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How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book “How to Read a Book” sounds unneccessary at first. If you can’t read a book, then a book about reading books won’t help. And if you can read a book, you don’t need to read the book.

After reading the book, I learned about four distinct, but nested levels of reading:

  1. Elementary Reading What we learn in school up to around 6 or 7th grade, after which we are assumed to be able to read books.

  2. Inspectional Reading This is systematic skimming, the thing that makes this level distinct is that there is an assumed time limit. For example, in High School, students are assigned deadlines and have to answer questions about the book, and sometimes write summaries or reports about content in the book. In the case of textbooks, the student needs to know how to survey the structure of the book and answer questions about it.

  3. Analytical Reading The book is mostly about this level, at this level there is no assumed time limit, and there are many rules to follow to build the habit of analytical reading. The rest of the post will expand on this idea.

  4. Syntopical Reading This is the most advanced level of reading they deal with in the book, and it involves reading multiple books on the same subject and not only answering pre-determined questions about the books, but forming new questions and answering them through original research.

Analytical Reading

The authors lay out a list of rules for reading analytically, these rules guide you to making the right demands of a book. Simply reading the words is not enough, there are several different ways you should be processing the book as you read it. The first is “top-down”, the second is “bottom-up”, I’ll connect these with the first four rules:

1. Classify a book

Answer the question “What kind of book is it?“. You may already do this, you should know if the book is nonfiction or fiction, science or philosophy, practical or theoretical, history or mathematics. etc. Once you classify a book, you will be in a better position to ask the right questions of it.

2. Find the point of the book

This is what the authors call the “unity” of the book. It is around 1 to 3 sentences that completely sum up the author’s point. It is the unifying theme of the book. I think of this like compressing the book. As an example, here is the point of Adler and Van Doren’s book:

This book introduces the four levels of reading and their relationships. Analytical reading, the third level, is introduced and clarified through a set of rules. Further variations on those rules are given for different kinds of reading material (mathematics, philosophy, poetry, etc.).

3. Find the structure of the book

The first two rules of analytical reading were “top-down”, whereas rule 3 is “bottom-up”. In order understand how the structure of the book will support the unity of the book, you first need to know its structure. It may be possible to just take the given breakdown of parts, sections or chapters, but there may be a better way of organizing the parts that you discover. This is a worthwhile exercise, and it helps put later deeper reading into context.

4. Find which problems is the author trying to solve

Finding out what problems the author is trying to solve is important if you think you will criticize the book. Unless you know what the author was trying to do, you might be committing employing the red herring fallacy.

However, even if you end up agreeing with the author, you will need to know what the author was trying to do to make sure you really do agree.

5. Come to terms with the author(s)

The authors talk about terms vs words and propositions vs sentences. Terms are the basic unit of communicable knowledge, and there is not a one-to-one relationship between terms and words. Coming to terms with an author means finding out how they are using certain words or phrases. Once you come to terms, that is, once you have learned the authors terminology, you can find their propositions. The propositions are then used in sequence as arguments.

6. Find the leading propositions

Terms are like the basic mathematical objects that math books define in the beginning, like lines. Propositions are statements about those objects that the book goes on to support, such as “given two lines that are not parallel, there is a point where the two lines intersect”. Since most books are not as neatly organized as math books, you will need to actively find these terms and propositions, so that you can understand the arguments the author is making. The book goes into much greater detail about this, and states that in some ways, Homer’s epic poems are harder to read analytically than Euclid’s Elements.

7. Know the arguments composed of the propositions

The hierarchy of terms, propositions and arguments is analogous to mathematical objects, statements and proofs.

Expository Books Mathematical Books
Terms Objects
Propositions Statements
Arguments Proofs

Once you know the authors’s arguments, you can check to see if the author has solved the problems you identified in 4.

8. Determine if the author solved the problems they set out to solve

If you get to this part and are convinced that the author didn’t solve one or more of those problems you identified in 4, then you can criticize the book for failing to solve that problem. If it was a failure in reasoning, you can show the breakdown in logic. The authors break down all the ways you can fairly criticize a book, and all of it requires first that you read it, and then make the effort to follow all these rules, and then, using the same terms as the author, you are in a position to criticize it.

Non-expository books

Expository books (science, philosophy, history, etc.) make the most sense to read analytically, but the authors do take several chapters giving modified rules for analytically reading fiction, plays and poetry. The main problem that Adler and Van Doren were trying to solve though, is give a list of rules for analytically reading expository books.

Conclusion

This is a very useful practical book about how to improve your reading skills, I’ve been applying it to a mathematics book about Fractal Geometry, Topology and Measure theory, but that’s been easy, given that math usually makes the terms and propositions painfully clear. My next attempt will be to read Homer’s Iliad using these rules. That will be much more of a challenge, since not only is it not a math book, but it’s also not even an expository book, it’s a story.

I would recommend reading this book if you are interesting in improving your reading skills. Not only should reading be active, but it should be structured, and if you want to be able to learn from books without a teacher being present, you should be able to apply these rules and discover the structure of the book, and be able to intelligently agree or disagree.