A must-read for anyone who wants to get more out of books
This classical work has been on my reading list for almost 20 years. One of my college professors (I wish I could remember his name) recommended it on the first day of class. He asserted that even though all of us knew how to read, most of us did not know how to read well. He told us that this book would teach us how to do that.
I didn’t put off reading it because I thought he was wrong. He was a remarkable man, clearly very intelligent, well-read himself, an experienced professor, and a good judge of his students’ abilities. I pretty much assumed that he was right. The reason I put it off was because I was just so busy. I had other classes. I had extracurriculars. I wanted to set aside time to have a little fun. It was college after all.
I should have listened to him a long time ago.
How to Read a Book is simply remarkable. Had I listened to my professor at the time, this one book would have saved me a ton of time reading others and improved my grades as well. Had I followed his advice, I likely would have read more and understood better in the years after college as well.
Adler and Van Doren have given more thought to books, reading, readers, authors, and the relationships amongst them than I have given to…well…likely anything at all. Their observations about how to read, how to interpret and criticize an author, and how to read across different works are simply profound. What’s more, they teach you how to determine which books are worth your time and which aren’t before you’ve taken the time to read it. (You might think I’m talking about skimming here, and you wouldn’t be exactly wrong, but you wouldn’t exactly be right either.)
Adler and Van Doren break their book into four parts. The first three parts are to three levels of reading a single book. The fourth and final part focuses on how to read across several works on a single topic. At each stage the authors provide a number of guidelines and rules for reading a book, along with reasons and arguments that reinforce the need for those rules.
Part one discusses the first two levels of reading, as defined by the authors: Elementary Reading and Inspectional Reading.
Elementary Reading is the level that most people reach. It’s the simple process of stringing letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into larger cohesive collections of thought. The few people who go on to learn more reading skills beyond that typically focus on reading faster not better.
The goal of Inspectional Reading is to get a big picture of the work, how it is structured and what its main arguments are. It is akin to skimming and does involve some traditional skimming, but is far more structured and deliberate. When most people skim, they simply skip through and try to pick out important parts of the text. Inspectional reading starts out focusing on the broadest possible aspects of the work; the title page, publisher’s blurb, and table of contents; then moves into progressively more specific parts of the work such as section headers and opening and closing paragraphs. Finally, the Inspectional Reader will dip in here and there to try to grasp a bit more of the author’s main message and arguments.
Part two of the book focuses on the third level of reading: Analytical Reading. This stage of reading is dedicated to the evaluation and reading of various works. It is primarily focused on how to read nonfiction or, as they refer to it, expository works. The goal of this section is to help the reader see his or her relationship and obligations to the author (Yes! Readers have relationships obligations to authors! Who knew?), evaluate the arguments presented by the author, and determine what to do with the new information presented.
Part three gets into specific rules for specific types of work. Not only are there chapters for a variety of types of expository works - philosophy, various sciences, mathematics, and more - but the authors also dedicate two chapters to imaginative works such as poetry, literature, and plays.
Finally, the fourth part is dedicated to reading several works across a subject, which the authors dub the fourth level of reading and label it Syntopical Reading. The authors give advice on how to define the area of concern within the reader’s subject, how to choose books, and give revised versions of their rules for the various levels of reading.
I truly can not overstate how much I enjoyed this book. It has changed the way I’ve approached every book I’ve read since starting it. There are a few books that I opted not to move past the inspectional level because I was able to tell that they were poorly constructed arguments, weren’t up to the level I needed on that particular topic, or both. Those that I have chosen to move past the inspectional stage with, I have understood better and read faster (even though the book only devotes about two sentences to faster reading techniques).
The one caution I would give to prospective readers of this book is that it is a very challenging read. As I mentioned, the authors have given a great deal of thought to the act of reading and have structured very detailed arguments to support their reasoning for framing the act of reading in the way that they have. They are, unsurprisingly, well-read themselves and often use books unfamiliar to most of us as examples (Darwin’s Origin of Species and the various works of Aristotle come up regularly).
Even in spite of that one caution, the book is absolutely eye-opening. It has already become a regularly referenced work on my shelf, and will continue to be for quite some time. I thought I knew how to read before reading this book. Now I know I do.