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How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren.
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How to Read a Book is the classic guide to reading effectively. It teaches how to understand the crux of a book within 15 minutes, how to analyze a book intelligently, and how to synthesize ideas from multiple books. Reading is an active activity, not a passive one—so if you read a lot of books, it makes sense to learn how to increase the value of your reading.

Part 1: The Premise of How to Read

According to the authors, 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. (Shortform note: This holds just as true today as it did in 1972. One study found that 43 million American adults have “low literacy skills.”)

The authors believe there are two types of active reading (note that this does not include reading for pure entertainment, which is a relatively passive pursuit in terms of cognitive effort):

  1. Reading to collect facts. The authors argue that if you understand the book completely without exerting any extra effort, then you have only gained information from the book—you haven’t improved your understanding. You’ve simply added to your existing collection of facts on the subject.
  2. Reading for comprehension. When you read for comprehension, the authors believe that you won’t glean all the meaning from the book on the very first try. Instead of just adding to your collection of facts on a subject, the book will challenge you to find new ways to think about those facts or relate them to one another. You’ll begin to think about not just what is the case, but why it is the case. This type of reading expands your understanding and increases your reading skills.

In 19th Century America, All Reading Was “Reading for Comprehension”

The authors believe that “reading for comprehension” is a unique type of reading, distinct from reading for information. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman argues that classifying “reading for comprehension” as just one category of reading is a modern idea because, in the past, there were no alternatives: All reading was for the purpose of comprehension because print was the most accessible medium for sharing ideas. In other words, reading was such a critical part of early American society that deeply understanding what you read was crucial.

How did “reading for comprehension” evolve into its own, separate task? Postman argues that two inventions changed the nature of reading in 19th century America, the first being the telegraph. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to communicate short bursts of information across great distances. Over time, the country evolved from a slow, print-centered intellectual culture to one that valued speed and quantity of information over relevance. Reading The Federalist Papers and thoughtfully debating the contents with your family was out—glossing over eye-catching headlines of news from around the world was in.

The development of modern photography also contributed to this new hunger for information to be delivered in quick, easy-to-digest formats. Instead of slogging through a long book about life in another culture, you could glance at a photograph and immediately get a sense of another world, without all the mental effort of reading. Now, two centuries later, we spend our free time scrolling image-based social media platforms. For better or for worse, “reading for comprehension” has become an entirely separate activity that is no longer a requirement to participate in daily life.

4 Key Questions to Answer While You’re Reading

The authors assert that if you read for comprehension, you will be able to answer four key questions about the book:

  • What is the overall message or theme of the book?
    • This should be a quick synopsis, not a detailed summary.
  • How does the author’s argument unfold?
    • What are the main principles and supporting evidence?
  • Is the author’s argument valid?
    • Provide evidence to support your opinions.
  • What are the implications?
    • If you agree with the author’s argument, how will you act on it?

Ideally, the authors recommend you make a habit of asking these questions as you read. Doing this feels clunky at first, but you need to train each skill separately before doing it all subconsciously.

A Fifth Question: The Limits of a Good Idea

As you read, you may also want to ask a crucial question not posed by the authors: “What are the limits of the author’s good ideas? W

hat would happen if everyone followed this advice all the time?” It’s rare that an idea is applicable in all situations.

For example, in Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg advocates for probabilistic thinking, a decision-making strategy that requires thinking up all the possible outcomes of a given choice and then calculating the likelihood of each of those outcomes. Duhigg argues that thinking probabilistically will increase the accuracy of your predictions and lead to more productive choices. However, if everyone thought probabilistically all the time, we’d lose the ability to be spontaneous or to respond instinctively to any situation. If we thought probabilistically about whether to slam on the brakes when a dog runs into the road, the extra thinking time could have terrible consequences. Therefore, Duhigg’s good idea...

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Shortform Introduction

How to Read a Book is the classic guide to reading effectively. It teaches how to understand the crux of a book within 15 minutes, how to analyze a book intelligently, and how to synthesize ideas from multiple books. Reading is an active activity, not a passive one—so if you read a lot of books, it makes sense to learn how to read better and increase the value of your reading.

About the Authors

Mortimer J. Adler was a philosopher, Columbia professor, Chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and prolific author of more than 50 books (imagine how many he must have read!). Adler wrote on a range of subjects including Aristotelian philosophy, liberal arts education, capitalism, religion, and morality. As Chairman, he oversaw the publishing of Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World series and went on to found the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting literacy and critical thinking.

Charles Van Doren was a writer, editor, educator, and eventual vice president of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. He is the author of six books and the editor of five (many of which were co-edited by...

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Part 1: The 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 double the value from your reading. That’s the point of How to Read a Book.

According to the authors, 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. (Shortform note: This holds just as true today as it did in 1972. One study found that 43 million American adults have “low literacy skills.”)

