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How To Read A Book - Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

The book, I believe, is an indispensable guide to reading; why it resembles life and how it awakens us from the numbness of having to exist.

How to Read a Book book cover by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, a timeless guide that teaches effective reading techniques, critical thinking, and comprehension skills to enhance the reader's understanding and engagement with various types of literature.

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Below are all the important points of the book that you can comb through. Each sentence is written as is mentioned in the book verbatim.


THE ACTIVITY AND ART OF READING

  1. Knowledge is a prerequisite to understanding.

  2. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few.

  3. He is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him.

  4. The amount the reader “catches” will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved.

  5. Reading consists of a large number of separate acts.

  6. The art of reading: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the reading matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading.

  7. The things that are usually regarded as more difficult to read, and hence as only for the better reader, are those that are more likely to reserve and demand this kind of reading.

  8. Difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery: this distinction is familiar in terms of the differences between being able to remember something and being able to explain it. If you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised with your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

  9. We can gain knowledge without being taught. Hence, there must be discovery- the process of learning something by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.

  10. Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe and remember and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed.

  11. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect, a book is like nature or the world. When we question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysing yourself.

  12. Therefore if we are disposed to go on learning and discovering, we must know how to make books teach us well. That, indeed, is the primary goal of this book.


THE LEVELS OF READING


  1. In general, the rule is the more the effort the better, at least in the case of books that are initially beyond our powers as readers and are therefore capable of raising us from a condition of understanding less to one of understanding more.

  2. Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher. We can only do that successfully if we know how.

  3. Elementary reading: what does the sentence say?

  4. Inspectional reading: it’s the art of skimming systematically. When reading at this level, your aim is to examine the surface of the book, to learn everything that the surface alone can teach you. That is often a good deal. What is the book about? They are thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it. That compounds the difficulty.

  5. Analytical reading: on this level of reading, the reader grasps a book- the metaphor is apt-and works at it until the book becomes his own. Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding. Conversely, bringing your mind with the aid of a book from a condition of understanding less to one of understanding more is almost impossible unless you have at least some skill in analytical reading.

  6. Syntopical reading “comparative reading”: when reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.


HOW TO BE A DEMANDING READER


  1. Ask questions about why you read- questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. - What is the book about as a whole? - What is being said in detail, and how? - Is the book true, in whole or in part? - What of it? (Its significance)

  2. An analytical reading of a book has not been accomplished satisfactorily until you have answers to those last questions- until you have some idea of the book’s truth, in whole or part, and of its significance, if only in your own scheme of things.

  3. Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively.

  4. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it- which comes to the same thing- is by writing in it.

  5. Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake- not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

  6. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

  7. Importance of classifying books: (Rule 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. Different kinds/genres of books demand different reading experiences. If you note the sort of experience that is being referred to as a condition of understanding what is being said, you will know whether the book is scientific or philosophical. (Pigeonholing a book)


X-RAYING A BOOK


  1. Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers. Your job as an analytical reader is to find it.

  2. Recognition of the need to see the structure of a book leads to the discovery of the second and third rules for reading any book. But every book without exception that is worth reading at all has a unity and an organization of parts.

  3. (Rule 2) State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph). To find out what a book is about in this sense is to discover its theme or main point.

  4. (Rule 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. You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one.

  5. The analogy is almost perfect. A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts. Each major part has a certain amount of independence. As we will see, it may have an interior structure of its own, and it may be decorated in a different way from other parts. But it must also be connected with the other parts- that is, related to the functionality- for otherwise it will not contribute its share to the intelligibility of the whole.

  6. Aristotle, in his Poetics, shows how the unity of the Odyssey can be summarized in a few sentences. (Page 78)

  7. How frequently you can expect the author, especially a good one, to help you to state the plan of his book? Despite that fact, most readers are at a total loss if you ask them to say briefly what the whole book is about. Partly this is owing to the widespread inability to speak concise English sentences. Partly it is due to neglect of this rule in reading. But it also indicates that many readers pay as little attention to the author’s introductory words as they ordinarily do to his title.

  8. After all, a book is something different to each reader. It would not be surprising if that difference expressed itself in the way the reader stated its unity. Though readers are different, the book is the same, and there can be an objective check on the accuracy and fidelity of the statements anyone makes about it.

