If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to read more, then there is one book you must read before anything else. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book is a practical guide for reading and comprehending any book, whether fiction or non-fiction.
(It should be noted here that How to Read a Book was first published by Adler in 1940 and revised and updated with Charles Van Doren in 1972. The revised edition is substantially different from the first, and this is the version that I recommend.)
The authors’ purpose in writing this guide is to inspire the reader to read not just any book, but great books: those that stretch your mind and improve your reading skills. Reading, the authors maintain, should be active. In order to get the most out of any book, we must ask and answer questions that will allow us to fully comprehend and criticize a book fairly, forming our own views without depending upon the opinions of others.
This approach is increasingly important today:
The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day…the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind…then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.
Indeed, this volume could have been titled How to Think a Book.
Adler and Van Doren have outlined four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical (this last is their own coined phrase). These levels correspond, generally, to the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of the classical curriculum.
Elementary reading corresponds to the grammar level of the classical curriculum, that is, basic literacy. In order to master the elementary level, one must be able to read with at least a ninth-grade proficiency. Not much time in the book is spent on this level of reading, except to point out the sad fact that it cannot be taken for granted, as the number of remedial reading courses for college freshmen indicate.
The next levels are those that should be mastered at the high school and post-high school level, but Adler and Van Doren bemoan the fact that, “One should not have to spend four years in graduate school in order to learn how to read.”
The inspectional and analytical levels generally correspond to the logic level of a classical curriculum; they focus on understanding. Inspectional reading includes pre-reading and superficial reading in order to understand the general composition of a book. This activity is often overlooked.
There are several reasons why inspectional reading is valuable as a separate reading skill. First, it allows you to quickly ascertain which books are worthy of a closer reading. This is especially important with today’s influx of information. We can’t read everything, so we must have a way of filtering what we want to read. Second, even books that require a close reading can benefit from a separate inspectional read.
Many books are so complicated that trying to understand them as a whole the first time through is daunting. You can’t always comprehend the general structure and the details of a book at the same time. Adler and Van Doren use Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as an example:
If you insist on understanding everything on every page before you go on to the next, you will not get very far. In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points Smith makes so clearly about the factors of wages, rents, profits, and interest that enter into the cost of things, the role of the market in determining prices, the evils of monopoly, the reasons for free trade. You will miss the forest for the trees. You will not be reading on any level.
Analytical Reading refers to an active, detailed reading, and takes up the greatest part of How to Read a Book. It is broken down into fifteen separate steps, too numerous to outline here. However, these steps all contribute to answering four general questions: 1) What is the book about as a whole? 2) What is being said in detail, and how? 3) Is the book true, in whole or in part? 4) What of it?
Answering these questions as you read and completing each analytical step allow the reader to fully comprehend the contents to the best of his or her ability and to offer criticism. (By the way, the steps don’t have to be done separately. For an expert reader many steps are conflated and automatic.)
Among the steps regarding criticism, those grouped as “criteria for disagreement” deserve special consideration, since many of us avoid them. If one disagrees with an author, especially of a scientific or philosophical work, it is incumbent upon the reader to state specifically whether the author’s argument is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete.
If you can’t show where the author fulfills one of these criteria, Adler and Van Doren contend, then you can’t disagree; you must either agree or suspend judgement.
While analytical reading refers to the in-depth consideration of a particular work, syntopical reading refers to the evaluation of several works on a particular topic and corresponds to the rhetoric stage of the classical curriculum.
While the ability to read analytically is required to read syntopically, syntopical reading does not necessarily require cover-to-cover reading of several works. It may require analyzing only those portions of the works that deal with a topic.
Preparatory work for syntopical reading requires preliminary inspection of many works in order to compile a bibliography relevant to a subject. Once a bibliography has been compiled, the syntopical reader must examine the topic in light of the “conversation” between authors.
Because authors will discuss the same subject by using different terms, it is important to create a neutral terminology with which to evaluate the different positions taken upon the subject. Anyone who has been required to write undergraduate or graduate-level papers will appreciate the utility of this level of reading.
How to Read a Book is indispensable to the autodidact, not only because it encourages stretching one’s reading skills, but because it encourages thinking. How many of us avoid serious criticism by reading only those works that we agree with? How many of us read only what is in our “comfort zone,” avoiding books that are over our heads?
If you want to read seriously, and read well, then being armed with Adler and Van Doren’s classic will allow you to take on the challenge. Happy reading.
Julia Evans is a private teacher and graduate student studying Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. She is married and currently lives in Capitola, California.