How to Read a Book – Mortimer Adler

How To Read a Book is probably the most worthwhile read one could do in the first semester of any liberal arts program. We all go through life believing we can read, but as Adler points out, there are various levels of reading and most of us are still in the first one. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just means there’s a lot to learn, and that’s what this book is about.

In the first pages the author compares reading to baseball, in the sense that the author is throwing a ball, which requires effort, and the catcher must also put in effort to effectively catch the ball. The analogy breaks down when we’re catching half a ball, or understanding half of what the author meant.

Meant was written in italics because when we’re reading we often forget that the writer had some particular ideas in his head, and it was through his writing and the words he chose that he is trying to convey those ideas. However, as we know, our ideas and the words we use are not always perfectly isomorphic, which puts the reader in trouble because it requires an extra effort to understand an author beyond his words.

Reading is valuable because it’s probably the most effective way to increase your understanding of the world without external help, that is, of another human being. When we read however, we usually store the information we get from a book, but we don’t elevate our understanding. In order to achieve this, we need to push ourselves. When we tackle a book that is difficult to us, make the effort of sticking to it and read it, we can feel our understanding increasing. The catch is, we don’t necessarily need to be reading Dostoyevsky, for this to happen. The difference between gathering facts and understanding is that with the former, you remember something, with the other you are able to explain it.

We might as well just want to read with the purpose of passing time, not of increasing our understanding. This book, focuses on the latter, on the reading with more productive purposes. As Adler puts it, this book focuses on “the art of reading books when understanding is the aim you have in view”.

The four types of reading described are:

  1. Elementary reading concerned purely with ‘what does the sentence say?’, this is what we usually learn in school.
  2. Inspectional reading Learning to skim through books and doing superficial reading. Concerned with ‘what is this book about?’
  3. Analytical reading Concerned with coming to terms with the author, understanding what he meant, making the book yours.
  4. Syntopical reading The reader uses multiple books to understand a single subject, its purpose is to achieve a level of mastery in making connections between books.

This are purposefully not described in much detail, since each concept is very rich and if found worth pursuing, the book should be the answer. What I will do, is  write about the couple of things that stuck with me after reading the book, this can be seen as little tips to aid you in your reading.

  • Active reading If you expect to profit from a book, in mind or spirit, you have to keep awake, to read as focused as possible, attentive to every detail.
  • Speed reading By reading the book and its advise on speed reading, I could actually double my speed. I wrote a little about this on this article.
  • The levels How you need one to go to the other. You can’t perform a good analytical reading without having inspected the book before, because you’ll have no idea about what the book is about while reading.
  • Syntopical reading Understanding this concept opened widely my perspective of reading books. A book is not just about the book, it’s also about the connections to other books and the meaning that lies in the middle of all the books you’re reading.
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