Back to blog

how to read a book

02/10/2019 - Posted in book , education , knowledge Posted by:

Tags: , , , , ,

reading time: 4 minutes

by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren


The book falls into the category “what you see is what you get” — the title is very clear about that. Adler and Van Doren argue that reading is not taught beyond an elementary level, but that in order to participate in the ongoing dialogue of knowledge, you have to advance to the higher levels. The authors distinguish between four levels of reading, namely: (1) elementary reading, (2) inspectional reading, (3) analytical reading and (4) syntopical reading.

Elementary reading is what you learn in school. First you are able to discern different letters, then words and sentences and finally meaning of text. This level requires no further explanation as it is not very complex.

Inspectional reading, however, already includes higher forms of technique. The goal of this type of reading is to get an initial understanding of a written body. The authors argue, that this should not be attempted randomly, but systematically. This level of reading can be subdivided into six steps where the ultimate goal of this type of reading is to determine whether the work under scrutiny deserves a more thorough reading. The six steps of inspectional reading are

  1. Read the title and the preface of the book quickly
  2. Take a thorough look at the table of contents to get an idea of the structure
  3. Read through the index to get a feeling which topics are covered within the book
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb
  5. Read cornerstone chapters the deal with the authors message in the book.
  6. Flip through the book and read passages and paragraphs that seem important. Additionally read the last few pages of the book’s main matter. Never read more than one paragraph or two at a single location in the book.

As for the next level of reading, analytical reading, the goal is to read a whole book and to understand it fully. Shane Parrish has a nice overview of this step that includes samples from the book on his blog at Farnam Street (I highly recommend that you check out his blog and also his podcast). Generally the task of analytical reading, according to Adler and Van Doren, is comprised of 15 steps in three stages.

  1. stage – understand what the book is about
    1. classify the book (what topic does it belong to)
    2. summarize the book in a few sentences — best case in one sentence
    3. outline the major parts of the argument of the book
    4. define the problem(s) the author intended to solve
  2. stage – interpret the book’s content
    1. understand the full meaning of the (key) terms the author is using
    2. discern the author’s leading propositions through his key sentences
    3. find and understand the authors arguments, pieced together through the leading propositions
    4. identify the problems the author has solved as well as the ones he has not. determine whether the author is aware that he has not solved them
  3. stage – criticize the book
    1. before criticizing the book, be sure to have finished the book’s outline and interpretation. Before giving your verdict you have to be able to say honestly “I understand”.
    2. For disagreements present logical reasons anchored in rationality. Do not disagree based on opinion. If there is disagreement show it based on
      1. where the author is misinformed
      2. where the author is illogical
      3. where the author’s analysis is incomplete

The last step, syntopical reading, is by far the most difficult and daunting. It requires you to read multiple accounts of different authors on the same topic, argument or problem. As it is the most difficult, the book gives concrete advice on how to do so. However, in line with the post at Farnam Street, I will not go into more detail on how Adler and Van Doren advise you to do syntopical reading.

The book is quite interesting to read and your increased knowledge on how to read books will surely be an investment in your future self. The book can be found on your favorite world destroying company. My final verdict is, that while some passages could have been shortened a little bit, the book gives you an interesting insight into how you can improve your reading skills. The book’s content is far greater than the brief summary I have given here. The book also briefly shows you ways how you can increase your reading speed as well as how you should approach different subject matters (e.g. stories, epics, historical books, mathematics, philosophy, etc).


So far none that I have read. Might update this section if I can remember it.

interesting thoughts / quotes

“Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly, and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.”

4. The Second Level Of Reading: Inspectional Reading – On Reading Speeds

“And that is why there is all the difference in the world between the demanding and the undemanding reader. The latter asks no questions — and gets no answers.”

5. How To Be A Demanding Reader – The Essence of Active Reading

i liked

That the book gives good examples where most readers fail to apply proficiency and why this is important. You can also tell that the book was written by authors who understand their craft and they apply many of the rules for good writing to this book. As a result the book is (for the most part) a pleasure to read.

i disliked

Being a demanding reader with limited time, I felt that some passages and parts of the book were too long. What could have been stated either more quickly or with less repetition, has been repeated an regurgitated. However, these passages are few between and as such this criticism is only a mild one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *