New York: Touchstone, 1940, rev. ed. 1972. 426 pgs.
People don’t read anymore, at least not like they used to. Universal primary education combine with texting and social media to ensure that most people read at a basic level but no further. Attention spans and critical thought flop around feebly like fish out of water because even as the breadth of literacy is wide as the ocean, its depth is a shallow puddle.
This shallow seascape underscores precisely the reason we need texts like How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Reading enthusiasts, scholars, and even casual fans of the written word are all liable to read important and thought-provoking books, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to read such books. This book is a how-to manual for intelligent, ambitious, or otherwise serious reading. This text won’t force readers out of the shallow end—only the readers themselves can choose to do that—but it will show them how to dive deep if they dare.
The authors, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, are accomplished writers with a litany of education books to their credit. They are also the major brains behind the “Great Books of the Western World” series (54 vols.; 1952), and serve as general editors at Encyclopedia Britannica. This book reflects the shared wisdom and counsel of two of the most influential educators of the 20th century. It’s no surprise that this book is widely considered a masterpiece, an unusual distinction for a practical academic text. It’s a #1 bestseller on Amazon and appears on other essential lists like Brainpickings.org and Goodreads.com. It’s also required reading at many classical schools and universities.
How to Read a Book is like a stepping stool designed to help people reach a higher shelf in the library. Above the children’s books and the pop fiction and magazine aisles, one can find upper-level books whose comprehension requires more than elementary skill. This text is not about how to understand words written on a page, but about how to read a specific type of book, the kind with heft and significance than. More specifically, it is a guide to intelligent reading. The authors presume their audience is literate, at least at an elementary level. This book is written to raise the reader up to a more serious, mature level of literacy.
The text of this book is divided into four sections, not including the preface (5 pgs.) or appendices (74 pgs.).
Part 1, The Dimensions of Reading (pgs. 1-58), surveys the reading levels and describes how to do elementary and inspectional reading.
Part 2, The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading (pgs. 59-190), is probably the most important section of the book as it describes in meticulous detail how to thoroughly analyze a book by effectively mastering its content.
Part 3, Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading (pgs. 191-305), lays out reading strategies for different types of writing, including practical books, imaginative literature, stories, plays & poems, history, science & math, philosophy and social science.
Part 4, The Ultimate Goals of Reading (pgs. 306-346), covers the fourth level of reading (Syntopical Reading) and waxes eloquent in the final chapter, “Reading and the Growth of the Mind.”
Appendix A, A Recommended Reading List (pgs. 347-362), indexes the author’s personal “Great Books list.” Appendix B, Exercises and Tests at the Four Levels of Reading (pgs. 363-419), is a teaching aid for instructors who might implement the Adler-Van Doren reading principles in their respective classrooms.
Adler and Van Doren write in a systematic, clear, and somewhat dry style, but since this is a practical book (as opposed to a theoretical book), it’s true merit is in its usefulness. In that regard, this book succeeds in doing exactly what it promises. It equips readers with operating guidelines for higher-level reading. But don’t expect a “barn-burner.” Adler and Van Doren’s strength—in this book—is not in bright, colorful language or narrative styling, but in their clarity, rigor, and insightfulness.
Most of the book is consumed with outlining principles for different levels and styles of reading. But interspersed throughout are different satisfying insights like:
- “We must know how to make books teach us well.” (pg. 15)
- ”There are only a small number of plots in the world.” (pg. 79)
- “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it.” (pg. 49)
- “You must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying.” (pg. 242)
- “If the book belongs to the highest class—the very small number of inexhaustible books—you discover on returning that the book seems to have grown with you.” (pg. 343)
In some ways, this book is a hard read. Keep in mind that the authors are encyclopedists by trade. Their patient and thorough attention to details can set a slow intellectual pace. Fortunately, the authors use lots of numbered lists and clear outlining, allowing for quick skimming and easy review. Adler and Van Doren are coaching adult-level reading skill, but rightly use elementary and intermediate language as their vehicle. The text is largely comprised of short sentences, lay terminology, and otherwise accessible language. This book is not a hard read in that sense. But it is meticulous in its instruction.
When reading this book, one gets the impression that Adler and Van Doren are privy to the secret inner machinations of education. While the rest of us are skimming and scanning subjects to gather surface level information, Adler and Van Doren are peeling back layers, exposing the machinery underneath the learning process. They aren’t just reading books, or writing about books. They write about how to read books. And when they write, it’s not just a free-flowing imaginative essay on their romantic dance with literature. They set forth teachable and actionable steps or instruction manuals on how the machinery of reading works. And like any instruction manual, the reader can apply its principles making that same machine for themselves. For example, their outline of analytic reading, rendered verbatim below, would be right at home as a laminated posterboard on a classroom wall.
The authors embrace their place as educators, by reviewing their lessons at the end of each chapter. The result is a user-friendly text tailor-made for instructional use.
Now, to be fair, even when Adler and Van Doren are given their due respect as heavyweights in the philosophy of education, they do reflect their era. The preface and first chapter could use some updating with the latest discoveries in reading education. And a few pages or an appendix critiquing the speed-reading craze would be wonderful. Also, the book could use a chapter on how to read religious/theological literature. Furthermore, their penchant for systematization can seem simplistic. Books don’t always submit to the neat clean labels that Adler and Van Doren use, nor will all their recommended rules work in every case. Plus, Adler and Van Doren’s clear, consistent explanations aren’t themselves proof that their system is altogether correct, or that that the Adler-VanDoren reading method is the only or even the best way to read at these higher levels.
This book is merely an explanation of their recommendations for higher-level reading. The real test for practical books is practice. And in that regard, this book passes with flying colors. Each of the reading rules proposed has proven vital in my own studies spanning elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical levels of reading. Their explanations and justifications are fair and reasonable. And when applied adroitly for one’s own needs, this book can be an invaluable tool for serious readers.
Educators have a lot of options with this book, but it is not without its drawbacks. While it is (or should be) required reading for English teachers and reading teachers, it isn’t as universally suited for their students. The book is thick, at 426 pgs, and it’s narrow enough and “top shelf” enough to be poorly suited to elementary level readers. It simply isn’t aimed at the basic or intermediate literacy levels.
For students just entering adult-level reading, How to Read a Book is quite helpful when used correctly. For these students, the book can be sampled into excerpts and outlines.
Overall, How to Read a Book can be considered a classic in its field and an important part of any serious adult-level reading program. In the ocean-wide, puddle-deep lake of literacy, Adler and Van Doren chart a course to the deep end.