  9. You must look beneath the surface to discover the real structure.

  10. The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. The flesh of a book is as much a part of it as the skeleton. Just so, actually writing the book from an outline, no matter how detailed, gives the work a kind of life that it would not otherwise have.

  11. (Rule 4) Find out what the author’s problems were. The intentional fallacy: it is a fallacy of thinking you can discover what was in an author’s mind from the book he has written. This applies particularly to literary works: it is a grave error, for example, to try to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from the evidence of Hamlet.


COMING TO TERMS WITH AN AUTHOR


  1. Unless the reader comes to terms with the author, the communication of knowledge from one to the other does not take place.

  2. You must spot the important words in a book and figure out how the author is using them.

  3. (Rule 5) Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.

  4. There are two main possibilities. Either the author is using these words in a single sense throughout or he is using them in two or more senses, shifting his meaning from place to place.

  5. In the light of these alternatives, your procedure should be as follows. First, try to determine whether the word has one or many meanings. If it has many, try to see how they are related. Finally, note the places where the word is used in one sense or another, and see if the context gives you any clue to the reason for the shift in meaning. This last will enable you to follow the word in its change of meanings with the same flexibility that characterizes the author’s usage.

  6. The more you put it (useful guide page 111) into practice, the more you’ll appreciate the intricacies of the problem. You will want to know something about the literal and metaphorical use of words. You will want to know about the distinction between abstract and concrete words, and between proper and common names. You will become interested in the whole business of definition: the difference between defining words and defining things; why some words are indefinable, and yet have definite meanings, and so forth. You will seek light from what is called “the emotive use of words,” that is, the use of words to arouse emotions, to move men to action or change their minds, as distinct from the communication of knowledge. And you may even become interested in the relationship between ordinary “rational” speech and “bizarre” or “crazy” talk- the speech of the mentally disturbed, where almost every word carries weird and unexpected but nevertheless identifiable connotations.

  7. You will profit more from reading such books because you will go to them with questions born of your own experience in reading.

  8. You will find that your comprehension of any book will be enormously increased if you only go to the trouble of finding its important words, identifying their shifting meanings, and coming to terms. Seldom does such a small change in a habit have such a large effect.

DETERMINING AN AUTHOR’S MESSAGE


  1. It is important to distinguish the various propositions that a long complex sentence contains. In order to agree or disagree with the author, you must first understand what he is saying. But he is saying three things in one sentence. You may disagree with one of them and agree with the others.

  2. (Rule 6) Find the important words and come to terms.

  3. (Rule 7) Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.

  4. (Rule 8) Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.

  5. From your point of view as a reader, the sentences important for you are those that require an effort of interpretation because, at first sight, they are not perfectly intelligible. You understand them just well enough to know there is more to understand.

  6. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.

  7. Pause over the sentences that interest you rather than the ones that puzzle you. Indeed, this is one of the greatest obstacles to reading a book that is not completely contemporary. Any old book contains facts that are somewhat surprising because they are different from what we know. But when you’re reading for understanding it is not that kind of novelty that you’re seeking. Your interest in the author himself, or in his language, or in the world in which he wrote, is one thing; your concern to understand his ideas is quite another. It is this concern that the rules we are discussing here can help you to satisfy, not your curiosity about other matters.

  8. “State in your own words!” That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the propositions or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can, of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.

  9. (Rule 9) Find if you can the paragraphs in a book that state its important arguments; but if the arguments are not thus expressed your task is to construct them, by taking a sentence from this paragraph, and one from that, until you have gathered together the sequence of sentences that state the propositions that compose the argument.


CRITICIZING A BOOK FAIRLY


  1. the author does all the talking and you have nothing to say. If you think that, you do not realize your full obligation as a reader- and you are not grasping your opportunities.

  2. Remember Bacon’s recommendation to the reader: “Read not to contradict or confute; nor to believe or take for granted; nor to find, talk, and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

  3. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical. He is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed.

  4. We have everywhere found a certain reciprocity between the art of teaching and the art of being taught, between the skill of the author that makes him a considerate writer and the skill of the reader that makes him handle a book with consideration.

