rules for criticizing the author’s doctrines so that we can reach intelligent agreement or disagreement with him. We called these 3 groups of rules structural, interpretive, and critical. By analogy we can find similar sets of rules to guide us in reading form, novels and plays.
1. You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind. A lyric tells its story primarily in terms of a single emotional experience, whereas novels and plays have much more complicated plots, involving many characters, their actions and their reactions upon one another, as well as the emotions they suffer in the process.
2. You must group the unity of the whole book. “ you have not grasped the whole story until you can summarize its plot in a brief narration – not a proposition or an argument”.
3. You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all is parts. The parts of an expository book are concerned with parts of the whole problem, the partial solutions contributing to the solution of the whole.

Second, what are the interpretative rules of fiction?
1. The elements of fiction are its episodes and incidents, its character, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions. Each of these is an element in the world the author created. By manipulating these elements, the author tells his story.
2. Terms are connected in propositions. The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene of background against which they stand out in relief.
3. If there is any motion in an expository book, it is the movement of the argument, a logical transition from evidences and reasons to the conclusions they support.

Read it quickly and with total immersion. Ideally, a story should be read at one sitting, although this is rarely possible for busy people with big novels.

1. in syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read. Your aim is to find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs.
2. Bringing the authors to terms: identity key words and discover how he uses them
3. Getting the questions clear: Find the author’s key sentences, and from them to develop an understanding of his propositions.
4. Define the Issues.
5, Analyzing the Discussion



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