How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler discusses techniques for how a reader can garner more knowledge, and retain it, from a book. Adler defines four types of reading, each of which build upon the previous: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical reading. The bulk of the book is spent discussing analytical reading, which is a deep, thorough reading that allows the reader to fully understand the book and form informed opinions about the work.

Adler suggests that there are four questions the reader must ask of any book.

Four Questions to Ask About Any Book

  1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in a orderly why by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.
  4. 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? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.

In order to answer these questions, Adler defines four stages of reading:

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Syntopical

Elementary Reading

Elementary reading is the most simple, basic act of reading. This is the type of reading we practice beginning in kindergarten when we first learn to recognize words and their associated meaning.

Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading occurs in two stages. The first stage of inspectional reading serves to uncover the book’s structure and basic premise. This stage will uncover the author’s main contention and whether the book warrants more careful reading.

Inspectional Reading I: Skimming or Pre-reading

  1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, its preface.
  2. Study the table of contents.
  3. Check the index.
  4. Read the publishers blurb.
  5. Look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument.
  6. Turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that. Above all, do not fail to read the last two or three pages, or, if these are an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book.

The second stage of inspectional reading prepares the reader for a more thorough analytical reading by building a base understanding of and familiarity with the book.

Inspectional Reading II: Superficial Reading

Read the book as quickly as possible. Do not try to understand everything; make note of where you have trouble and move on. This will prepare you for a more thorough reading the second time.

Analytical Reading

The first stage of analytical reading allows you to answer the first basic question about a book: “What is the book about as a whole?”

The First Stage of Analytical Reading: Finding Out What a Book is About

  1. 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.
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).
  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.
  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 or answers.

The second stage of analytical reading allows you to answer the second basic question about a book: “What is being said in detail, and how?”

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Interpreting a Book’s Contents

  1. Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author. Note that the rule has two parts. 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.
  2. Mark the most important sentences in the book and discover the propositions they contain.
  3. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book.
  4. Find out what the author’s solutions are.

The third stage of analytical reading allows you to criticize a book fairly. In doing so, you can answer the last two basic questions about a book: “Is the book true, in whole or in part?” and “What of it?”

The Third Stage of Analytical Reading: Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge

  1. 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 judgement.”
  2. When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.
  3. Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgement you make

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading is the highest level of reading, and occurs when you read multiple books on the same subject. There are 7 steps to syntopical reading:

  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  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.
  3. Insect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in steps one and two to find the most relevant passages.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 matter that may not have been their primary concern.
  7. 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.
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