What Good Reading Is

While some consider reading to be passive in nature, Adler and Van Doren argue that reading for the purpose of comprehension is an active pursuit. This is a bit like the difference between merely hearing someone’s words and actively listening with the goal of comprehending what the words mean. If you read passively (without effort), you might register the surface level of what is said, but you won’t truly...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Your Reading Life

If you’re reading this guide to How to Read a Book, chances are you enjoy reading great books. Reflect on your approach to reading below.


In general, what motivates you to read? (For instance, do you typically read for entertainment, to learn something new, or to increase your understanding of different ideas?)

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Part 2: Elementary Reading

So far in this guide, we’ve learned the purpose of reading well and discussed how to choose which books to read. In the next three parts, we’ll cover the first three levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, and analytical, in that order.

The authors describe elementary reading as the pure mechanical reading of text and comprehension of what the symbols literally mean. It’s the most basic form of reading that we learn to do as a child. (As an adult, you revisit the difficulties of elementary reading when you first try to read in a foreign language.) (Shortform note: The authors spend considerable time discussing the specific steps of learning to read at an elementary level. However, if you’re reading this guide, you’ve already mastered those steps. Therefore, we’ve condensed this chapter to just the information that is relevant to readers who are proficient in elementary reading and want to improve their higher-level reading skills.)

According to the authors, 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...

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Part 3: Inspectional Reading

After elemental reading, the second level of reading is inspectional. According to the authors, 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 (the authors advise setting a target for 15 minutes to comprehend a 300-page book).

Adler and Van Doren argue that when most people read a book, they do so cover to cover. When you read a book in that way, you’re trying to understand what a book is about at the same time you are trying to understand what the author is saying. To contrast, if you start by skimming the entire book to get a sense of what it’s about before reading from the beginning, you’ll already be in the right headspace to process the information.

(Shortform note: Adler and Van Doren recommend inspectional reading as a precursor to analytical reading. However, if you don’t plan to come back and read the book analytically, you can make the most of reading it inspectionally by putting the book’s ideas into practice immediately in your daily life. That way, you’ll get the maximum benefit from...

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Part 4: Analytical Reading

So far in this guide, we’ve covered elementary and inspectional reading. Now, we’ll cover analytical reading, which is much more in-depth than the previous levels. According to the authors, the aim of analytical reading is to, without imposing any time restraints, gain the best understanding of the book possible. Not only should you aim to understand what is being said, but you should also develop a personal opinion about its validity. (Shortform note: In addition to forming a judgment about the book’s validity, you might think about what parts of the book were most impactful and will stay with you over time.)

Adler and Van Doren argue this isn’t necessary for every book, and it 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 analyzing it.

The authors argue that analytical reading consists of four components:

  • Understand the author—her intentions, problems, and goals.
  • Understand the author’s logical arguments.
  • Use external resources, but only after you struggle through it yourself first.
  • After you understand a book, criticize a book from your own...

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Shortform Exercise: Practice Analytical Reading

According to the authors, most of us don’t learn analytical reading in school, so this may be a brand new skill. Let’s practice it now.


Think of the last nonfiction book you read. In one or two sentences, describe what the book was about.

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

The authors believe that the principles of reading we’ve explored so far apply generally to all books and to expository books in particular. This section discusses different genres and gives specific guidance on how to adjust the four key questions to books in each genre:

  • What is the overall message or theme of the book?
  • How does the author's argument unfold?
  • Is the author's argument valid?
  • What are the implications?

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

Practical Books

According to the authors, practical books concern how to do things better. They can be mainly comprised of rules (like Robert’s Rules of Order by Henry Martyn Robert), principles that recommend certain rules be followed (like Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics), or somewhere in between. The practical book itself can’t solve its targeted problems directly. It requires action on the reader’s part. (Shortform note: Thus, you should be wary of books that claim they’ll...

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How to Read a Book Summary How to Read a Book Guide Part 6: Comparative Reading

The first three levels of reading (and the specific advice in Part 5) all focus on reading a singular text. Now, we’ll talk about applying those analytical skills across a multitude of texts. Adler and Van Doren call this “syntopical reading.” “Syntopical” is a neologism Adler’s Encyclopedia Britannica team invented; for simplicity, we’ll call this type of reading “comparative” reading.

Comparative 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 of comparative reading 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. (Shortform note: In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, author Thomas C. Foster describes “intertextuality,” which is the common references and themes that exist across fiction books....

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Part 1: The Premise of How to Read
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Reading Life
  • Part 2: Elementary Reading
  • Part 3: Inspectional Reading
  • Part 4: Analytical Reading
  • Exercise: Practice Analytical Reading
  • Part 5: Reading Approaches for Different Genres
  • Part 6: Comparative Reading