Tag Archives: Mortimer Adler

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.

Recommendation:

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.