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Book Notes: “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren


How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972 edition) is a book about a subject that we book-readers consider all too infrequently—the very act of reading books. The authors identify three main types of reading: reading for entertainment, reading for information and reading for increased understanding. The methods described in How to Read a Book focus on this last category: expository works that bring enlightenment to the reader.

The authors assert that outcome of active reading should be “increased understanding.” To achieve this objective, readers must employ a number of cognitive skills; skills that are rarely considered by even the most educated individuals. Fortunately for us, the authors have codified these skills into a framework they have coined the “four levels of reading.”

The first level is elementary reading, basic grammar, vocabulary and literacy (this is the foundation for the other levels). The authors lament that most of us never move past this first level of aptitude. The second level is inspectional reading. This is the ability to skim a book, in a fixed amount of time, in order to glean the key arguments and concepts. The third level is analytical reading which is a subsequent reading (after the inspectional stage) whereby the reader dives deeper into the author’s message. The fourth and final level is called “syntopical reading.” This type of reading involves teasing out new ideas or themes from a number of books rather than a single one. For instance, this is the type of reading one might perform in order to write a book or dissertation.

How to Read a Book is divided into four parts. Parts One and Two describe the authors’ approach to reading and the first three levels of reading. Part Three, the weakest part of the book, describes the application of the system to specific genres and categories of books. Part Four describes the fourth level of reading. The best material in the book can be found in Parts One and Two. If detailed examples of the system in action are desired, there is a solid appendix with some sample analyses.

This is a tough book to rate. The subject matter is fascinating to me but the execution of the book falls short. A couple of factors work against the authors. First, the original edition of the book dates from the 1940s. It was revised in 1972, but the prose remains old-fashioned and sexist. Explanations that might be more forthright in contemporary hands are meandering and obtuse. Moreover, there is the underlying problem that many of the discussion points remain overly abstract and vague (the authors would most certainly place the blame on the reader on this point, but I imagine other readers might share this criticism).

This book will force you to think carefully about how you read books. There are some practical takeaways from the methodology presented (such as the analytical questions one should ask when reading). I also found the discussion of “inspectional reading” (a type of reading I had never really given much thought) to be enlightening and I plan to employ this type of reading in the future. The downside is that this isn’t a fun book to read in any way. I was enlightened, but I didn’t enjoy the experience.

Pros: The notion of thinking about reading is under appreciated and overlooked. I laud the authors’ efforts to push readers to improve this essential skill.

Cons: The prose is old-fashioned for 21st century readers. This is not a fun read.

Verdict: 6/10

Notes & Highlights

Part One: The Dimensions of Reading

Chapter 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

  • The book is written for “those whose main purpose in reading is to gain increased understanding.” Other purposes of reading that the author discusses are for information and entertainment.
  • “Knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as it is commonly supposed. 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…we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.”
  • Author suggests that “packaging of intellectual positions and views” for consumption of the masses is unconsciously substituted for individual, independent thinking. The result is that we “make up our own mind” with minimal effort or thought (with respect to both the content/ideas and the source of the content).
  • Reading is an act of communication between writer and reader. The writer must put effort into giving/communicating the message. The reader, in an ideal situation, must put in effort to receive and understand the message.
  • “Reading is a complex activity…it consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.”
  • The author defines the art of reading as: “The process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable 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 conditions for reading for understanding: 1) The writer possesses superior understanding (insight) on a given topic in comparison to the reader. 2) The reader must be able to overcome their lack of understanding.
  • Two types of learning: Instruction vs. Discovery
  • “To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know…what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts…being informed is a prerequisite to being enlightened.”
  • Do not stop at being merely informed (treat this as a mere first step).
  • “Listening is learning from a teacher who is present—a living teacher—while reading is learning from one who is absent.”
  • A living teacher will answer your questions. For questions you have about a book, you may need to answer those yourself.

Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading

  • “The goal a reader seeks—be it entertainment, information or understanding—determines the way he reads.”
  • Author defines four levels of reading which are are distinct from each other but cumulative in effect.
  • 1st Level - Elementary Reading: Recognizing individual words on the page. “What does this sentence say?” (Speed reading and mechanical improvements in reading often focus on this level)
  • 2nd Level - Inspectional Reading: The goal of this level is to get the most out of a book within a given time. “Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.” Aim to examine the surface of the book. “What is this book about?” And “What is the structure of this book?” Are 2nd level matters.
  • 3rd Level - Analytical Reading: Analytical reading is the best, most complete reading possible given unlimited time. This is highly active reading. Analytical reading is not necessary for informational or entertainment reading. “Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.”
  • 4th Level - Syntopical Reading: The most complex and systematic of the four levels. This is “comparative reading” in which many books are read in a given topic. Through synoptical reading the reader will be able to develop and synthesize new analyses of the subject that are not available in any of the individual books.

Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

  • The stages of elementary reading:
The first stage of elementary reading—reading readiness—corresponds to pre-school and kindergarten experiences.

The second stage—word mastery—corresponds to the first grade experience.

The third stage of elementary reading—vocabulary growth and the utilization of context—is typically acquired at about the end of the fourth grade of elementary school (e.g. “functional literacy”).

The fourth and final stage of reading is attained in junior high school…the child…is now capable of reading almost anything, but still in a relatively unsophisticated manner.
  • A good high school should produce good analytical readers. A good college should produce good syntopical readers. However, many schools fail to teach either skill.
  • “Educational opportunity that is limited only by individual desire, ability, and need is the most valuable service that society can provide for its members.”

Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

  • Skim the following: Title Page, Preface, Table of Contents, Index. This should give you a good sense about the author’s main contention and what kind of book has been written.
  • Select a few pivotal chapters and read a few paragraphs here and there. In particular, pay attention to the ends of chapters and the final chapter. Read the last 2-3 pages as the author is more likely to provide summaries or highlights of the ideas he or she consider most important.
  • Author emphasizes that superficial ordinarily has negative connotations but in the context of effective reading, it is an essential role: Understanding a book at the superficial level sets the reader’s expectations and helps them determine whether or not to invest in the book in the first place.
  • “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.”
  • The author emphasizes that multiple readings may be necessary for better understanding.
  • “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…”
  • Speed of reading is dependent on the goal of the reading activity. Inspectional reading is done quickly because the goal is to get the gist of the book and the overarching idea (similarly “analytical reading” will be performed more slowly).

Chapter 5: How to Be a Demanding Reader

  • The fundamental prescription for active reading: “Ask questions while you read—questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.”
1. WHAT IS THIS BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? Discover the leading theme of the book.
2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? Discover the main ideas, assertions and arguments.
  • Marking a book or taking notes is an indispensable part of reading. Here are some recommended methods:
1. Underlining (to emphasize statements)
2. Vertical lines at the margin (to emphasize passages)
3. Star, asterisk, or other margin markings (to emphasize passages)
4. Numbers in the margin (to indicate sequence of points)
5. Numbers of other pages in the margin (to reference related points found elsewhere in the book)
6. Circling of key words or phrases
7. Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page (to record questions and salient thoughts)
  • Three types of note-making:
1. Structural notes: notes about the structure of the book
2. Conceptual notes notes about the author’s ideas/subject matter
3. Shape of the discussion notes: comparative notes in which other authors ideas are assessed alongside the current book.
  • Skiing analogy: “you must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them…but in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts…”

Part Two: Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

Chapter 6: Pigeonholing a Book

  • 1st Rule of Analytical Reading: “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.”
  • Theoretical vs. practical books: “Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.”
  • History, science and philosophy are often “theoretical books.”

Chapter 7: X-Raying a Book

  • 2nd Rule of Analytical Reading: “State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).”
  • 3rd Rule of Analytical Reading: “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.”
  • A good book is an orderly arrangement of parts. Being able to understand how the parts work in concert is critical to being a good reader.
  • “The best books are those that have the most intelligible structure.”
  • In many expository (non-fiction) books, the author will lay out their theme and goals in the preface. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations might be summed up as follows:
This is an inquiry into the source of national wealth in any economy that is built on a division of labor, considering the relation of the wages paid labor, the profits returned to capital, and the rent owed the landowner, as the prime factors in the price of commodities. It discusses the various ways in which capital can be more or less gainfully employed, and relates the origin and use of money to the accumulation and employment of capital. Examining the development of opulence in different nations and under different conditions, it compares the several systems of political economy, and argues for the beneficence of free trade.
  • A good author will clearly state the plan of his book. (Unfortunately many readers neglect to recall this plan even after encountering it which is a symptom of poor reading comprehension)
  • The rules of reading are also the rules of writing. The two are reciprocal but not identical.
  • “The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up.”
  • Good writing should have unity, clarity and coherence.
  • 4th Rule of Analytical Reading: “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.”
  • Recap of the first stage of analytical reading:
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

