"How to Read a Book" by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van DorenI think How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading has been on my sidebar for almost as long as this blog has existed. It is thanks to Jessica’s Great Books Reading Partnership, which recently read the book with great enthusiasm, that I was inspired to finally finish this highly praised volume. I suppose I was a little intimidated by the book’s exalted status, but after reading I’m not sure it deserves the unqualified praise it often gets.

My main criticism of the book is that it’s focus is much narrower than the authors would suggest. A more appropriate title would be How to Analyze the Great Books of the Western World Set, Particularly Philosophy, and Everything Else Not So Much. As the book progresses it becomes clear, and the authors admit, that they are concerned only with the great classics of Western literature, and that their proposed method is really geared towards classic expository philosophy. Applying the method to poetry, drama, and fiction (which is where my reading is particularly weak) is so problematic that the authors basically give up and leave the reader to his or her own devices.

The core of their reading method consists of analyzing the book’s structure and argument to understand what the author is trying to say and whether he or she is correct. They suggest 15 “rules” for 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 has tried to solve.
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
  10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
  12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
  13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  14. Show wherein the author is illogical.
  15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

The first four “rules” correspond roughly to the traditional trivium notion of grammar-level understanding, the next four to logic-level analysis, and the last seven to rhetoric, where one expresses one’s opinion, I mean, judgment of the book. As you can plainly see, these rules are geared towards books that try to convince you of something, primarily philosophy, but also theology, science, and social science. However, according to the authors, even these last three subjects don’t require much analysis: theology, because believers are compelled to believe and therefore may not analyze or criticize their canonical texts (?); science, because it is so perfectly logical that analysis is unnecessary (!); and social science, because there are very few real classics of social science (whatever). Grand pronouncements like these abound in this book and demand a certain amount of forbearance.

I think that these rules, which are the meat of the book, would be very helpful for readers who have not been trained or are not naturally inclined towards analysis. The habit of analysis is extremely helpful in all practical matters of life (e.g. it might prompt one to ask How do we know there are WMDs? or What was the title of that report, Dr. Rice?). But for myself, analysis is second nature. My left brain is two sizes larger than my right, and I have pretty much been operating according to those rules (where applicable) already. What I really need help with is understanding “imaginative literature,” as Adler and Van Doren call it, and this is where they offer the least assistance. In fact they make more than one snide remark about how poetry and fiction are clogged with “emotional” content. There’s no doubt that classical philosophy is their thing, and most everything else falls into the lowly categories of entertainment or information.

Aside from the meat of the book, however, there is much good advice and encouragement for the beginning serious reader, though much if not all of it can be had elsewhere (more on this below). I especially appreciate their emphasis on the fact that different books deserve different levels of reading effort, and that many books don’t deserve to be read at all. They mention the popular “desert island books” question and say that life is like being on a desert island—we can only read so many books in a lifetime, so we had better choose well.

I should add that for the authors, the ultimate form of reading is what they call “syntopical” reading, named after the Syntopicon, a topical index to the Great Books of the Western World set, edited by Adler. Their description of this method of reading was difficult to follow until I realized that what they are talking is something just about any university student would be very familiar with: the literature review. For Adler and Van Doren, the highest form of reading is to read from all the major authors who wrote on a particular (philosophical) problem, and write out an analysis of what has been said so far. For the authors, this sort of endeavour can form a springboard for new thinking, and no doubt it does, considering that the lit review is always the first step in writing a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. Performing such a review is seen by the authors as a noble service to the human quest for knowledge, and as prosaic as the term “lit review” sounds to me, perhaps it is.

I think part of my problem with this book is that I was already spoiled by Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind. With great brevity and specificity, Bauer gives individualized methods for reading novels, autobiographies, history, drama, and poetry. In addition she gives brief but highly informative historical summaries of each genre, a real benefit to a neophyte like myself. She also gives much of the same advice that Adler and Van Doren do with regard to skimming books, avoiding introductions, and taking notes, among other things. If I could only buy one of these books, I would definitely go with Bauer’s, since she covers the areas where I need the most help. If slicing and dicing Plato and Aristotle is on your agenda, though, How to Read a Book might be the book for you. I’m certainly glad I read both, and if nothing else they have helped me develop my note-taking skills. I take far fewer notes now and have come up with a format that works for me (notes and summaries on the right page, quotes, vocabulary, and comments on the left). I still feel somewhat unprepared to tackle poetry, drama, and fiction though, and will probably look into some basic lit textbook (Norton Introduction to Literature?) for more guidance before I set off on my desert island reading list. Suggestions are welcome!

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10 comments on “"How to Read a Book" by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

  1. Stefanie says:

    Since I majored in English I've never read any of the “how to read” books, but it sounds like you've got a good approach–read carefully and take notes. I find that reading critical studies of authors or time periods also helps when there is no professor to point things out to you.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Ah, critical studies, thanks. It's hard to look for something when you don't even know what it's called!

  3. There are Norton Critical Editions…LOL. I'm sure that's not what she meant though. Don't worry Sylvia, I'm completely intimidated by even attempting to read the books on our Great Books list. Next up is Gilgamesh, I'm glad I have the partners to feel stupid with!
    Thanks for sharing with us, feel welcome anytime.
    Jessica

  4. Ashutosh says:

    I think, book has restricted user effectiveness. technical readers who habe bad comprehension skills, would find it unuseful for them. had the book focussed on generic required , rather than specifc, it would have proved it utility much more..

  5. max weismann says:

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.
    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.
    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.
    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.
    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:
    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

  6. Sylvia says:

    That's wonderful, Max. Thanks for the note!

  7. […] Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (post) —It was not as comprehensive as I had hoped but it complements The Well-Educated Mind, and is a […]

  8. […] large overview because I think the blogger at Classical Bookworm does an excellent job in her post “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I advise taking a moment or two to read her post. But I will say that this book helped me become a […]

  9. Victor says:

    Hi there!

    I just bought this book because of this post of yours. I have read ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer and Charles in the past and I really enjoyed it but you got me very excited to read this one as well.

    Thanks! 🙂

  10. Victor says:

    Woops.

    In the earlier comment of mine, I was referring to The Well-Educated Mind.

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