How to Read a Book

Author: Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

I found this book a few years ago on the sidewalks of Park Slope and I regret I haven’t read it sooner!

Adler and van Doren provide a wonderful set of techniques for getting a better grip on your “To Read” pile and help you feel more comfortable in choosing what level of attention is appropriate for the material. By making this calculation in an informed and methodical way, you can process your pile more effectively. I really needed this help because I’m such a completionist, I’m always afraid I’m going to lose a critical fact if I’m not diligent to the end degree. I hope these techniques will help me move more quickly and exercise better judgment.

Having provided those techniques, the authors provide a very considerate introduction on how to read books in genres that you might not be comfortable in: science, social science, or philosophy.

Over and above those practical points, the book serves as a good set of advice on how to do anything actively: active listening, active reading, active programming, active conversation, etc. The skills of acting actively, we’d say “mindfully” today, were seen as related to reading and writing when this book came out in 1940, but the truths that underlie that view have not changed. I found many places where “read/write a book” could have been swapped with “read/write code” or “converse” or “learn to play guitar” or “meditate” or “make tender love to” and the value been as impactful.

This book in the right hands at the right time could make for a huge change in educational quality and life quality of the reader.

This is all the “reviewing” I’ll do here. Below I’ll cover the techniques and distillations I made of the text. I’m posting them here for quick reference :).

Synopsis of How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles van Doren

  • The Activity and Art of Reading (1)

    • Active, engaged reader is better (5-6)
    • By reading, we consume symbols and move from states of lesser knowledge to greater (8)
    • We can read for information (lesser) or for understanding (greater)
    • In reading for understanding
    • There exists an inequality (1)
    • This inequality is overcome
  • The 4 Levels of Reading (2)

    • Elementary: Mechanical symbol recognition, sound manufacture
    • Inspectional: separate knowledge of book from knowledge of material
    • Analytical: For understanding
    • Syntopical: Comparative

Inspectional Reading

  • Inspectional Reading

    • Manifests in two types
    • Pre-reading (skimming) (31)
    • Superficial reading
  • Pre-Reading (“Skimming”)

    • Question: Do I want to read this and/or can I read it in the time available
    • Pre-Reading Steps: It pre-seeds the book’s structure
    • Read the title and the preface (32)
    • Study the table of contents to gain the basic structure (33)
    • Examine the index (34)
      • Range of topics
      • Cross-related authors / books
      • Examine the crucial terms in the text (vital in Analytical Reading, below)
    • Read the publisher’s blurb (34)
    • Find pivotal chapters and read their intros and exit paragraphs (35)
    • With the balance of time to leaf through the book to sense the support and counter to the “gist” of the thing. Be sure to read culmination points at the end of sections as well as at the last chapter (where a summary tends to appear)
  • Steps in Superficial Reading: It pre-seeds the book’s content

    • Read through without stopping (36) while letting context teach and move you forward.
  • Behaviors of a Demanding Reader (45-6)

    1. What is this book about in aggregate
    2. How is that argument built?
    3. Is the argument true, right, just, sensible?
    4. What is the impact on my life, given an argument of that shape?
  • Notes in the book

    • Notes can be either structural, content or dialectical
    • Inspectional Reading reveals the structure and content at a lossy level. To get more precise, we have to do an Analytical Reading (which requires time). If that investment is worthy, IR reveals it.

Analytical Reading

Structure-Revealing Rules

  1. You must know what kind of book you are reading; preferably before starting to read it (60). Solve by IR determining
    • Fiction / Non-Fiction
    • Non Fiction > Theoretical (mechanics and ideas) / Practical (recommendations)
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a brief paragraph (76). What is the theme, the main point?
  3. Show how the parts function to support the unity. Ideally, this is an outline, but you don’t strictly have to write it out by hand. Be able to predict the major movements and how these features contribute to the Unity.
  4. Find out what the author’s problems were: what critical arguments needed defusing or re-lensing?

Content-Elucidating Rules

  1. Find the important words and come to terms with them, build the terminology from the raw vocabulary (term/word split 97-98). Find these keywords by resistance to familiarity, typography, offset, etc. Determine meanings in litteris suis
  2. Mark the important text in a book and discover the propositions they contain. Propositions are logical units (!= sentence) containing the author’s judgment or opinion about a thing. We will use these to infer the argument of the book in the next step.
  3. Determine the basic argument(s) by finding them in the inter-connection of sentences. Find by:
    1. Resistance
    2. Proximate to important words
    3. They belong to the argument, a movement of thought
    4. Reverse from a conclusion sentence and find the supporting pieces
    5. Spot inductive versus deductive reasoning
    6. Look for “self-evident” or “law of nature” or “all men”. It’s a generalized argument at hand in those cases
  4. Find the author’s solution(s) and determine which hold

Formulating a Response

  • Active Readers who have fully engaged in the previous steps are in standing to disagree or offer criticism, but only after ensuring they’ve understood and are acting from a place of teachability, openness, and capability.
  • Valid critical bases:
    • Author is uninformed: Missing a fact
    • Author is misinformed: Has an invalid fact
    • Author is illogical: Argument doesn’t follow
    • Author is incomplete: Argument skips over obvious implications/investigations

Rules for Fiction


  1. Classify
  2. Grasp the Whole
  3. Build the pieces (parts, major movements of plot)


  1. Grasp the characters (~ key terms)
  2. Integrate their lives (~ propositions)
  3. Follow the action (~ argument)


  1. Do so decently

Quotable Quotes

  • Good writing has unity, clarity, and coherence (91)
  • Since mathematics is a language it has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, and these have to be learned by the beginning reader (261).
  • We also are not told, at least not early enough, how beautiful and how intellectually satisfying mathematics can be (262).
  • Mathematics is very often employed by scientific writers mainly because it has the qualities of preciseness clarity, and limitedness that we have described (266).
  • Whenever you talk generally about anything, you are using abstractions (289).

The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

  • Goals: To know what books are relevant. To know what you should read generally
  • Process
    1. Inspect all the books on the list
    2. Syntopically read all the books, NB NOT analytically
  • Steps in Syntopical Reading
  • Identify the relevant passages as serves your interest
  • Bring the authors to your terms, decide if they mean the same things but are using different terms
  • Establish the discourse between authors
  • Resolve the key issues in The Discussion
  • Analyze the discussion.

  • Remain objective and distant; your response fits after you have built the discussion. You are using The Discussion as conversation to spur your creativity.