How to Read a Book

I wish I had read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in high school or college. Its advice would have helped me retain a lot more of what I read. There’s far more in the book than just the summary notes below, but these capture what I hope to carry forward.

There are multiple speeds and levels to reading; it’s important to use the one that matches your purpose. This book focuses on reading for understanding, which requires deep thinking (it’s important to rely on yourself, not external aids, for this deep thought).

The three relevant levels of reading they outline:

  • Inspectional: systematic skimming.
  • Analytical: thorough reading.
  • Syntopical: comparative reading of multiple books.

By stacking these together you gain more from a book.

Inspectional Reading

Your goal is to figure out whether the book merits a closer read. This helps you identify where you can best spend time on analytical reading, which will be more time consuming. They outline a number of steps:

  • The title page and preface give you the scope.
  • The table of contents gives you the structure.
  • The index gives you the topics.
  • The pivotal chapters give you a summary.
  • Scattered reading gives you the pulse.

Once you’ve done that it’s best to read straight through the book. The focus is not on what you do not understand right away; instead, focus on what you do understand and build from there.

Analytical Reading

Your goal is to do the best reading you can; it’s cognitively intense work. The main ideas that fall under this level of reading:

  • State what the book is about (in your own words) as briefly as possible.
  • Outline the book’s argument.
    • Find the theme. The parts that compose that. The sections within those parts. And the points within those sections.
  • Find the key terms and understand how the author uses them.
    • Rely on surrounding context, not a dictionary.
  • State the author’s argument(s) in your own words.

If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are. — Thomas Hobbes1

Syntopical Reading

To gain a deeper understanding of an issue it helps to read multiple books in a comparative way. You can start with inspectional reading of many books as this will inform which have value to read more analytically. Their flow for syntopical reading:

  • Focus on the passages relevant to your research.
  • Create consistent terminology between authors.
  • Outline the questions these authors answer.
  • Find where the authors hold different views on the same question.
  1. pg. 164 []