If you’re interested in sharpening up your ability to read, comprehend, and debate, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren‘s bestselling How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (1972; first published in 1940 under only Adler’s name) is the definitive guidebook.

The book stemmed from Adler’s belief that students of liberal education needed to be grounded in the “great ideas” of humankind, as represented in the canon of Western classic literature. To Adler, the art of reading well is deeply correlated to the art of thinking clearly, critically, and freely.

After the publication of How to Read a Book (1940,) Adler advanced his ideas on educational theory further by starting the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. His later successes as a University of Chicago philosopher and an educator had an colossal influence on American education in the twentieth century.

Take-away Lesson #1: Active Reading is the Effort to Understand

How to Read a Book is divided into four parts:

  • Part one discusses the first two levels of reading: elementary reading (the level of reading taught in elementary schools and high schools) and inspectional reading (methodical skimming and cursory reading.)
  • Part two contains the third level of reading, analytical reading: classifying the author’s arguments and information, coming to terms with the book’s line of reasoning, establishing the author’s implications, criticizing the book, and critiquing the author.
  • Abraham Lincoln and son reading a book Part three covers the particular nuances of reading various types of literature: practical books, creative literature, stories, plays, poems, history, philosophy, science, mathematics, and social science.
  • Part four of the book is earmarked to the ultimate goals of reading—viz., expanding one’s mind for further understanding—a goal facilitated by “synoptical reading.” Since, per Carl Jung, “one book opens another,” a determined reader should peruse several works on the same subject with the intention of establishing a broader outlook of the subject matter. According to Adler, syntopical reading is the hallmark of scholarship: “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 essence of reading’s comprehension and appreciation lies in how best the reader can answer four questions during the course of reading a book:

  • During elementary reading: “What does the book say?”
  • During inspectional reading: “What is the book about?” How the author is trying to say it? What methodologies, narratives, substantiations, and examples does he use?
  • During analytical reading: “What does the book mean?” And, “Are the author’s arguments and claims valid—in whole or part? What is the significance of the author’s theses?”
  • During syntopical reading: “How does this book compare with other books?” And, “What other sources of knowledge could be pursued?”

How to Read a Book concludes with two appendices: (1) a list of titles in the “Great Books of the Western World” program, and (2) a number of exercises and tests on all four levels of reading.

Take-away Lesson #2: A Reader Must Suspend Judgment Until He Can Express the Author’s Positions

  • “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.’”
  • “Students who plainly do not know what the author is saying seem to have no hesitation in setting themselves up as his judges. They not only disagree with something they do not understand but, what is equally bad, they also often agree to a position they cannot express intelligibly in their own words.” As I’ve elaborated on this blog before (here, here, here, here, and here,) you must be able to accurately state—in your own words—the position of those you’re debating, before you can challenge them.
  • “When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.” And, “Most people think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth. He who regards conversation as a battle can win only by being an antagonist, only by disagreeing successfully, whether he is right or wrong.”

Take-away Lesson #3: Reading Well is Better Than Reading Widely

  • Bill Gates Reading one of his Favorite Books The objective of reading a book is to evolve to the level of the author: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” Additionally, “Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.”
  • Read a “difficult” book multiple times. Each time you read a specific book, you’ll discover more—new ideas, new concepts, and deeper truths.
    • “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.”
    • “It is generally desirable to skim even a book that you intend to read carefully, to get some idea of its form and structure.”
    • “Ask questions while you read—questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.”
  • Regarding the “ignorance of those who have misread many books”, Adler asserts that such people, “are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, bookful blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well.”

Recommendation: Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is a smart reading that should be on everybody’s library. It is a goldmine of invaluable insights into the art of reading, debate, and persuasion.



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