Chapter 8: Coming to Terms with an Author

  • A term is a word used unambiguously. “Think of terms as a skilled use of words for the sake of communicating knowledge.”
  • 5th Rule of Analytical Reading: “Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.”
  • Language can be vague and misleading. Effective communication between writer and reader requires that a common framework is established between the two. “Language is imperfect as a medium for conveying knowledge, it also functions as an obstacle to communications.”
  • “No author, regardless of his skill in writing, can achieve communication without a reciprocal skill on the part of readers.”
  • Example: The word “reading” has many meanings (one words is the vehicle for many terms). For example: reading to be entertained, reading for information and reading to achieve understanding. In the case of the author’s book, he and the reader much explicitly agree to discuss reading on the terms of the last definition: “reading to achieve understanding.”

Chapter 9: Determining an Author’s Message

  • “Propositions are the answers to questions. They are declarations of knowledge or opinion.”
  • Readers not only want to know an author’s propositions, they must know why they should be persuaded to accept them.
  • Sentences and paragraphs are grammatical units. Propositions and arguments are logical units.
  • In order to agree or disagree with an author, the reader must first understand the argument the author is making.
  • “From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgements on which his whole argument rests.”
  • The author elaborates on Rule 7: “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.”
  • A good book usually summarizes itself as it develops its arguments.
  • Critical elements to the construction of an argument:
a. Every argument involves a number of statements (some are reasons for why the reader should accept a conclusion).
b. Discriminate between deductive and inductive arguments. Inductive reasoning will use particular facts as evidence for a generalization. Deductive reasoning will use a series of general statements to support another generalization.
c. Observe the author’s assumptions. Which ones are provable or supported by evidence and which ones are “self-evident” (and possibly fallacious or unproven).
  • Recap of the second stage of analytical reading:
1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Chapter 10: Criticizing a Book Fairly

  • The reader gets the last word in the “conversation” between author and reader.
  • “Even if the reader is not convinced or persuaded, the author’s intention and effort should be respected. The reader owes him a considered judgement. If he cannot say, “I agree,” he should at least have grounds for disagreeing…”
  • General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette
1. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
3. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Chapter 11: Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author

  • Special Criteria for Points of Criticism:
1. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
2. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
3. Show wherein the author is illogical.
4. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

Chapter 12: Aids to Reading

  • Intrinsic vs. extrinsic reading. Intrinsic reading means reading a book in itself. Extrinsic reading involves use of external references, experiences and sources.
  • Extrinsic sources should be called upon after exhausting your intrinsic methods with the goal of understanding.
  • Sources for extrinsic reading: 1) Experience (common and specialized); 2) Other similar or related books; 3) Commentaries and abstracts on the book; 4) Reference books (dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.)

Part Three: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter

Chapters 13-19: [Concerning Different Genres]

  • [This is the weakest section of the book and specific to different genres like philosophy, science and “imaginative literature.” The fundamental methods outlined in Parts 1 & 2 are all employed in the reading of different literary categories and genres.]

Part Four: The Ultimate Goals of Reading

Chapter 20: The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

  • “Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of synoptical reading.”
  • “Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement [of synoptical reading].”
  • Inspectional reading is a critical skill to help you zero in on the essential books to read analytically when faced with an extensive bibliography or list of books to investigate.
  • “The skillful inspectional reader does more than classify a book in his mental card catalog…he also discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says something important about his subject or not.”
  • Author urges readers NOT to combine inspectional and analytical reading in a single pass for a given book (he cites this as a mistake that many younger researchers make).
  • The five steps for synoptical reading:
Step 1: Finding the relevant passages. “In synoptical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.”
Step 2: Bringing the authors to terms. “You [the reader] must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around…it really comes down to forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his.”
Step 3: Getting the questions clear. “The first questions usually have to do with the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating.”
Step 4: Defining the issues. “An issue is truly joined when two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in contrary or contradictory ways.” When this doesn’t happen (because of different conceptions of the question), the “task of the synoptical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be.”
Step 5: “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.”
  • Maintain “dialectical detachment” and objectivity throughout the process. Include a quote from a given author when offering an interpretation of their text.

Chapter 21: Reading and the Growth of the Mind

  • “If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article…You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.”

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