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How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading Paperback – August 15, 1972
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"It shows concretely how the serious work of proper reading may be accomplished and how much it may yield in the way of instruction and delight.", The New Yorker
"'There is the book; and here is your mind.' Adler and Van Doren's suggestions on how to connect the two will make you nostalgic for a slower, more earnest, less trivial time." -- Anne Fadiman
About the Author
Dr. Charles Van Doren earned advanced degrees in both literature and mathematics from Columbia University, where he later taught English and was the Assistant Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also worked for Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago.
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50 years after that first reading, i still try to follow the advice (above), and find it as helpful and true today as it was back then.
So, what in particular did I gain in from my current reading of this fine book, this gem? Three or four things, all of which are, at least to me, important.
First, re the value of reading the intro or the preface in which the author often says specifically and explicitly what his central thesis is.
Second, re the value of reading the last chapter or even the very last 8 to 10 paragraphs in which the author may, once again, summarize the whole central purpose and argument of the book, which gives you a key to understanding the work in its entirety.
And, third, don't begin arguing with a book until you are certain that you have understood it as well as you possibly can.
Bottom-line, I'm happy that I went back to reread this fine book.
We take reading for granted because we are supposed to be fully alphabetised at around tenth grade. We are not told that this is just the first level of reading — Elementary Reading (Part 1, Ch. 3) — when you learn to recognise the written symbols and to convey meaning from them. You learn how to grow your vocabulary on your own and to transfer and compare concepts from different reading materials. But most of us stop there. And from there we live the rest of our lives treating books in undeserving ways, wasting too much time on the bad ones and granting so little time to the good ones. The great ones, we hardly read, because they scare us.
The problem of wasting time can be drastically diminished by applying the second level of reading — Inspectional Reading (Part 1, Ch. 4). This level means “skimming systematically” to grasp as much as you can from a book in a limited time-frame (possibly just a few minutes). That was an important skill on Adler and Doren’s time when libraries were the norm, but it is even more important now when you have digital previews of a plethora of books in services such as Amazon. If “Customer’s Review” sections existed during their time, I am sure they would also have devoted a portion of Chapter 4 to provide insights on how to better profit from them.
The problem of spending little time on the good (or great) books can only be solved by the third level of reading — Analytical reading (Part 2). Without it, you either refrain from reading a good book altogether (specially a great one) or you read it badly. “Reading badly”, the book explains, is to read passively. Reading analytically is very active and it is hard work. To help us in this endeavour, the book provides extensive advice on how to physically mark the books we read (Part 1, Ch. 5). These note-taking techniques are indispensable to read well and the reader is advised to experiment with them and adapt them to his own style of understanding and to the new types of media now available.
To read analytically you have to ask yourself a number of questions while reading and you must make your best to answer them yourself. The authors present these questions in sequence, but they are quick to explain that in practice (and with experience) we should try to answer them mostly simultaneously.
First, you need to know what the book is about as a whole (Ch. 6 and Ch. 7). This means first categorising the book, then expressing its unity in as few words as possible. You should then proceed to outline its main parts, each of which should be treated as a subordinate whole and have its unity also expressed. This process could continue ad aeternum, but “the degree of approximation varies with the character of the book and your purpose in reading it”. At the end, you should have identified what questions the author wants to answer himself.
After this more “descriptive” stage, you should now try to grasp the author’s message (Ch. 8 and Ch. 9). This means first reconciling the grammatical and the logical aspects of what he writes by matching his chosen words with the terms they express. Only then you can identify the important sentences and paragraphs (the grammatical units) in order to establish the author’s leading propositions and arguments (the units of thought and knowledge — the logical units). Once you have reached actual understanding by identifying and interpreting the author’s terms, propositions and arguments, you can now evaluate if the author has answered the questions (the problems) you identified earlier.
You and the author are now peers and the best thing you can do now is to praise him by criticising his book (Ch. 10 and Ch. 11). However, in order to do so, there are rules, just like there are rules to reach understanding — there is an intellectual etiquette grounded on rhetorical skills the reader must possess. You should understand first and only then criticise, but not contentiously or disputatiously. You may disagree based on the author’s lack of information, misinformation or reasoning fallacies. You may also judge the author’s completeness as faulty. But the most important maxim is to do so with the sole intention of conveying and discussing knowledge, not opinions. “Knowledge consists in those opinions that can be defended” and “opinion is unsupported judgement.” You must be sure to distinguish between both.
