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Book Summary – How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Most people read a book by glancing at the cover, scanning through the blurb (and/or the table of contents), then jumping into the first chapter. According to the authors, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, this is the wrong approach. In this book, they explain how to read a book intelligently to maximize your learning and growth. The skills and approach are relevant for all types of material (including magazines or news articles), but they’re the most valuable for reading great books with solid, timeless insights. In this free version of How to Read a Book summary, you’ll learn what it means to be an intelligent reader, and how to master 4 progressive levels of reading.

How to Read a Book: What is it about?

Being able to hear sounds doesn’t mean you can appreciate music. Likewise, being literate doesn’t mean you know how to read a book.

You may read for entertainment, information or enlightenment. This book focuses on reading for enlightenment, to improve your understanding. You’re “informed” if you can remember what an author said. However, you’re only “enlightened” if you can explain (in your own words) what he meant and why he said it.

When you’re learning from an instructor or teacher, it’s easy to seek help or clarifications. However, when you’re learning from a book, it involves a process of self-discovery to figure out the answers yourself.

This book was was first published in 1940. In this 1972 edition, the authors Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren updated and expanded the materials to explain 4 key dimensions of reading. In our How to Read a Book summary, we’ve organized the insights into 3 parts:
• Becoming an intelligent reader;
• The 4 levels or dimensions of reading; and
• How to read different types of books/material.

What is Intelligent Reading?

Reading is actually a complex activity. To read more actively and intelligently, there are several habits and skills that you must develop.

How to Read a Book summary - what's intelligent reading

Answer 4 questions

First, you must develop the habit of answering 4 key questions as you read.

Overall, what is the book about? Define the book’s overall theme or message.

How does the author present the ideas? Identify the main idea(s), arguments and supporting evidence.

• Are these true, in whole or in part? Fully understand where the author is coming from (i.e. know his mind), then make up your own mind (i.e. know your opinions and the reasons for them).

• So what? If you agree with the author, what should/will you do with the new insights?

Master 4 Levels of Reading

To answer these questions, you must master 4 levels of reading.

Elementary reading means you have enough literacy to make out what the words and sentences say.

• Inspectional reading means you can quickly and systematically skim through a book to get a gist of what it’s about. This helps you to decide whether to read it in detail.

Analytical reading is about reading a book as thoroughly as possible, so you can understand the book and answer all 4 questions above.

Syntopical reading is about comparing, connecting and doing analyses across multiple books to learn a complex topic.

Marking your book

In order to actively answer the 4 questions above and read a book thoroughly, digest and recall the key ideas, it helps to mark a book as  you read. In our complete How to Read a Book summary, we elaborate more on how to do that.

What are the 4 Levels of Reading?

A large part of How to Read a Book is about the 4 levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. These 4 levels of reading are cumulative, with each level building on the previous ones.
How to Read a Book summary - the 4 levels of reading

Level 1: Elementary Reading

In education, students are considered “mature readers” if they complete 4 stages of development and can make sense of most types of reading material. However, they’re only elementary readers in the context of this book, i.e. they have a good-enough command of vocabulary, grammar and syntax to make out the literal meaning of words and sentences.

Level 2: Inspectional Reading

This involves 2 related skills/steps: pre-reading and superficial reading.

Pre-reading

Quickly and systematically skim a book to get a gist of what it’s about, to decide if you want to read the book in detail. To do so:

• Read the title page and preface to get a sense of the book category or topic. [Check out our complete How to Read a Book summary for more details on book categorization.]

• Study the table of contents to get a sense of the content structure.

• Check the index (if any) to get a sense of the range of topics.

• Read the publisher’s blurb, which may offer a brief summary.

• Zoom in on the most important chapters and look for summary statements (usually found at the start or end of the chapters).

• Randomly flip through the pages: read 1-2 paragraphs/pages here and there, as well as the last 2-3 pages of the book which often contains a concluding summary.

Superficial reading

Read through the book rapidly, without stopping to ponder or look up the parts you don’t understand yet. In this way, you won’t waste time on a book that only deserves a superficial reading. If it’s a good book, you can always revisit the difficult sections on your second reading.

Both pre-reading and superficial reading can be completed quickly. However, inspectional reading is not the same as speed-reading. The goal is not to read faster, but to read at the speed appropriate for the book. After all, some books are simply not worth reading in detail—you want to discover this asap so you won’t waste time on them.

Level 3: Analytical Reading

A large part of the book is focused on analytical reading, which is more complex. It involves 3 stages—outlining, interpreting, and critiquing—each with several rules.

