how to read a book

How to read a book: outline and review

About the book

How to Read a Book is a 1940 book by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with the editor Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition. The 1972 revision of How to Read a Book, in addition to the first edition, treats genres (poetryhistorysciencefiction, et cetera), inspectional and syntopical reading.


The 1972 edition of How to Read a Book is divied into four parts, each consisting of several chapters.

Part I: The Dimensions of Reading

Different Goals for Reading

  1. Reading for entertainment
  2. Reading for information
  3. Reading for understanding

Various goals for reading deserve different altitudes towards reading and skills.

The Four Levels of Reading

  1. Elementary reading(rudimentary reading/ basic reading).
    1.         the beginning stage of literacy basely learned in elementary school
    2.         understand words and sentences
  2. Inspectional reading(skimming or pre-reading)
    1. Get the most out of a book within a given time
    2. Skimming systematically
    3. What’s the book about, what’s the structure of the book, what’s the genre of the book
  3. Analytical reading
    1. Ask many organized questions while reading
    2. The best and most complete reading given unlimited time
  4. Syntopical reading (comparative reading)
    1. Read many books on one subject

These four levels of reading are accumulative.

Elementary Reading

Elementary Reading has several stages:

  1. Reading readiness
  2. Word mastery
  3. Vocabulary growth and the utilization of context
  4. The result of elementary reading is literacy

Inspectional Reading

There are two types of Inspectional reading:

Type I: Systematic skimming or Prereading
  1. Look at the title page and its preface quickly. (the subject and scope of the book)
  2. Study the table of contents  ( the structure of the book)
  3. Check the index if the book has one (range of topics covered in the book)
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb if the book is a new one.
  5. Look at pivotal chapters
  6. Reading a paragraph or two ( a taste of the writing)
Type II: Superficial Reading

In dealing with a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

On Reading Speed

     A good reading speed is one that enables you to vary your rate of reading in accordance with the nature and complexity of the material.

    The ideal is being able to read at different speeds.

Part II: Analytical Reading

Active Reading

The essence of Active Reading: four basic questions:

  1. What the book is about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it? What’s the significance of it?

Analytical Reading

Analytical Reading:

  1. You musk know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
    1. Fiction (novel, play, epic, lyric )
    2. Expository(Practical vs. Theoretical)
      1. History
      2. Science
      3. Philosophy
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences( a short paragraph)
  3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, be being oriented to one another and to the unity of the whole. (outline)
  4. Find out what the author’s problems were. ( author’s intention)

The First Stage of Analytical Reading

The first Stage of Analytical Reading(Rules for finding what a book is about)

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State what the whole book is about with utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline those parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
The Second Stage of Analytical Reading

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading(rules for finding what a book says: interpreting its contents)

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
  2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
The Third Stage of Analytical Reading

Criticizing a Book Fairly

Respecting the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, b giving reasons for any critical judgement you make.

The Third Stage of Analytical Reading(Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge)

  1. General maxims of Intellectual Etiquette
    1. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do no say you agree, disagree or suspend judgment, until you can say ‘I understand’ )
    2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
    3. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinions by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
  2. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism
    1. Show wherein the author is uninformed
    2. Show wherein the author is misinformed
    3. Show wherein the author is illogical
    4. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

Part III:  Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter

In Part III of How to Read a Book, Adler briefly discusses the differences in approaching various kinds of literature and suggests reading several other books. He explains a method of approaching the Great Books – read the books that influenced a given author prior to reading works by that author – and gives several examples of that method.

Actually, I skipped thir part of How to Read a Book becuase i think i can read it when i come across these types of booked mentioned by the Author.

Part IV:  The Ultimate Goals of Reading

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical Reading:

  1. Finding the relevant passages
  2. Bringing the authors to terms.
  3. Getting the questions clear
  4. Defining the issues
  5. Analyzing the discussion
First Stage of Syntopical Reading

Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading

  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject be resources to library catalogs, advisors, and bibliographies in books
  2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clear idea of the subject.

Second Stage of Syntopical Reading

Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I

  1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors, can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
  3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.  You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has be to constructed by interpretations of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.  More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.


How to read a book?

The first important advice Adler gives us in How to Read a Book is to understand your goal of reading and choose relevant techniques to fullfil that purpose.

Reading can serve various purposes: reading for entertainment, reading for information, reading for understanding, and reading for the growth of mind; consequently, different reading techniques are required for different goals. At the same time, we have different types of books: fiction, science, and philosophy….., and we need use different techniques with different types of books.

The second vital suggestion Adler offers us is to to be a effective adtive reader.

The author details the rules for different levels of active reading: inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. So very simple, just try these rules of reading and form an effective and efficient reading habit from these rules.

After finishing the book, you definitely would know how to read a book well and effectively.

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