How to Read a Book

 How to Read a Book

Authors: Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren


This book elevates the simple, everyday activity of reading to an art form with clear goals and rules. It defines reading as a complex activity consisting of distinct steps which, when followed, enable the reader to better understand what is written (page 6). The authors explore the essential elements of active reading, such as ‘keenness of observation‘ and ‘range of imagination‘, and they highlight the questions that readers should habitually ask themselves when reading any book (pages 13-14 and 46-48). They also point out the major obstacles to understanding texts, and they set out the criteria for judging their content.

ABCs. Ruth HArtnup on Flickr.

Perhaps the central feature of the book is the classification of reading into four levels. One important level is inspectional reading which is aimed at deciding if the book will require ‘a more careful reading’. The authors stress that inspectional reading is not a random event, but a systematic process which starts with scrutinising the title page, reviewing the preface, checking the table of contents, glancing at the index, and reading the publisher’s blurb; this is then followed by a skim through the chapters (pages 32-35). Analytical reading, on the other hand, is a necessary approach to properly comprehending the book, and it requires the reader to classify the book, and to identify its structure and theme. The analytical reader also needs to determine the unity, clarity, and coherence of the book, and to establish what questions or problems the writer set out to address (page 42 and 76-94). The highest level of reading, syntopical reading, involves analytically reading more than one book to address a specific question, and this comprises five steps which the book discussed in detail (pages 301-314). 

By Globetrotter19Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The book makes many practical recommendations on how to better understand books, stressing that everyone ‘can learn to read better’ (page 10). Perhaps the most important advice is that the reader should learn to identify the most important words in the book, and to recognise how the author uses these words. The book particularly urges the reader to ponder over difficult words, a habit that is a hallmark of active reading (pages 98-112). Allied to this is the authors’ recommendation for readers to recognise and reflect on the important sentences in the book, and these are the sentences that require effort to understand, and which we ‘read much more slowly and carefully than the rest’ (page 120). Other practical tips include the advice to ‘intelligently and fruitfully’ make notes within the book itself; the recommendation to adopt variable and appropriate reading speeds; and the suggestion to complement understanding by referring to related reference books, commentaries, and dictionaries (pages 40-52 and166-177). Some of their suggestions were specific to the type of book in question, and the subjects they covered included fiction, poetry, history, biography, current affairs, science, mathematics, philosophy, and social science.

By Vincenzo FoppaWeb Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, Link

A major section of the book is dedicated to how best to critique a book. In this regard, the authors make the self-evident but important point that the reader must fully understand the book before passing judgment on it. They underline this when they said, ‘to agree without understanding is inane‘, and ‘to disagree without understanding is impudent‘ (pages 137-141). They urge readers to give their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with a book, paying attention to important points such as the organisation of its structure, and the relevance of its arguments. They advise readers who disagree with a book to do so ‘reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously‘, and to state explicitly if they thought the author was uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete. They also ask the reader, in passing judgment, to focus only on the truth, discounting internal influences such as emotions and partiality, and extraneous factors such novelty and sensationalism (pages 144-163). 

Book reading statue is reading an actual book. Casey and Sonja on Flickr.

The book is a source of diverse knowledge beyond the instructions on how to read. This is because the authors illustrated their arguments with many references to classical works such as Paradise Lost, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hamlet, The Wealth of Nations, The Universe and Dr. Einstein, The Origin of Species, The Principles of Psychology, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and War and Peace.

By Fitrat69Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Overall assessment

This book is meticulously written and it addresses a simple but important issue. It is a classic that has withstood the test of time since its first publication in 1940. The authors successfully set out the stages in reading a book, and they outlined clear criteria for passing judgment on the arguments outlined therein. The writing is occasionally long-winded, and the supporting references often overdrawn, but the key lessons are clearly stated. The authors made several references to another book, The Syntopicon, which turns out to be the project of one of the authors, raising concerns about potential bias. This apart, the book is an important source of guidance for everyone who reads to increase their understanding.


Knowing how to read analytically is of central importance in an academic profession like medicine, and this very useful guide will complement all learning objectives. It is clear, detailed and authoritative, and it covers the full range of subjects relevant to reading. I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972
Number of chapters: 21
Number of pages: 424
ISBN: 978-0-671-21209-4
Star rating: 4
Price: £7.91

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