How To Read A Book

In 1940 an American Philosopher Mortimer Adler Wrote the first version of a book that will later be called “the classic guide to intelligent reading”. Thirty-two years later Adler heavily edited the work alongside an American academic and TV show host turned game show scandal subject Charles Van Doren. This version of the book “How to Read a Book” sat a bookshelf for years before I decided to read it. It was three months ago that I read it, and it has taken this long to digest and assess its impact. The question is, “How?”. How despite it being older than me and it nearly predating both my parents can this book feel so relevant?

Adler and Van Doren took me on a journey that I never expected to go on. They taught me how to read a book and did it in such a way that it fundamentally changed my approach to books. I have become more diligent, I have come to accept my place as a reader, and that is at the place of a disciple of the writer. It reminded me that my goal as a reader is to move from disciple to equal with the writer, and if that is impossible, to at least understand as much as possible. It has moved me to be, first non-judging of the work and then, only after fully understanding the text, to weigh in on the work. It is the how-to of navigating our modern era where information from all corners is suspect and lies have become integrated into our very fiber.

What the authors have done is structure the levels of reading in a way that is simple (read: not easy but straightforward). These levels are elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. If you can understand what I’m saying through the words I have typed, then you have mastered elementary reading. Congrats. Inspectional reading is the skimming and speed reading portion of the job. It is reading the preface, table of contents, and other such material that gives you an overview of the contents therein. It is also, the rapid inspection of the contents of the book, i.e. speedreading to get the general thread. Analytic reading is the next critical stage. It is identifying and organizing key propositions and arguments that the book is making reach a full understanding of said work. This is not yet done in a way that judges a book in terms of agreeance, but becomes a judgement in truth, clarity, and accuracy. Syntopical reading takes elements from each of the reading levels below it and becomes an animal unto its own. Syntopical reading is the reading of multiple texts to answer a particular question. It would be reading Fitzgerald, Marquez, and Daniel Steele (among many others if you’re doing this right) to figure the answer to the question “what is love?” Note: the authors point out that syntopical reading is normally not done with fiction, the above was simply an example.

There is a method to each of these steps, but to enumerate them here would be doing the text a disservice. Instead, it is good for you to know that the steps and processes within each of these stages of reading has been created in a way which scaffolds your abilities ever-so higher.

What we have then, is a framework to structure all our reading be it simple reading for enjoyment or complicated scientific, philosophical, fictional, or historic work. The book then details some guidelines on how to read the above genres and more. It is a comprehensive approach on how to get reading done in a way that you understand, and this understanding, the writers stress, is knowing to the point that the information becomes your own. It is understanding so much that, if one were to read Rene Descartes, for instance, they would understand that when he said, “I think, therefore I am”, he wasn’t talking about how his thought shape his personality. Instead, he was talking about how the fact of his thinking proves that he exists. A simple reading of Descartes would not yield the same result very often.

I owe much of my current enjoyment of reading to Adler and Van Doren. Without the work they created, I would have continued fumbling in the dark on how to properly analyze and understand a work of fiction or non-fiction and ultimately would have fallen out of love with something that has meant so much to me. It is the kind of work that I feel will endure even past my time, even if it is to a select few who happen by it.

19 thoughts on “How To Read A Book”

  1. Great review. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and find it highly useful. I’m curious which of the techniques you apply to your reading of fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Essentially, all of them (Though I don’t use syntopic reading at all). It’s just a matter of repurposing the tools. Plot points become arguments, scenes are propositions. Navigating metaphor and such becomes coming to terms

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fascinating! I misunderstood them when I first read it then, as the only advice they gave explicitly about fiction was to get engrossed in the book, I assumed that it was an exception.

        I would love to see examples of inspectional and analytical reading applied to literature!

        Liked by 1 person

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