Review of How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren

How to Read a Book. By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972, v-xiii + 426 pp.

How to Read a Book is a learning manual written to help students see the value of books (or written resources in general) for gaining understanding of themselves and life.  The authors propose that real thinking is the result of reading—as opposed to the assimilation of information through the various media outlets of our day.  Thus, their aim is to assist the reader in the use of books, articles, etc. to acquire knowledge of himself and his world, or stated another way, to “make books teach us well” (p. 15).

In Part I: The Dimensions of Reading, the authors propose that a certain manner of reading must be undertaken for success with books, namely active reading.  The goal of this style of reading is to gain information and understanding.  In this first part, the authors propose the first two of four levels of reading: Elementary (described in ten pages) and Inspectional (given fourteen pages) reading.

In Part II, the authors devote 140 pages to the third level of reading: Analytical reading.  Ultimately the analytic reader is looking to answer the question “What of it?” (pp. 137-38). According to Adler and Van Doren analytical reading allows one to successfully reach for books beyond him—and understand their arguments.  All this is accomplished through examining a book in part and in whole, coming to terms with the author, determining his message, and then criticizing his work.  Finally, Part II contains reading rules one through fifteen—much of the substance of the book.

Part III: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter, takes up these various rules for reading and providing nuances where appropriate.  It is in Part III where we find a further treatment of the authors’ thesis: every book should be read according to its merit (p. 67).

Thus, the authors propose that different books should be read appropriate to, among other things, their genre and aim.

Part IV: The Ultimate Goals of Reading, is an especially helpful section for the student engaged in research.  Here the reader is instructed of how the four levels of reading come together to help readers dialogue with various authors and gain understanding.  Toward the end of this section the authors also provide insight for the difficulties of Syntopical reading.

Adler and Van Doren advance the main thrust of their argument by proposing that authors use their books to try to solve problems.  Thus students are challenged to ask, “What problem is the author trying to solve?”  This may be another way of asking the question, “Why did the author write this book—What were his issues?”  Further still, once we see where the author is at in the larger chain of conversation about which he is writing, then we can begin to enjoy the goal of How to Read a Book—understanding.

Further, How to Read a Book provides the student with a sequence of specific questions to ask of an author’s work (book, article, etc.).  The four questions: “What is the book (article) about as a whole?” “What is being said in detail, and how?” “Is the book true, in whole or part?” and “What of it?” (pp. 46-47) are extremely helpful for one desiring to analyze and synthesize a written discourse.  The first question, “What is the book (article) about as a whole?” is answered by examining the front and back covers of the book (or the resource containing the article), and identifying its date, genre and general aims.  The second question, “What is being said in detail, and how?” may be addressed by investigating the table of contents/structure of the resource, the last chapter or conclusion of the book/article, and the first chapter or introduction of the book/article.  The table of contents reveals the goals of the resource and the structure by which the author(s) attempt to achieve those goals; the conclusion or last chapter provides a basis for evaluating if the author(s) met said goals, and the first chapter or introduction provides a quick analysis of the entire work.  By reading these various sections in the order prescribed here, readers can quickly access the argument of the book and begin to come to terms with the author(s).  This is active reading: knowing the problem the resource is seeking to address and how it goes about offering a solution.  The third question, “Is the book true, in whole or part?” requires readers to engage key chapters of the book, identified already when analyzing the table of contents.  By skimming key chapters, readers are able to identify core components in the author(s)’ argument, and evaluate the author(s)’ solution to the problem the resource is trying to address.  The reader would then need to skim the entire resource, reading more closely the introduction and conclusion sections of each chapter or article section.  The final question, “What of it?” requires comparing the resource with other resources dealing with the same issue.  Here Adler and Van Doren suggest that the reader place himself around a large table, seated beside the authors he has read, and comparing and evaluating their ideas and providing his own thoughts, joining the conversation.   As one answers these four questions, he is then prepared to write and/or speak persuasively on the issue at hand, making his own contribution to the discussion.

To answer these questions as one reads a book, the authors provide some helpful ideas for note taking.  While much of this comes naturally—and is personalized over time—their suggestions provide a framework to be used in reading any number of books.  As one adopts a uniformity in active reading, he is perhaps more able to do Syntopic reading with greater efficiency.

The student gains wisdom from Adler and Van Doren’s reading rule five: Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author (p. 98). Certainly as one masters this discipline, he will be much more effective at Syntopical reading—perhaps this rule could even be considered the foundation upon which Syntopical reading can occur.

Along the same lines, one is challenged by Adler and Van Doren’s command to find propositions of an author’s argument and attempt to state them in his own words.  This proves beneficial in coming to terms with the author and initiating Syntopic reading.  As the authors state, “The reader who cannot see through the language to the terms and propositions will never be able to compare such related works” (p. 127).

How to Read a Book is an extremely helpful resource for the student engaged in the research process.  The principles written by Adler and Van Doren are especially helpful for students completing annotated bibliographies—a fundamental responsibility of one working to read and write persuasively.

In sum, How to Read a Book challenges students toward reading books that can make them better readers.  Adler and Van Doren help the student to discern what books are actually valuable to help their thinking and reading.  As one accepts this challenge, he will reap an improved reading level, and an education about the world and about himself, becoming wiser in the sense that he is more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life (pp. 340-41).