How to Read a Book

I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren (of Quiz Show fame)  at the Capital Hill used bookstore the other day. The five-star Amazon reviews are well deserved: Adler and van Doren’s instructions are clear, succinct and inspiring. They promote what they call “active reading” with a fervor and zeal reminiscent of Socrates, and the goal of active reading comes very close to fixing what Socrates saw lacking in reading: they want the reader to enter a conversation with the text.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences and your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. (49)

Adler and van Doren break this conversation down into four subsequent questions: (I) What is the book about as a whole? (II) What is being said in detail, and how? (III) Is the book true, in whole or part? (IV) What of it? The last question ponders the book’s significance, in particular with respect to other books the reader has read, a process that Adler and van Doren dub “syntopical reading”.

Every now and then, Adler illustrates his point with a metaphor. He compares learning how to read to learning how to ski: both can be awkard and frustrating at the beginning while the novice learns the separate stages; later on, once each stage has been mastered, the reader can “put them together into a smoothly running whole” (55). I especially enjoyed the comparison between active reading and baseball:

The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgment from the court. On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball. Catching the ball is just as much of an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit, or catch. The analogy with writing and reading is almost perfect. The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process. (5)

The analogy goes even deeper, but the point is well made: reading for understanding must be active; you cannot learn things passively.

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.


7 Responses to “How to Read a Book”

  1. November 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  2. January 3, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    “that Adler and van Doren dub “synoptic reading””
    It is “syntopical reading”.

  3. January 4, 2009 at 4:12 am

    Thanks for pointing it out!

  4. January 4, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    [Inspectional reading (Chapter 4) may be called synoptic reading, though.]

  5. May 22, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Интересно, я даже и недумала об этом…

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