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How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren.
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1-Page Summary 1-Page Book Summary of How to Read a Book

If you read a lot, then it makes sense to spend time learning how to read better and increase the value from your reading. That’s the point of How to Read a Book.

The argument is compelling: after you learn phonics as a child and go through high school English, no one really teaches you how to read intelligently. College courses rarely touch on this, and the workforce even less so.

As a result, plenty of adults read at an elementary level - not in the sense of having a limited vocabulary, but in absorbing the value of a book efficiently.

The Four Key Questions of Understanding

If you read for understanding, after the book, you will be able to answer four key questions:

  • What is this book about as a whole?
    • The leading theme, and how the author develops the theme.
  • What is being said in detail, and how?
    • The main ideas and assertions.
  • Is the book true, in whole or part?
    • You must make up your own mind, if you are reading seriously. You can’t take the book for true without critical inspection.
  • What of it? Why is this important? What follows?

The Four Levels of Reading

The bulk of the book is about four levels of reading, each increasing in difficulty and complexity. Here they are at a high level:

  • Elementary Reading
    • This is pure mechanical reading of text and comprehension of what the symbols literally mean.
    • This is where most remedial courses aim, and the extent to which reading is taught in school.
  • Inspectional Reading
    • This is a skimming of the book to understand its main points and its structure. It aims to gain the best understanding of the book in a limited time.
    • This is achieved by reading the table of contents, index, and key summaries of major chapters.
  • Analytical Reading
    • This aims to gain the best understanding of the book in unlimited time.
    • Not only should you aim to understand what is being said, you should develop a personal opinion about its validity.
    • This isn’t necessary if your goal is simply information or entertainment. Furthermore, if the book is low quality, it’s not worth spending the time to comprehend the book at this level.
  • Syntopical Reading
    • This aims to compare books and authors to one another, to model dialogues between authors that may not be in any one of the books.

Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading is a skimming of the book to understand its main points and its structure. It aims to gain the best understanding of the book in a limited time.

When most people read a book, they do so cover to cover, starting with page one and reading it all the way to the end. While this is more straightforward in some ways, it’s actually worse for comprehension - you’re trying to understand what a book is about at the same time you are trying to understand it.

Techniques for Inspectional Reading

  • Read the title.
    • This can be more informative than you think. “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” suggests the book begins with the height of the Empire, at the Age of the Antonines. It doesn’t cover the rise of the Roman Empire.
  • Read the preface, blurb.
    • The author often explain what the book is about, and how to tackle it.
  • Read the table of contents.
  • Scan the index for range of topics covered. More important topics will have more pages.
  • Find the main chapters of the book, and read the summary areas of those chapters.
    • The summary areas are often at the end of the...

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How to Read a Book Summary 1: Premise of How to Read

If you read a lot of books a year, then it makes sense to spend a few hours learning how to read better and double the value from your reading. That’s the point of How to Read a Book.

After you learn phonics as a child and go through high school English, no one really teaches you how to read intelligently. College courses rarely touch on this, and the workforce even less so.

As a result, plenty of adults read at an elementary level - not in the sense of having a limited vocabulary, but in absorbing the value of a book efficiently. See if any of these problems apply to you:

  • You don’t really know what a book is about until you start reading it.
  • You read at the same pace, regardless of whether it’s a good book or a terrible book.
  • You don’t critique your books, articulating exactly why you liked or disliked it.

What Good Reading Is

Reading books is a way of learning, with the author being your instructor.

The more active the reading, the better. Some consider reading to be passive in nature - at least, more passive than active doing or completely independent self-discovery. However, because learning is active, reading with the purpose of...

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How to Read a Book Summary 2: Elementary Reading

Elementary reading is the pure mechanical reading of text and comprehension of what the symbols literally mean. It’s the most basic form of reading.

Children learn to read quite magically. At some point words suddenly have real meaning to them. Science is not clear on how this happens. Children become more capable readers as they build vocabulary and infer meanings from context clues.

