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

I tried reading this book some years ago, and dismissed it as being not especially pertinent to my life. Most of my reading has been either for pleasure or information; since leaving school I’ve rarely tried to study a difficult book so as to get out of it everything that I possibly can. (To be honest, I’m not sure I ever tried to do that in school, either.) As that’s the endeavour Adler and Van Doren mean by the deceptively simple word “read”, their book wasn’t of much use.

But spurred on by the recent Anglican Follies, I’ve embarked this spring on a reading program of some weight, and it soon became clear that I was going to need to work harder if it were to be worth doing. I remember Adler and Van Doren’s book, and found a new copy (I’d gotten rid of my own), and devoured it. For self-study, especially of non-fiction, it’s proven to be extremely useful.

The authors define four levels of reading. The first is simply basic reading, which you’re capable of given that you’re reading these words. The next level is “inspectional reading.” Simply put, the goal of inspectional reading is to find out what a book is about in the least amount of time. You begin by studying the title page, the table of contents, and browsing through the index; you look at each chapter, looking for introductions, conclusions, and summaries; you leaf through the book, reading a page here and a page there; finally, if you have time, you read the book straight through, as fast as possible. The goal isn’t to understand the book in detail; the goal is have a general notion of the author’s message, to determine whether the book is worthy of further effort, and, if it is, to build a foundation for third level, a deeper, analytical reading.

I’ve found inspectional reading on its own to be a remarkably useful tool. I’d always approached non-fiction works like novels; I’d start on the first page, and read through to the end–if I ever got that far. If one’s goal is to be entertained, that’s not unreasonable; but if the goal is to transfer the contents of the book into one’s head, or even simply to determine whether the contents of the book is worth transferring into one’s head, it’s not terribly useful. And a good bit of the work of inspectional reading can be done in ten or fifteen minutes at the bookstore–leading to significant cost savings if the book isn’t worth bringing home.

The third level is analytical reading, a much lengthier, more detailed reading; you begin by outlining the content and end by analyzing each passage. I won’t go into the specifics here, as Adler and Van Doren’s description of analytical reading fills the bulk of the book; I’ll just note that reading Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody analytically (my first effort along these lines) took me several months. On the other hand, I learned a great deal from it.

The fourth level, syntopical reading, is all about reading about a particular topic in multiple books at once. I confess I haven’t read that section of How To Read A Book yet; it hasn’t yet struck me as necessary. I may get there yet.

Anyway, I recommend this book highly. I wish I’d started reading this way years ago. Of course, years ago I didn’t see the need.

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