  5. (Rule 11) You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”

  6. (Rule 12) When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.

  7. (Rule 13) Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

  8. You are a good reader to the degree to which you approximate it.


AIDS TO READING


  1. Any aid to reading that lies outside the book we may speak of as extrinsic. By “intrinsic” reading we mean reading a book in itself, quite apart from all other books. By “extrinsic” reading we mean reading a book in the light of other books.

  2. How do you know whether you are making proper use of your experience to help you understand a book? The surest test is one we have already recommended as a test of understanding: ask yourself whether you can give a concrete example of a point that you feel you understand. We have many times asked students to do this, only to find that they could not. The students appeared to have understood the point, but they were completely at a loss when called upon to supply an example. Obviously, they had not really understood the book. Test yourself in this way when you are not quite sure whether you have grasped the book.

  3. Reading related books in relation to one another and in an order that renders the later ones more intelligible is a basic common-sense maxim of extrinsic reading.

  4. The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.

  5. The conversation of the books takes place in time. Time is of the essence here and should be disregarded. The books can be read from the present into the past or from the past into the present.

  6. How to use reference books: a reference book is an antidote to ignorance in only a limited way. It cannot cure total ignorance. It cannot do your thinking for you. You must know what you want to know; you must know in what reference work to find it; you must know how to find it in the reference work; and you must know that it is considered knowable by the authors or compilers of the book. All this indicates that you must know a good deal before you can use a work of reference. Reference books are useless to people who know nothing. They are not guides to the perplexed.


APPROACHES TO DIFFERENT KINDS OF READING MATTER


  1. How to read practical books: you must know what the author wanted to do- because, in the case of a practical work, knowing what he wants to do comes down to knowing what he wants you to do. And that is obviously of considerable importance.

  2. How to read imaginative literature: people can be good readers of fiction without being good critics. We suspect this is, at best, a half-truth. A critical reading of anything depends upon the fullness of one’s apprehension. Those who cannot say what they like about a novel probably have not read it below its most obvious surfaces.

  3. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth.

  4. Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.

  5. We do not mean that imaginative literature is always, or essentially, escapist. In the ordinary sense of that term, the idea is contemptible. If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality. This is the reality of our inner life, of our own unique vision of the world. To discover this reality makes us happy; the experience is deeply satisfying to some part of ourselves we do not ordinarily tough. In any event, the rules of reading a great work of literary art should have as an end or goal just such a profound experience. The rules should clear away all that stops us from feeling as deeply as we possibly can.

  6. In contrast, imaginative writing relies as much upon what is implied as upon what is said. The multiplication of metaphors puts almost more content between the lines than in the words that compose them. The whole poem or story says something that none of its words says or can say.

  7. We can learn from vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination.

  8. Imaginative books teach only derivatively, by creating experiences from which we can learn. In order to learn from such books, we have to do our own thinking about the experience.

  9. Do not criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to the communication of knowledge. The “truth” of a good story is its verisimilitude, its intrinsic probability or plausibility.

  10. There are, as we have seen, three groups of such rules. The first group consists of rules for discovering the unity and part-whole structure; the second consists of rules for identifying and interpreting the book’s component terms, propositions, and arguments; the third consists of rules for criticizing the author’s doctrine so that we can reach intelligent agreement or disagreement with him. We call these three groups of rules

  11. The unity of a story is always in its plot.

  12. The parts of fiction are the various steps that the author takes to develop his plot- the details of characterization and incident.

  13. To know the structure of a narrative, you must know where it begins- which is not necessarily on the first page, of course-what it goes through, and what it comes out at.

  14. Become at home in the imaginary world; know it as if you were an observer on the scene; become a member of its population, willing to befriend its characters, and able to participate in its happenings by sympathetic insight, as you would do in the actions and sufferings of a friend. If you can do this, the elements of fiction will cease to be so many isolated pawns moved about mechanically on a chessboard. You will have found the connections that vitalise them into members of a living society.

  15. Aristotle said that plot is the soul of the story. It is its life. To read a story well you must have your finger on the pulse of the narrative, and be sensitive to its every beat.

