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How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler

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In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches us the four levels of reading to become a more effective reader. Learning how to read is more than just picking up a book and starting to read.

Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

— Edgar Allan Poe

I bet you already know how to read a book. You were taught in elementary school.

But do you know how to read well?

There is a difference between reading for understanding and reading for information.

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t given much thought to how you read. And how you read makes a huge difference to knowledge accumulation.

A lot of people confuse knowing the name of something with understanding. While great for exercising your memory, the regurgitation of facts without understanding and context gains you little in the real world.

A good heuristic: Anything easily digested is reading for information.

Consider the newspaper, are you truly learning anything new? Do you consider the writer your superior when it comes to knowledge in the subject? Odds are probably not. That means you’re reading for information. It means you’re likely to parrot an opinion that isn’t yours as if you had done the work.

There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how most people read. But you’re not really learning anything new. It’s not going to give you an edge or make you better at your job.

Reading alone isn’t enough to improve your knowledge. Learning something insightful requires work. You have to read something above your current level. You need to find writers who are more knowledgeable on a particular subject than yourself. This is how you get smarter.

Reading for understanding narrows the gap between reader and writer.

THE FOUR LEVELS OF READING

Mortimer Adler literally wrote the book on reading. In his book, How to Read a Book, he identifies four levels of reading:

1. Elementary
2. Inspectional
3. Analytical
4. Syntopical

The goal of reading determines how you read.

Reading the latest Danielle Steel novel is not the same as reading Plato. If you’re reading for entertainment or information, you’re going to read a lot differently (and likely different material) than reading to increase understanding. While many people are proficient in reading for information and entertainment, few improve their ability to read for knowledge.

Before we can improve our reading skills, we need to understand the differences in the reading levels.

They are thought of as levels because you can’t move to a higher level without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

HOW TO READ A BOOK

1. Elementary Reading

This is the level of reading taught in our elementary schools. You already know how to do this.

2. Inspectional Reading

We’ve been taught that skimming and superficial reading are bad for understanding. That is not necessarily the case. Using these tools effectively can increase understanding. Inspectional reading allows us to look at the author’s blueprint and evaluate the merits of a deeper reading experience.

There are two sub-types of inspectional reading:

Systematic skimming — This is meant to be a quick check of the book by (1) reading the preface; (2) studying the table of contents; (3) checking the index; and (4) reading the inside jacket. This should give you sufficient knowledge to understand the chapters in the book pivotal to the author’s argument. Dip in here and there, but never with more than a paragraph or two. Skimming helps you reach to a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention? If not you put it down.

Superficial reading — This is when you just read. Don’t ponder the argument, don’t look things up, don’t write in the margins. If you don’t understand something, move on. What you gain from this quick read will help you later when you go back and put more effort into reading. You now come to another decision point. Now that you have a better understanding of the book’s contents and its structure, do you want to understand it?

Inspectional reading gives you the gist of things.

Sometimes that’s all we want or need. But sometimes we want more. Sometimes we want to understand.

3. Analytical Reading

Francis Bacon once remarked, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

You can think of analytical reading as doing that chewing and digesting. This is doing the work.

Analytical reading is a thorough reading.

If inspectional reading is the best you can do quickly, this is the best reading you can do given time.

At this point, you start to engage your mind and dig into the work required to understand what’s being said. I highly recommend you use marginalia to converse with the author.

There are four rules to Analytical Reading:

● Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

● State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

● Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

● Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

You’ll probably notice that while those sound pretty easy, they involve a lot of work. Luckily the inspectional reading you’ve already done has primed you for this.

After an inspectional read, you will understand the book and the author’s views.

4. Syntopical Reading

This is also known as comparative reading and it represents the most demanding and difficult reading of all. Syntopical Reading involves reading many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting the ideas, vocabulary, and arguments.

This task is undertaken by identifying relevant passages, translating the terminology, framing and ordering the questions that need answering, defining the issues, and having a conversation with the responses.

The goal is not to achieve an overall understanding of any particular book, but rather to understand the subject and develop a deep fluency.

This is all about you and filling in your knowledge gaps.

