How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.
This is my final post on Adler's book. I have enjoyed my third reading of it. I agree with the subtitle that it is a classic guide for intelligent reading. It provides the reader with the tools he needs to be an excellent reader. This post will look at the final two chapters of the book: syntopical reading and reading for life-long education.
Adler lists two reasons for syntopical reading: "knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question" and the second is "knowing which books should be read in a general way" (309). Analytical reading focuses on reading one book critically. Syntopical reading focuses on reading multiple books determined by the topic of research. The author states that both inspectional and analytical reading prepares one for syntopical reading. Inspectional reading seems to be even more important for a syntopical reading than an analytical reading.
Syntopical reading usually is done when writing a research report. You have a topic that must be researched. You develop a preliminary bibliography of twenty or more sources. You do not have the time to do analytical reading for all your sources. You are concentrating only on the sources that address your topic. You know which parts of your source that are relevant to your topic. The first thing to do is to review all the sources on your bibliography. You will give these sources an inspectional reading. Adler notes that the skilled reader "discovers . . . whether the book says something important about his subject or not" (315). If it does not, it is put aside. Once you discover the books that are relevant to your topic, you then read them syntopically.
The author lists five steps to do a syntopical reading:
The first part is to "find the relevant passages" that address your topic. In the second part you "bring the author to terms." Since the authors will be using different terms for the same topic, you must create the terms that will apply to all the authors. In syntopical reading, you are in charge, not the author. Adler states that the reader "forces" the author to use his terms instead of "the other way around." The third part is to "get the questions clear." The reader must create questions that help solve the problem. What are we trying to find out? What questions can help us solve our research problem? In part four the reader "defines the issues." What are the key issues of the research topic? How are these issues addressed by the sources? The last step is to "analyse the discussion." What are the different sources saying? Who agrees with whom? This seems to be similar to a literature review? The last chapter of the book speaks of a growing mind.
Adler states that if we want to grow as a reader, we will need to read books that will stretch us. They must be books that lie slightly beyond our capacity. The authors claim that reading purely for entertainment or information will not stretch you. You must read books that are above you and are read for understanding. The authors notes that these type of books will reward you in two ways. First, your reading skills will improve. Second, "a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself" (340-341). It will help you to grow in wisdom. In addition, the authors states that the mind is a muscle. A muscle requires exercise to grow. The mind can "atrophy if it is not used." The authors end their book with this encouragement: "Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also helps to keep our minds alive and growing" (346). I hope this short survey of this book will motivate you to read it.