Stage 1: Outline the structure to answer the first of the 4 key questions: What is the book about overall? Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren present 4 rules to help you classify the book and identify its goal and structure. By the end of this stage, you can define the main theme and its sub-themes.

Stage 2: Interpret the content to answer the second of the 4 key questions: How does the author present the ideas? Again, there are 4 rules to ensure you’ve fully understood the author’s key terms, propositions, and arguments.

Stage 3: Critique the book. By now, you’re ready to answer the last 2 key questions: Is this book true (in whole or in part)? And, so what? There are 3 rules of intellectual etiquette you should use to critique the book fairly.

For (i) the rules/steps in each of the 3 stages, and (ii) 4 criteria for an objective criticism, do check out our full 16-page summary for How to Read a Book.

Level 4: Syntopical Reading

The ability to read analytically already makes you a much better reader than most. However, to become truly well-read, you must read a wide range of books and be able to synthesize them—that’s where syntopical reading comes in.

This is the most advanced level of reading, where you research, read and learn enough to form a comprehensive, informed perspective about a topic. It’s crucial when: (i) you need more than 1 book to answer a question, and (ii) you must figure out which books to read.

Imagine you want to read/learn about “love” or “gender”. Each topic spans across so many different contexts that it’s hard to even define the subject or its scope. Moreover, different authors have drastically different perspectives, making it hard to pin down what’s “right” or “true”.

So, you’ll need to proceed in 2 phases:
• Initial research/inspection;
• Syntopical reading in 5 steps.

Do check out our complete summary bundle for a breakdown of these steps. You may also enjoy the summary of How to Take Smart Notes.

How to Read Different Types of Material

The 4 key questions above are relevant for any type of fiction or non-fiction book. However, you can’t read every book the same way, and should adapt your approach slightly for each genre. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren explain specifically how you can read different types of books and materials, including:

Practical or normative books that provide useful knowledge or instructions, with recommendations on how/why you should do (or not do) something;

Imaginative literature, such as novels, plays or poetry;

History books and material (formal narratives of a period, an event, or a series of events in the past), including biographies and works on current events;

Mathematics and Science books, with a focus on classics and popularizations rather than technical math/science books;

Philosophy books which address (i) theoretical questions about what is or what’s happening (e.g. “What is equality” or “What’s the meaning of life?”), or (ii) normative/practical questions about what we should do (e.g. “How should humans live?” or “Is cloning good or bad?”).

•  Social science books/materials, which naturally span across multiple domains and require syntopical reading

The authors also address if/how to use reading aids (e.g. using external research or summaries).

Getting the Most from “How to Read a Book”

In summary, when it comes to non-fiction books, you start by inspecting a book quickly to decide if it’s worth reading in detail. Then, read it thoroughly in 3 stages: to outline and interpret/understand the contents fully, before you decide if you agree/disagree with the authors (or withhold your judgment). In some cases, you may even need to read multiple books before you can truly grasp the topic you’re reading about. Mastering the 4 levels of reading allows you to perform these steps effectively to truly learn from great books.

If you’d like to start reading more intelligently, do check out the our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 16-page text summary, and a 28-minute audio summary!How to Read a Book summary - Book Summary Bundle

This book includes other details, such as: discussions on works by Galileo, Shakespeare, Kant, Darwin, Newton and other authors, book examples of analytical and synoptical reading notes, and criticisms of syntopical reading. The book also includes 2 appendices with a recommended reading list and exercises/tests for the 4 levels of reading. If you’d like to engage in a more detailed “discussion” with the authors, do purchase the book here.

To find out how you can accelerate your learning in any area, do also check out our free Ultralearning summary. Or, improve your writing skills with our On Writing Well summary!

About the authors of How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading was written by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

Dr. Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and author of more than 50 books. He taught at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, served as chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica Board of Editors, founded the Institute for Philosophical Research, and was an Honorary Trustee of the Aspen Institute.

Charles Lincoln Van Doren (1926-2019) was an American writer and editor. He was well-known for his appearances in a TV quiz show, but was terminated by NBC after a scandal. He joined Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. in 1959 and became its vice-president. He wrote/edited many books before retiring in 1982. He held a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, an M.A. in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in English, both at Columbia University.

How to Read a Book Quotes

“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.”

“Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself.”

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”

“Your success in reading…is determined by the extent to which you receive everything the writer intended to communicate.”

“A piece of writing should have unity, clarity and coherence.”

“We cannot be sure that we know what is happening now any more than we can be sure about what happened in the past.”

Click here to download the How to Read a Book summary & infographic

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