There are five steps to syntopical reading:

Finding the Relevant Passages — You need to find the right books and then the passages that are most relevant to filling your needs. So the first step is an inspectional reading of all the works that you have identified as relevant.

Bringing the Author to Terms — In analytical reading, you must identify the keywords and how they are used by the author. This is fairly straightforward. The process becomes more complicated now as each author has probably used different terms and concepts to frame their argument. Now the onus is on you to establish the terms. Rather than using the author’s language, you must use your own. In short, this is an exercise in translation and synthesis.

Getting the Questions Clear — Rather than focus on the problems the author is trying to solve, you need to focus on the questions that you want answered. Just as we must establish our own terminology, so too must we establish our own propositions by shedding light on our problems to which the authors provide answers. It’s important to frame the questions in such a way that all or most of the authors can be interpreted as providing answers. Sometimes we might not get an answer to our questions because they might not have been seen as questions by the authors.

Defining the Issues — If you’ve asked a clear question to which there are multiple answers then an issue has been defined. Opposing answers, now translated into your terms, must be ordered in relation to one another. Understanding multiple perspectives within an issue helps you form an intelligent opinion.

Analyzing the Discussion — It’s presumptuous to expect we’ll find a single unchallenged truth to any of our questions. Our answer is the conflict of opposing answers. The value is the discussion you have with these authors. You can now have an informed opinion.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand the broader subject. To do that you need to use comparative reading to synthesize knowledge from several books on the same subject.

BECOME A DEMANDING READER

Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.

There are four main questions you need to ask of every book:

● What is this book about?

● What is being said in detail and how?

● Is this book true in whole or in part?

● What of it?

If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.

–Shane Parrish

 

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Written by MattAndJojang

July 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm

What Are The Ten Books That Have Shaped You?

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Photo: samluce.com

Photo: samluce.com

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It’s not about the ‘right book’ or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Doesn’t have to be in order. Then share with 10 friends and me so I can see your list.

–Salman Azhar

Here’s my list:

1. How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler

The book that taught me not only to make the most out of reading books, but also how to think critically.

The three main questions are: What is the whole book about and how are its parts related to that whole? What, in detail, does the book say and what does the author mean by what he says? And the third question is, Is it true, and what of it?

– Mortimer Adler

2. The Bible

As a Christian, I consider it as God’s word and the most important book in my life.

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

– Psalm 119:105

3. The Gateless Gate, Yamada Koun Roshi

An incisive commentary on the classic book of koans by the modern-day Zen Master, Yamada Roshi.

You will feel as though the whole universe has totally collapsed. Strange as it may seem, this experience has the power to free you from the agonies of the world. It emancipates you from anxiety over all worldly suffering. You feel as though the heavy burdens you have been carrying in mind and body have suddenly fallen away. It is a great surprise. The joy and happiness at that time are beyond all words, and there are no philosophies or theories attached to it. This is the enlightenment, the satori of Zen.

– Yamada Koun Roshi

4. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart

The book that contains the entire text of the vernacular talks of my favorite Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart.

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.

– Meister Eckhart

5. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, St. John of the Cross

A classic on contemplative spirituality by one of the greatest Christian mystics, St. John of the Cross.

My Beloved, the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
Strange islands,
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

– St. John of the Cross

6. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

The autobiography of my favorite spiritual author and childhood hero, Thomas Merton. He was a great influence in my life.

The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me.

– Thomas Merton

7. The Silent Life, Thomas Merton

A book which describes the different Catholic contemplative religious orders.

I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.

– Thomas Merton

8. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

A modern-day classic on contemplative prayer.

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.

– Thomas Merton

9. The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau

One of the best books on Zen practice written by a Western Zen teacher.

The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.

– Philip Kapleau

10. Christian Zen, William Johnston

A book on Zen meditation written from a Christian perspective by a Jesuit priest and missionary.

In the twenty years that I have spent in Japan – so meaningful and rich that this land is almost my land – I have had some contact with Zen, whether by sitting in Zen meditation or through dialogue with my Buddhist friends. All this has been tremendously enriching; it has deepened and broadened my Christian faith more than I can say… Contact with Zen… has opened up new vistas, teaching me that there are possibilities in Christianity I never dreamed of.

— William Johnston

— Matt