The Bookshelf: How to Read a Book

I finally finished How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, my first book from the Free Man’s Reading List.

As implied by the title, the book essentially tries to teach you how to properly read a book to best understand it.

The book divides reading into four main types: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical.

Elementary reading is, more or less, being literate. It’s the ability to read something and understand what it says on a basic level without having to regularly stop to use a dictionary. This is talked about but very briefly; the author seems to, rightly, assume that if you are reading “How to Read a Book” you’re already capable of this level of reading.

Inspectional reading is essentially skimming. It’s going through the main sections, the introductions, the conclusions, and the headers, while skimming the rest to get a general idea of what a book is like. This is what you did when you procrastinated on an essay in college and needed to get a few more sources to meet the minimum requirements for your paper. It is properly used as a prelude to real reading or to find out if a book is worth reading fully.This makes up a short part of the book.

Analytical reading is the next step up. It is reading the book in a thorough manner to be able to fully categorize, summarize, understand, and properly criticeze a book. The discussion of analytical reading is the bulk of the book.

The highest level of reading is syntopical reading. This is reading numerous books on a similar topic and linking them together in the context of each other. The Free Man’s Reading List is essentially a syntopical reading project. This makes up the last few dozen pages of the book.

The book is divided into four main parts.

The first part explains some theory of reading and advice on how to be a demanding reader, as well as the explanations of elementary and inspectional reading.

The second explains how to read analytically in the general.

The third explains how to read analytically in relation to specific genres of work (such as literature, philosophy, social science, etc.).

The fourth explains syntopical reading and encourages you to rad to grow your mind.

There’s also two appendices, the first being a recommended reading list of the classics of Western Civilization and the second having a few exercises (which I did not read or do) to test yourself on the four levels of reading.

The book itself carries a lot of information, almost too much information, on reading and is very thorough on it’s topic matter. It really teaches you how to read a book. This is both a blessing and a curse, some of the information is great, while some of it seems so obvious you almost think the author is condescending to you. As well, given the large amount of information presented, some of the good points are drowned out.

As for the writing style, it was dry. The author has a tendency to use 15 words where 10 would do and sometimes explain things far too precisely or in too much detail instead of assuming the reader has basic competence to understand. Adler could have been more concise.

The first sections and most of the second were not too bad, slightly dry, but nothing all that bad, but the last chapter of the second section and the entire third section was simply mind-numbingly dull; it was so dry it was often hard to concentrate. I’d read on the bus, get through 2 or 3 pages, then fall asleep. Hence, why it took to long to finish. The fourth section was on par with the first and second.

Overall, the first, second, and fourth sections were worth a read, with the occasional skim, but skim over or skip the third section, reading only that which is of particular interest. The book is well-organized, so finding the parts that might interest you is easy.


If you are embarking on a major reading project, such as the Free Man’s Reading List (hint, hint) I’d definitely recommend reading the first two and fourth sections of How to Read a Book, so you can get the most out of your reading.

As well, read the first two section goes if you are desiring to be a better reader and/or want to better understand what you read in the future.

If you read mostly popular or genre fiction, this book will be worthless to you, don’t bother reading it. The book is designed for helping you read either the intense literary classics, non-fiction, and scientific/philosophical works.

But honestly, give section three no more than a skim. That was almost painful, and was definitely not worth the time/effort which could have gone to reading something else.

6 responses to “The Bookshelf: How to Read a Book

  • Max Wein

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and 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–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot 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:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  • tia

    What is a “kitchen bitch”? Never heard that term before. I love to eat and most of the men I’ve dated have loved to cook and were excellent cooks (as am I, not to brag). Part of the fun of being in a relationship is cooking and eating together or getting treated to a homecooked meal of something you’ve never had before, which can only happen if you date people who are good cooks and know recipes from around the world or come from cultures with extensive cuisines (like Indian guys).

    Division of labor – “mens works” in the traditional sense seems to be seasonal (raking leaves, mowing lawns, shoveling snow) and occasional (fixing things around the house) or weekly (taking the garbage out).

    Women seem to have been stuck with the drudgerous daily grind. Of course all that has changed (thank goodness!) And woman who complains about still having to do the daily grind in 2013 – well, its her own fault.

    Don’t wanna do it? DON’T DO IT. Believe me, once the dishes stack up in the sink and he needs something to eat off of – he’ll do the damn dishes.

    Don’t wanna cook dinner? Eat out, alone, on your way home from work. Believe me, he’ll start cooking.

    Don’t wanna do laundry? Let those socks lay around the house til the next new year’s eve. Believe me, he’ll start doing laundry.

    The problem is, these women would rather complain and nag and do all the chores rather than live in a mess for a few days and not have to complain or nag at all.

    My generation of women don’t give a rat’s ass about socks layin’ ’bout or dirty laundry. He’ll get around to laundry when he needs clean clothes. Its not my job to nag a man about what he wears or if he eats off dirty plates – that’s on him.

    Adults know what they are doing. If they wanna wear dirty clothes, let ’em!

  • ironchefoklahoma

    If you’re going to read “How to Read a Book” get the first edition, the one just by Adler. The later editions are co-written. Van Doren’s contributions nearly make the book unreadable. I think that’s what you objected to.

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    […] not sure how to go about getting the most from non-fiction reading, you could start with reading How to Read a Book. It’s rather dry, but it has some decent tips. (Skip the third […]

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