There are myriad systems for teaching language (from alphabetical to phonic) and the authors don’t espouse any particular method.

As...

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How to Read a Book Summary 3: Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading is a skimming of the book to understand its main points and its structure. It aims to gain the best understanding of the book in a limited time.

When most people read a book, they do so cover to cover, starting with page one and reading it all the way to the end. While this is more straightforward in some ways, it’s actually worse for comprehension - you’re trying to understand what a book is about at the same time you are trying to understand it.

With inspectional reading, your goal is to gain the best understanding of the book in a limited time. Set a target for 15 minutes to comprehend a 300-page book.

Analogy: Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book’s general idea.

How to Read Inspectionally

After reading inspectionally, you want to be able to answer these three questions:

  • What genre does the book fit into?
  • What is the book saying as a whole?
  • What is the structure of the book used to develop the main point?

Techniques for Inspectional Reading

  • Read the title.
    • This can be more informative than you think. “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” suggests the book begins with the...

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How to Read a Book Summary 4: Analytical Reading

The aim of analytical reading is to gain the best understanding of the book in unlimited time.

Not only should you aim to understand what is being said, you should develop a personal opinion about its validity.

This isn’t necessary for every book, and would be a waste of time for lower quality books. If your goal with a book is simply information or entertainment, then you don’t need to do as thorough of a job.

Analytical Reading consists of four components:

  • Understand the author - her intentions, problems, and goals.
  • Understand what the book says, through its logical arguments.
  • Use external resources, only after you struggle through it yourself first.
  • After you understand a book, criticize a book from your own viewpoint, finding areas you agree and disagree.

Understand the Author

Discover the author’s intention.

  • Find out what the author’s problems were.
  • What are the main questions the book tries to answer?
  • Which questions are primary and which secondary?

Different categories of books have different typical questions they try to answer.

Typical questions on theoretical topics include: Does something exist? What kind of thing is it?...

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How to Read a Book Summary 5: Reading Approaches for Different Genres

The above principles apply generally to all books, in particular expository books. This section treats different genres and guides on how to adjust the four key questions:

  • What is this book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail, and how?
  • Is the book true, in whole or part?
  • What of it? Why is this important? What follows?

We’ll cover practical books, imaginative literature, history, math and science, philosophy, and social sciences.

Practical Books

Practical books concern how to do things better. They can be mainly a book of rules (like a cookbook) or a set of principles that generate rules (like The Wealth of Nations), or somewhere in between.

The practical book itself can never solve its targeted problems directly. It requires action on the reader’s part.

Because the book is a means to an end, you must decide whether you agree with the author’s end. If you don’t believe in economic justice, then you’ll disagree with Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, no matter the quality of the means.

Note that practical books are not purely theoretical emotionless treatments, like math proofs are. To be effective, they contain rhetoric or propaganda that...

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How to Read a Book Summary 6: Syntopical Reading

Perhaps the most challenging of all types of reading is syntopical reading, which applies the analytical skills across a multitude of texts. Syntopical reading aims to compare books and authors to one another, to model dialogues between authors that may not be in any one of the books.

The ultimate aim is to understand all the conflicting viewpoints relating to a subject. It’s not to devise your own synthetic answer, as this would merely be an entry into the literature, rather than an understanding of what already exists.

Where in analytical reading you were the student and the book was the master, in syntopical reading you must be the master of your own inquisition. It is now time to determine what is applicable or not to your subject.

The major steps of Syntopical Reading are:

  1. Create a total bibliography of works that may be relevant to your subject.
    • Many of the important works may not be obvious, since they may not have the keyword in their titles.
  2. Inspect all of the books on your bibliography to decide which are relevant to your subject, and to better define the subject.
    • As you research, you may find that your subject is more difficult to...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • 1: Premise of How to Read
  • 2: Elementary Reading
  • 3: Inspectional Reading
  • 4: Analytical Reading
  • 5: Reading Approaches for Different Genres
  • 6: Syntopical Reading