  16. Don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make your experience.

  17. The good reader of a story does not question the world that the author creates- the world that is recreated in himself. “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donné,” said Henry James in The Art of Fiction;” our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”

  18. The beauty of any work of art is related to the pleasure it gives us when we know it well. The better you can reflectively discern the causes of your pleasure in reading fiction or poetry, the nearer you will come to know the artistic virtues in the literary work itself. You will thus gradually develop a standard of criticism. And you will probably find a large company of men and women of similar taste who share your critical judgments. You may even discover, what we think is true, that good taste in literature is acquired by anyone who learns to read.


HOW TO READ STORIES


  1. Try as hard as you can to live in the author’s world, not in yours; there, the things he does may be quite understandable. And do not judge the world as a whole until you are sure that you have “lived” in it to the extent of your ability.

  2. A story is like life itself; in life, we do not expect to understand events as they occur, at least with total clarity, but looking back on them, we do understand.

  3. So the reader of a story, looking back on it after he has finished it, understands the relation of events and the order of actions. All of this comes down to the same point: you must finish your story in order to be able to say that you have read it well. Paradoxically, however, a story ceases to be like life on its last page. Life goes on, but the story does not.

  4. We are satisfied with Shakespeare’s and Tolstoy’s creations partly because they are limited in time. We need no more.

  5. Fiction seems to be a necessity for human beings. Because it satisfies many unconscious as well as conscious needs. It would be important if it only touched the conscious mind, as expository writing does. But fiction is important, too, because it also touches the unconscious.

  6. We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.


HOW TO READ LYRIC POETRY


  1. Poetry, this hold, is a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality, which may be expressed in written words but may also take the form of physical action. The more or less musical sound, or even just feel.

  2. It is a very old notion that the poet reaches down deep into himself to produce his poems, that their plays of origin are a mysterious “well of creation” within the mind or soul. Whatever may be the origin of the poet's impulse, poetry, for us, consists of words, and what is more, of words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way.

  3. A good poem can be worked at, re-read, and thought about over and over for the rest of your life. You will never stop finding new things, new pleasures and delights, and also new ideas about yourself and the world.

  4. Many apparently simple poems have immense complexity under the surface.

  5. But any good lyric poem has a unity. Unless we read all of it, and all at once, we cannot comprehend its unity. We cannot discover except possibly by accident, the basic feeling or experience that underlies it. In particular, the essence of a poem is almost never to be found in its first line, or even in its first stanza. It is to be found only in the whole, and not conclusively in any part.

  6. A large number of great lyric poems- perhaps even the majority of them- are about the conflict between love and time, between life and death, between the beauty of transient things and the triumph of eternity. But these words may not be mentioned in the poem itself. (Example of Shakespeare on page 225)

  7. To be understood a poem must be read- over and over. Reading any great lyric poem is a lifetime job-not, of course, in the sense that it should go on and on throughout a lifetime, but rather that as a great poem, it deserves many return visits. And during vacations from a given poem, we may learn more about it than we realize.


HOW TO READ PHILOSOPHY


  1. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder.

  2. The method according to which you should read a philosophical book is very similar to the method according to which it is written. A philosopher, faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it- which means, as we know, thinking about it. There are no other aids except the mind itself.


SYNTOPICAL READING


  1. Find the relevant passages.

  2. Getting the questions clear: the best way to do this is to frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors gives answers. 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.

  3. Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read.

  4. Sometimes, when passages from the same book are read in sequence and in the context of one another, each becomes clearer. Sometimes the meaning of each of a series of contrasting or conflicting passages from different books is accentuated when they are against one another. And sometimes the passages from one author, amplifying or commenting on the passages from another, materially help the reader’s understanding of the second author.

  5. Multiple interpretation not only is a basic exercise in the art of reading but also tends to make the mind habitually alert to the many strains of meaning that any rich or complex passage can contain.

  6. Each author is a little universe in himself, and although connections can be made between different books written by the same author at different times (even here there are dangers, they warn), there are no clear connections relating one author to another. They maintain, finally, that the subjects that authors discuss, as such, are not as important as the ways in which they discuss them. The style, they say, is the man; and if we ignore how an author says something, in the process of trying to discuss what he says, we will miss both kinds of understanding.


READING AND THE GROWTH OF THE MIND


  1. A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all.

  2. You become wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.

  3. Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and grown.

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