How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. 426 pages.
It is always interesting the comments I get when reading Adler's How to Read a Book. This morning I carried it with me to the doctor's office. I do not mind waiting as long as I have a book in hand. I have had some of my best reading experiences while waiting on appointments in doctor's offices.
As they called me to the back this morning the nurse noticed my book. She was puzzled that I was reading a book on How to Read a Book. She knew that I am a librarian and a college teacher. I wonder what was going through the mind. She asked me if the title was a play on words. I told her it wasn't. She continued to be puzzled. I explained that it was about higher reading levels. When most people think about learning to read, they think about what you do in the early grades in elementary school. The focus of Adler's book is not on this type of reading.
How to Read a Book was first published in 1940. The copy I am reading is the revised edition. I have read the book atleast two times before. I have to confess I enjoy reading books that will help me to be a better reader. The better reader I am, the more I can get out of a book. Reading is one of the ways I can continue growing intellectually and other ways.
How to Read a Book includes four parts. Part one describes four different levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Major portions of the book are dedicated to the last two levels of reading. The elementary level reading is what is taught in elementary school. Inspectional reading is how to decide what a book is about by skimming the contents, Analytical reading and syntopical reading are higher level reading skills where the reader can critically engage the book. Syntopical reading is reading more than one work on a topic and being able to synthesize the major ideas consistently.
Adler defines the art of reading as follows: "the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from the outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading" (8). In other words, the reader with their mind can take a book that they do not know about and apply certain skills to it, they will increase their understanding of the subject that the book is about.
Adler speaks of different goals of reading: to entertain oneself, to acquire information and to increase one's understanding. Reading for entertainment is to read purely for pleasure. If we wanted to we could distinguish between lower and higher pleasures. For example, higher pleasure would be a book that required work to understand what Its about, like a classic work like Homer's Illiad versus reading a current bestseller. Reading for information is reading newspapers, magazines, or daily nes on the web to gather facts. In these sources the reading level will be at a basic level and the reader should not have a problem understanding it. Reading for understanding is when a person "tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader" (9). How to Read a Book emphasizes reading for understanding. It is meant to teach you how to read books at a higher level. It is meant to give you the skills to be a better reader that you will be able to read the type of books that will increase your understanding.