So you have described the book, you have understood it and you have criticised it — now what? This is the last (and possibly most important) question you should make. If the book has enlightened you, even if just a little, you must go further — you might even have to act upon it. I like what the authors say about this question applied to historical books: “The answer to the question lies in the direction of practical, political action.” History shows what has been done, so it is a lesson of what we can do or avoid doing. In the same way, whatever the kind of enlightenment you had by reading the book, you have had a glimpse of truth — you can’t ignore it now that you know it.
Part 3 is useful in that it provides some interesting aspects of specific types of reading material, namely practical books, history (including biographies and current events), imaginative literature (including plays and poems), science and mathematics, philosophy and the social sciences. While a pleasure to read, it is not imperative that you do so if you have fully grasped the analytical reading process. There is, however, a lot of value in this part of the book, specially in the later chapters, and the reader is strongly advised to read it. One thing I should say is that, while they detail interesting aspects of reading imaginative literature, their techniques mostly apply to expository works. I think their best advice with respect to the former is “don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you”. This means allowing the work to show you “a deeper, or greater reality”. And this reality is “the reality of our inner life”. We don’t need any more rules than this one.
The last part of the book presents the fourth (and highest) level of reading — Syntopical reading — or reading two or more books on the same subject. By reading syntopically you are not concerned with understanding each book in all its details — in fact, you won’t read any of the individual books analytically (not at the present syntopical reading effort, at least). Here you are reading each book for what it may contribute to your own problem, not for the book’s own sake. Furthermore, you are not reading to find the truth or to establish your own voice — you would be only one more voice in the conversation. You are simply trying to understand the controversy itself, to establish the many voices you hear in a pure exercise of dialectical objectivity. This is a fantastic topic, which the authors have materialised in their greatest contribution to mankind, in my opinion — the Syntopicon, volumes II and III of the Great Books of the Western World . The reader is very much advised to check it out.
The book ends with two appendices. The first one provides a fascinating list of great books — the “endlessly readable” books. The list may seem overwhelming at first glance (and it is!), but the authors are prompt to address the reader and explain that the list does not have any time frame attached to it. I say it should just be begun — even an ignorant reader like me will be so flabbergasted by what he will learn that he will never stop reading it. This is a project for your life as a whole — to never stop reading these books. For a much more restrictive (but also magnificent) reading list, the reader is referred to the 10-year-reading plan provided in Adler’s Great Books.
The second appendix provides exercises and tests on all four levels of reading. I must admit that I hadn’t read them until I got this far in my review. I then decided to do it and now I tell you this: just read it. If you have had literature classes as an undergraduate or graduate student, you might find it slightly commonplace. But if you haven’t, like me, you will be glad you read it. Like they state at the beginning of the appendix, the selected texts are "themselves worth reading", so you can’t lose much by doing so. It is a delightful taste of what awaits you in your future exploits of the Great Books — if you do well and accept the challenge, of course.
On my part, simply put, this book has changed my life. It not only showed me "how" to read a book, but it also showed me "what" to read. I’ll be forever in debt with two of the greatest absent teachers I’ve had, Dr. Mortimer J. Adler and Dr. Charles Van Doren.
I had heard of the book before, but never had any interest in actually seeking it out and reading it. After all, I know how to read a book, right? I suppose that depends on how one defines what reading is precisely and what the act is supposed to achieve. I first (directly) encountered this book in the “required course materials” list for my first master’s course a few months ago. Naturally, I was intrigued by the notion that I had been reading wrong my entire life and that this book may offer a solution to a problem I was not even aware I had. I bought the book and started reading it when it came in the mail a few days later in preparation for my upcoming coursework.
The initial chapters seemed promising in their approach to what reading is and how to formally improve one’s reading skills, emphasizing that the act of reading itself is a skill that can be built upon and improved over time like any other ability. I can buy into that. After all, I could never have read a book like Gravity’s Rainbow without having read Ulysses or that without having reading Faulkner or that without having read Hemingway or Hemingway without having read Green Eggs and Ham as a child, and so on. Seems like a pretty solid assertion that anyone could make with confidence and build a strong foundation upon.
Moving on to Chapter 2, the reader is introduced to the flagship concepts of the book: the four cumulative “levels” of reading; cumulative meaning none of these levels can be reached without having achieved the preceding level. These stages are heavily stressed throughout Adler and Van Doren’s 1972 revision of the book and might be called the central idea of the entire enterprise (emphasis on the word “enterprise” here). The levels are Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical. (You might be asking yourself at this point, what the hell does “syntopical” even mean? I’ll get to that). Adler and Van Doren spend the first of half of the book then going into the nitty-gritty of each of the first three levels.
Elementary Reading, as defined by the authors, is what we learn to do in, you guessed it, elementary school. It is rudimentary reading: the basic act of looking at the word “cow” and understanding that it means the vertebrate, mammalian animal that goes “moo”. Inspectional Reading seems to be an ornate way of saying “looking at the table of contents and skimming the interesting parts”. This is done to “inspect” how much (if any) of the book is worth the reader’s time. Next, we get to the third level: “Analytical”. You know; that stuff most of us learned in high school and undergraduate English & literature courses; read a book and critically analyze it.
So what the hell is this mysterious fourth level? “Syntopical” reading? That word sounds made up right? Well, they’ll get to that. But first, Adler and Van Doren tell us, they want to take seven chapters talking about the different types of books a person can read and tailor their earlier advice to every category of book they can name. It is only in the final 36 pages and two chapters of the main body of the book that Adler and Van Doren decide to explain this cagey level of reading they’ve been name dropping throughout the entire book. Syntopical reading, in the words of the authors:
“It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.”
Adler’s “syntopical reading”, like “inspectional reading” is a dressed-up term meaning simply, comparative reading.
So why make a bunch of hubbub over something as simple as comparative reading? Sure, it’s a big part of writing research papers in secondary school, college, and beyond, but why dress is it up with a made-up word? This is where the penultimate chapter of the book turns into a sales pitch. Here, Adler and Van Doren introduce a problem: how does one know what books to read syntopically? If only, if only there were a product out there that could tell you all the major works of the major ideas of human (err, Western) thought in one, convenient package. “Oh wait!” exclaims Mortimer J. Adler (in Olde Capitalist*)*, “There is a product just like that!” It’s called: A Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas! Guess who compiled and edited it for the Encyclopædia Britannica Great Books of the Western World series?
As it turns out, Mortimer J. Adler happened to be not only at the forefront of the “Great Books” movement, but he also did a lot of work capitalizing on it, too, helping to develop the Great Books of the Western World series. Co-author, Charles Van Doren, worked at Encyclopædia Britannica for over twenty years when this revised edition of How to Read a Book was published, as well. Finding out all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder, did I just read a 330+ page sales pitch for a now-antiquated set of encyclopedias? Did he really invent a “level of reading” and name it (syntopical) to sound like a product (syntopicon) he helped develop? It begs the question: what, if any, of the arguments made in this book were made in genuine good faith?
Early on into my reading, my biggest criticism was that the book offered an absolute dearth of data or evidence to the methods the authors were prescribing. I was more than a little disappointed that there was zero insight regarding the science of the complex cognitive functions that go into the act of reading and deciphering language from arbitrary symbols into multifarious abstract ideas. Where were the chapters on the psychology of reading? The childhood development of reading skills? The neurology aspect? All were conspicuously absent from this book. I was willing to forgive this, because Mortimer J. Adler was, as far as I knew, a lifelong educator and must have known what he was talking about. At best, this was an educator sharing his insights; at worst, it was an argument from authority that made some interesting and thought-provoking claims. If that didn’t raise the red flag for me, the penultimate chapter that essentially read like a 90s infomercial certainly did. After doing more reading into the authors’ respective backgrounds, and the periphery work they did outside of the classroom and outside of writing, it became more difficult to take what this book was saying at face-value.
So what did I ultimately think? I’m currently sitting at 1352 words into this review; can I really sum it up in one paragraph? I suppose I can try. Here’s my best effort:
How to Read a Book offers a couple of nuggets of decent advice about reading over 330-some-odd pages that could’ve been explained in about 50. None of their methods, recommendations, or observations are backed up by any semblance of data or empirical evidence, and it appears they were motivated more so by a paycheck and shameless self-promotion than they were in actually helping audiences learn to read better. Can this book help the average reader? I’d venture to say it’s within the realm of possibility (as long as everything is taken with a grain of salt); however, if you’re a life-long reader who has made it a habit of challenging yourself with books and texts outside of your comfort zone here and there, I can safely tell you: you don’t need this book. Carry on, and happy reading.
