Friday, January 30, 2015

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren

At the beginning of January, I decided that I was going to read a serious book.  A book that would stretch me and make me work on stretching my mind just a little.  I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.  It was the beginning of January and I was fresh off of making a good resolutions list and it felt so pleasantly stark and stiff for a gray January.  I finally finished it and I confess to almost dropping the book a few times.  However, I'm glad I stuck with it and I think that I will definitely be glad of a few tips and tricks that I picked up.

How to Read a Book was written in the 40s and was a call to arms for people to return to the serious reading of their forefathers.  This meant intelligent reading, rather than mindless reading, and also reading difficult books, rather than light novels.  In the back is a 30 page reading list of every classic that Messrs. Adler and van Doren believed to be important for the Western reader.

The book reminded me in many ways of The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.  It had similar themes and, while Bauer's writing style was much more accessible, both Adler/van Doren and Bauer were/are greatly influenced by the Great Books movement.

Not there weren't some problems with the book.  The book recommendations were extremely dated.  Now, before you say, but of course they were dated, we're talking about classics here!  The notion that Classics (with a capital C) are all written by dead, white men is a bit dated and one that I do take offense to.  And it's one of the things that I appreciated about Susan Wise Bauer's book.  She was happy to include Toni Morrison along with Charles Dickens.  Adler and van Doren's list was so skewed that Emily Bronte didn't make it onto the list.

Adler starts with the premise that there are 3 levels of reading and that we need to be fully using every level or else we will not be getting every bit we can out of the book.  First is elementary reading, which is simply the act of reading that we all learn in elementary school.  Next comes inspection reading, where you systematically skim first of all and then carefully analyze all parts of the book to gain a better understanding of it.  Finally comes analytical reading, the process of which takes up the second third of the book.  It includes pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author, determining the authors message, criticizing the book fairly, agree or disagreeing with the author and then aids to reading are discussed.

Part 3 deals with specific instructions on how to deal with every genre of writing, from practical books to philosophy.  The last part discusses the ultimate goals of reading and ends by summarizing why we should all be reading in this way.

The section on inspectional reading was what fascinated me the most.  I had been taught to scorn the practice of skim reading, but Adler's words completely changed my mind.  He writes,

"Let us assume two further elements in the situation, elements that are quite common.  First, you do not know whether you want to read a book.  You do not know whether it deserves an analytical reading.  But you suspect that it does, or at least that it contains both information and insights that would be valuable to you if you dig them out.  Second, let us assume-and this is very often the case-taut you only have a limited time in which to find all this out.  In this case, what you must do is skim the book, or as some prefer to say, pre-read it."

Now, to be fair, the kind of skimming I scorn is not what Adler and van Doren were referring to and, if the reader determines that the book is worth his or her while, then of course, they will not stop there, but go on to read the book again.

The book really inspired me.  In fact, this book is a large part of the reason why I decided to join Classics Club.  I was so spurred on after reading this interesting book that I wanted to start in on a whole stack of classics!  However, while Adler and van Doren were thinking about classics and meaty books when they were writing this, I don't think that's any reason to not apply these tips to my everyday reading.  After all, don't I do a sped-up version of inspectional reading when I decide whether I want to read a book that looks interesting at the library?  And I'm already starting to apply little bits and pieces of the analytical reading step to my reading-asking myself what the author's message is or what the tone of the piece is.  And I like to imagine that it's helped me become a better, more thoughtful reader.

I really recommend this book and, while the book is thick and pretty tome-like, the writing is not at all difficult and I gleaned so many interesting tips that I think plowing through the book was worth it.


  1. I used to own this book but got rid of it in a shelf purge some time ago. It would be useful to pick it up again now that I'm also reading more classics.

    1. That's funny-it was almost a shelf purge for me, too! I'm glad I decided to keep it.

    2. I can't think about all the books I have gotten rid of, it makes me too sad. Hey, I tagged you for this meme, join in if you want: