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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 chapter, or at the end of each major section.
  • Thumb through the book, listening for the basic pulse of the book.
  • (Shortform suggestion: also try reading the top Amazon reviews of the book, or scanning through our summary of a book.)

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.
    • Define the keywords.
    • Find the most important sentences. Restate the book’s propositions in your own words, to make sure you understand it.
  • Use external resources (like dictionaries and reviews), 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.

In the full book summary, we’ll cover specific tips for different genres like practical books, fiction, history, math and science, and philosophy.

Criticizing a Book

Reading a book is like a conversation. Your obligation as a reader is to talk back, even though the author isn’t there. There is no book so good that no fault can be found with it.

Your job is to determine which of her problems the author has solved, which she has not, and decide if the author knew she had failed to solve them.

Criticizing a book means to comment, “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”

When you agree or disagree, you must give reasons for your disagreement.

If you disagree with the author, your criticism must fit into a set of categories:

  • The author is uninformed: lacks knowledge that is relevant to the argument.
    • Darwin lacked knowledge of later Mendelian genetics.
    • An author ignores the relevant work of predecessors.
  • The author is misinformed: asserts what is not the case; proposes as true/likely what it is false/unlikely.
    • Aristotle was misinformed about how females participate in animal reproduction, and thus came to unsupportable conclusions about procreation.
    • You must be able to argue the greater probability of a conclusion contrary to the author’s.
  • The author is illogical: commits some logical fallacy.
    • Non sequitur: the conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered.
      • Example from Machiavelli: “The chief foundations of all states are good laws. As there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.”
      • The inversion of a logical statement is not equivalent to the original statement - there can be well-armed states that do not have good laws.
    • Inconsistency: two things the author has tried to say are incompatible.
  • The author’s analysis is incomplete: the author has not solved all the problems she started with, or seen the implications of the materials used, or failed to make distinctions relevant.

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...

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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 understanding is necessarily active.

As with live instruction, you should ask questions of the teacher; but unlike with a live instructor, you must answer those questions yourself.

In this way, instruction through reading is aided discovery. The student must herself do the learning, much like a doctor may do many things for a patient, but the patient herself must follow instructions and get well.

There are two types of reading:

  1. reading to gain more information. If the information is thoroughly intelligible to you, if you do not feel in over your depth, you do not improve understanding. You collect facts of the type you already know. You simply know that something is the case.
  2. reading to understand. Here the content is initially better than the reader. It might throw light on all the facts she already knows. You become enlightened not just to what is the case, but why it is the...

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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 an adult, you encounter difficulties at elementary reading when reading in a foreign language.

Most remedial courses in school, and speed reading courses, deal with elementary reading. Little explicit instruction is given on higher levels of reading like Inspectiona, Analytical, and Syntopical. That’s what this book is about.

On Speed Reading

A helpful component of speed reading is is training your brain not to subvocalize.

Exercise: use your hand to cover text, and move your hand downward faster than you can...

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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 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.
    • (Shortform note: This is less effective if books now obfuscate titles to generate a sense of mystery.)
  • 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 chapter, or at the end of each major section.
  • Thumb through the book, listening for the basic pulse of the book.
  • (Shortform suggestion: also try reading the top Amazon reviews of the book, or scanning through our summary of a book.)

When tackling a difficult book, never pause to look up things you don’t know....

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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? What caused it to exist? Under what conditions can it exist? Why does it exist? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its characteristic properties? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or a different sort? How does it behave?

Typical questions on practical topics include: What ends should be sought? What means should be chosen to a given end? What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order? Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, and the wrong thing? Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that?

Find What the Book Says

Here you comprehend what the book is actually saying, and how the author answers her questions.

Well-written books guide the reader to comprehend their arguments using signposts, such as keywords and important sentences.

Keywords

Keywords are meaningful words...

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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 appeal to the heart as well as the mind.

  • Be wary of separating the arguments from the oratory “emotive use of words.”
  • But don’t be completely resistant - weigh the appeals and open yourself accordingly.

Understand the context of the author. Know something about the author’s life and times, and how it affected the problems she saw and the rules she espouses.

  • For Leviathan, Hobbes lived in the English civil wars and was distressed by social disorder.
  • For The Prince, know the Italian political situation and Machiavelli’s relation to the Medicis.

The Four Questions:

  • What is this book about as a whole?
    • What problems are being addressed?
    • Discover the rules that are being recommended.
  • What is being said in detail, and how?
    • Discover the principles that justify the rules.
    • Find the applications of the rules to concrete...

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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 define than you imagined. Imagine love, which has been attributed to everything in the universe. Are you looking at love for men, women, parents, children, mankind, money, animals, wine, football?
    • You may have to iterate between reading works and defining your subject.
  3. Find the most relevant passages within the bibliography.
    • Read the book quickly. You are reading it for your ultimate purpose, not for its own sake.
    • You may use a syntopicon that organizes passages across works by subject. like Great Works of the Western World.
  4. Bring the authors to terms with each other.
    • Authors in different fields may use entirely different terms that mean the same thing, and the same terms in different fields may mean entirely different things.
    • You must establish the controls and bring order to the chaos.
    • This is in some sense like translating Latin 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