How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren is a classic guide to intelligent reading. The book focuses on the levels of reading with the large bulk of the focus on the third level of reading: analytical reading. Analytical reading is active reading with the intention for understanding that becomes knowledge. Knowledge is different than just learning facts, it is understanding a book on a level that allows you to retain, dissect, and be able to compare it with other like books. There is a large emphasis on this book with regards to challenging yourself when you read. There should be things that you don’t grasp right away or don’t understand and these type of books are the books that make you a better reader.
Outlining a book and having a memory map of the book is extremely important to being a good reader. Being able to place things in proper order in your head when it comes to a non-fiction book allows you to remember more knowledge that you can later go back to. Adler focuses on the idea that you cannot criticize a book until you understand the book. If you cannot tell another person what the book was about after you have read the book, than you did not completely understand the book. How to Read a Book focuses on identifying the terms and passages that are the most important parts of the book. The book also gives tips on figuring out the author’s intention while reading.
The last level of reading is the syntopical level of reading. This is the ability to gather many books and find the relevant information for what you need it for. Syntopical reading is what people in graduate school and PhD programs do when working on their thesis and doctorate. However, the way they go about doing this might be a much lower level of reading than true syntopical reading.
Finally the book gives tips on how to approach different types of writing, from literature to history books. In the back of the book there is an appendix with a recommended reading list.
I learned a lot of important ideas while reading How to Read a Book. Even though some sections were very dry and things I already knew, there were a lot of things that I either stopped doing, or just didn’t bother to do. Many things I just had the wrong attitude or approach. Here is a list of the things that meant something to me as far as non-fiction reading:
- Active reading is the only type of reading. Reading that just goes through the motions, impassive, just to get the reading done, is worthless.
- A well read individual is not someone that reads more books than others but that understands more quality books.
- You must challenge yourself as a reader or you will not grow as a reader.
- You should not read every sentence the same. Some parts of books should be read faster and others slower.
- Don’t be afraid of skipping irrelevant information while reading. Reading a non-fiction book is not like reading a fiction book.
- You cannot criticize a book until you completely understand the book and can give a synopsis of the book. You cannot say you agree or disagree until you understand.
- Marking books is what the margins are for.
- The parts of a book that you don’t understand are usually the most important parts. Reread them until you do understand them.
- The terms that the author is using is extremely important. You must understand the definitions of the terms the author is using often to understand what he is saying.
- Push yourself to think about the book while you are actively reading the book. Summarize things in your head or out loud while reading.
- The relatively ignorant often disagree with the relatively learned about matters exceeding their knowledge. The inequality of knowledge is very important. Many people believe that disagreements are unrelated to teaching or being taught, that everything is simply a matter of opinion, but this is in error. You must have the knowledge and be open to receive knowledge if you are to truly discuss disagreements and have criticisms.
There are many other things that I probably have not listed but these are some of the ones that I remember off the top of my head when it comes to non-fiction reading. A lot of these are common sense but sometimes I don’t do these things because I just want to finish the book.
The fiction part of this book is relatively small in size compared to the non-fiction part. Since I mostly read fiction this was of high interest to me. Here are the most important things that I learned when it comes to reading fiction:
- The purpose of reading fiction is to feel. Do not try to resist the effect that a work of fiction is having on you. Embrace your emotions, become vulnerable, and give yourself permission to accept the feelings you are having while reading fiction. Minimize as many things that might stop you from having a non-honest reaction to a book.
- The purpose of fiction is to completely experience an experience within the book. You must place yourself in the world and characters that the book has.
- You must be able to reduce the plot into its most simple of parts but you must also be able to take the many parts and say how they create the whole.
- It is paramount that you figure out what the author is trying to make you experience. Only when you know what the intention of the author is can you then criticize the work.
- You should read a novel with as few sittings as possible. The unity of the plot is best experienced in the shortest amount of time.
- Do not disapprove of something a character does before you understand why he or she does it. Try as hard as you can to live in the world that the author is writing and not your own world when disapproving.
- If you think something is beyond you to understand, keep going, keep trying.
For some of you, all this information might be old news. For me, some of this information has got me looking at reading in a more healthy way. It has humbled me so that when I do reviews I will make sure I understand before I criticize. The three most important things that I’ll take away from this are that I need to challenge myself to grow in my reading by reading harder books, don’t read non-fiction how I read fiction(it’s o.k. to skip stuff and speed read parts), and for me to become vulnerable to how I am feeling while I read a fiction book.
I highly recommend this book to anyone going into graduate school. I would not have struggled nearly as much in graduate school if I read this book first. Reading a non-fiction book a week for each of my 4 classes, along with assignments, and research for long research papers was just too much for me. If I would have learned how to read non-fiction faster with the ability to pin point the most important parts and vocalize my opinions knowledgeably, it would have been much easier.
The actual book I would give a 3/5. The ideas that I have taken from it and expounded upon I would give a 4/5, so I am very glad I read it. I think I’ll rate the overall experience a 4/5.