Top international reviews
Und dennoch: an vielen Stellen ist das Buch überraschend pragmatisch. So wenn verschiedene Lesegeschwindigkeiten empfohlen werden. Nicht alle Passagen eines Buches muss man mit der gleichen Aufmerksamkeit lesen. Im Gegenteil: die Autoren empfehlen, bestimmte Passagen nur zu überfliegen und andere intensiv zu lesen. Entscheidend ist zu wissen, wann man schnell und oberflächlich und wann man langsam und genau lesen muss. Oder die Empfehlung, erst die Struktur eines Buches zu erfassen. Also das Inhaltsverzeichnis genau zu studieren. Und auch mal in die Mitte oder das Ende eines Buches zu spieken, um seine Gesamtstruktur von Anfang an zu erfassen. Sehr hilfreich fand ich auch die Empfehlung, die Schlüsselwörter eines Buches zu identifizieren ("Coming to terms with an author"). Und schließlich die ausführlichen Empfehlungen, wie man ein Buch kritisieren soll. Dies macht mich etwas "humble" diesem Buch gegenüber. Habe ich es wirklich verstanden? Habe ich mir genügend Mühe gegeben, das Anliegen der Autoren zu verstehen? Nur dann darf ich es überhaupt kritisieren. Dsa Buch strahlt trotz oder gerade wegen seines Alters eine gewisse Souveränität und Ehrwürdigkeit aus. Findet man es vor allem am Anfang etwas überbordend und langatmig, hinterlässt es doch zunehmend das Gefühl, einer "guten, alten Zeit", in der man anders und "tiefer" gelesen hat. Auf dem cover steht ein Kommentar von Anne Fadiman "Adler and van Doren's suggestions... will make you nostalgic for a slower, more earnest, less trivial time." - Das trifft es ziemlich genau.
Fazit: nach der Lektüre des Buches hat man das Gefühl, dass man weniger lesen sollte. Das, was man liest, aber genauer und gründlicher. Man sollte seine Bücher also von Beginn an sorgfältiger auswählen und dann "richtig" lesen. Das Buch von Adler wird für die meisten "modernen" Leser aber zu sperrig sein. Eine aktualisierte Ausgabe, die das Buch ins 21. Jahrhundert bringt, wäre hilfreich und wünschenswert, da es die sehr guten Empfehlungen zugänglicher machen könnte. Für mich ein Buch zwischen drei und vier Sternen.
seeing as im a mature student. It has some good tips and explanations however i find the print far too small. I currently dip in and out when i can whilst studying, working fulltime and looking after family.
But it has changed my perspective toward book reading is a art and a beautiful one.
Though I still hav'nt read it but it contains the science and rules that one need to follow to read the book.
It shows how to use dictionaries and references and read research paper that are not even concerned with your field.
How get maximum out of the book is aptly described.
Though book seem monotonous in some part of it.But as it is mentioned in the book itself that some part of the books are to read quickly and "Some are to be tasted,some are to be swallowed and some are to be chewed".
This book really helped me see a different side to reading by giving great insights and tips to help further your reading ... the book will help you learn to better utilise the books that you do read and will improve your recall of all consumed books going forward
It will save you time and effort in the long run, especially if you're a bit paranoid about your reading skill.
Explains many different things regarding comprehension and ways to conquer it.
Für mein Studium weiterer Bücher hat mir die hier dargestellte Vorgehensweise enorm geholfen und ich nehme mittlerweile viel mehr Wissen mit als vorher. Persönliche Vorlieben beim Lesen bzw. durcharbeiten von Büchern sind dabei natürlich und die Autoren geben hier ein anpassbares Grundkonzept, dass ich für sehr gelungen halte. Ich vermute, dass jeder der gerne und viel liest sich aus diesem Buch hilfreiche Aspekte aneignen kann und das persönliche Lesen nachhaltig verbessern kann.
Einige Passagen des Buches sind sehr ausführlich und könnten im Kern sicherlich gekürzt werden. Teil der Lehre des Autors ist allerdings auch eine persönliche, nach den eigenen Interessen gerichtete Auseinandersetzung mit Büchern, die dazu einlädt bestimmte Kapitel oder Bücher nur sehr schnell oder oberflächlich zu lesen, wenn dies für die eigenen Belange ausreicht. So habe ich beispielsweise den dritten Teil des Buches, in der spezielle Tipps für verschiedene Lesequellen (Sachbuch, Drama, Roman, Philosophie, ...) gegeben werden, ausgespart und für später vorgemerkt, da dies für mich aktuell zweitrangig war.
Ich freue mich, wenn meine Rezension hilfreich für Sie war. Fragen beantworte ich soweit möglich gerne.