How to Read a Book (series: Book Reviews, part 3)

The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
Comments by Dave Skipper

PREVIOUS ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES: Shocking Tales of Harsh Noise

A confession. I have been putting off writing book reviews for this series as I have not been entirely sure how to tackle them. (Did you realise that the one review I have posted so far is completely tongue-in-cheek, for “Shocking Tales of Harsh Noise” doesn’t actually exist?) What makes a good book review? Should I stick to a specific format? What is their purpose? Is it to glean and summarise the best and most important parts of the book? Or is it to give other prospective readers a good basis on which to decide whether or not they should also read the book? I have also been somewhat paralysed by my propensity for thoroughness; I know that to do a book justice and to get the most out of it is not a quick and easy task. A number of the books I am planning to review really warrant a much more detailed analysis.

Anyway, recently I finally decided I should just get on with it, with the aim of writing one a month. But then something led me to postpone that for a little while…

I just finished reading an extremely helpful book: “How to Read a Book,” subtitled “The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” It is a thorough, systematic, easy-to-read guide to reading (primarily) expository non-fiction books, specifically in order to read deeper, better, and with great understanding. It made me see that in most respects my reading habits have been stuck at the elementary level, which indeed is probably where most of us reside. It has given me clarity, focus, and excitement to read books more intelligently and usefully; specifically the kinds of books that I will be reviewing (and, for some, hopefully, summarising and analysing in greater depth) in this series.

So with these tools, I anticipate being able to produce book reviews with much greater value and focus than I otherwise would have. But analytical reading as described in “How to Read a Book” is a skill, an art, and as such requires practice, patience, effort, and growth. So my revised plan is to start working on this process for a few books, and spend a bit more time on refining an initial batch of reviews before starting to publish them. I have the advantage that nobody is holding their breath waiting for me, and you will (eventually) get the advantage of (hopefully) better reviews as a result of all this.

What follows below is emphatically not a book review, but is rather a summary of the book’s rules and tips for reading, along with some edited accompanying material. One section of the book also deals with how to read different kinds of literature; I have only copied some notes on the chapter “How to Read Philosophy” as that was the most helpful and relevant of those chapters for me. Various other sections or chapters I didn’t glean anything useful from. The text is lifted directly from the book with a few adjustments here and there.

I put this here primarily for my own personal reference, to help me with getting into the habit of learning to apply these guidelines for my own analytical reading; but maybe you will find them helpful too. Of course the actual book adds a lot of additional explanation and rationale and examples that give a fuller picture and context for these, so it’s definitely worthwhile getting hold of a copy and reading it for yourself if you want to pursue these matters further.


The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

1. Systematic Skimming or Pre-Reading (this should take a few minutes, at most an hour)

  • Look at the title and preface.
  • Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure.
  • Check the index. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and of the kinds of books and authors referred to. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up at least some of the passages cited.
  • Read the publisher’s blurb.
  • Look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s argument. If these chapters have summary statements in their opening or closing pages, as they often do, read these statements carefully.
  • Turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several in sequence, never more than that. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter. Above all, do not fail to read the last two or three pages, or, if these are an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book.

2. Superficial Reading

  • In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder things you do not understand right away. Pay attention to what you can understand. What you understand by reading the book through to the end will help you when you make the additional effort later to go to the places you passed by on your first reading.

Systematic Skimming anticipates the comprehension of a book’s structure.
Superficial Reading is the first necessary step in the interpretation of a book’s contents.

The Essence of Active Reading: The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks

  1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind.
  4. What of it? If the book has informed you, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.

How to Make a Book Your Own

  1. Underlining – of major points; of important or forceful statements.
  2. Vertical lines at the margin – to emphasise a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underlined.
  3. Star, asterisk, or other doodad at the margin – to be used sparingly, to emphasise the ten or dozen most important statements or passages in the book.
  4. Numbers in the margin – to indicate a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument.
  5. Numbers of other pages in the margin – to indicate where else in the book the author makes the same points, or points relevant to or in contradiction of those here marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong together.
  6. Circling of key words or phrases
  7. Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page – to record questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raises in your mind; to reduce a complicated discussion to a simple statement; to record the sequence of major points right through the book.
  8. End endpapers – make a personal index of the author’s points in order of their appearance.
  9. Front endpapers – a record of your thinking; outline the book as an integrated structure, with a basic outline and an order of parts.

The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

1. The First Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Finding What a Book is About“What is the book about as a whole?”

  • RULE 1: Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  • RULE 2: State the unity of the whole book (its theme or main point, what it is about) in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences.
  • RULE 3: Set forth and outline the major parts of the book, and show how these are organised into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.
  • RULE 4: Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

2. The Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents“What is being said in detail, and how?”

  • RULE 5: Find the key words (or phrases), and through interpreting them come to terms with the author.

Terms are words (or phrases) used unambiguously. It may be the words that give you the most trouble that are the most important ones. When you find an author telling you how a particular word has been used by others, and why he chooses to use it otherwise, you can be sure that word makes a great difference to him.

Try to determine whether the author uses the word with one or many meanings. If it has many, try to see how they are related. Note the places where the word is used in one sense or another, and see if the context gives you any clue to the reason for the shift in meaning. Distinguish between the author’s vocabulary and his terminology. On the one hand, a single word may be related to several terms. On the other hand, a single term may be related to several words.

  • RULE 6: Mark the most important sentences in the book and discover the propositions they contain.

Propositions are expressions of the author’s judgment about something. He affirms something to be true, or denies something he judges to be false. (However, these are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons; see next rule.)

Propositions are the answers to questions. They are declarations of knowledge or opinion. It is important to distinguish the various propositions that a long, complex sentence contains.

From your point of view as a reader, the sentences important for you are those that require an effort of interpretation because, at first sight, they are not perfectly intelligible. Those are the things you should read most carefully. From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his whole argument rests. The heart of his communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for so doing.
The principal propositions must belong to the main argument of the book. They must be either premises or conclusions. Hence, if you can detect those sentences that seem to form a sequence, a sequence in which there is a beginning and an end, you probably have put your finger on the sentences that are important. An argument may begin with what is really the conclusion and then proceed to give the reasons for it. Or it may start with the evidence and the reasons and bring you to the conclusion that follows therefrom.

Many people pause over the sentences that interest them rather than the ones that puzzle them. Bring all the surrounding sentences to bear on the sentence in question, proceeding from what you do understand to the gradual elucidation of what is at first relatively unintelligible.

The best test for telling whether you have understood a proposition is to state it in your own words. The translation of one sentence into another, if accurate, is faithful to the thought alone. There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read. Can you point to some experience you have had (or can you imagine a possible case) that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant? Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?

It may be that you will mark certain words only after you have become puzzled by the meaning of a sentence. If you know the terms the words express, you have caught the proposition in the sentence. If you understand the proposition conveyed by a sentence, you have arrived at the terms also.

  • RULE 7: Locate or construct the basic important arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences, gathering them from different places as necessary.

An argument is always a set or series of statements of which some provide the grounds or reasons for what is to be concluded.

Why should the reader be persuaded to accept the author’s propositions?

Put numbers in the margin, together with other marks, to indicate the places where the sentences occur that should be tied together in a sequence.

Good expository authors try to reveal, not conceal, their thoughts. But you often have to search through all the paragraphs of a chapter to find the sentences you can construct into a statement of a single argument. If the author summarises his arguments for you at the end of a chapter, or at the end of an elaborate section, you should be able to look back over the preceding pages and find the materials he has brought together in the summary.

Incidentally, if you have inspected the book well before beginning to read it analytically, you will know whether the summary passages exist, and if they do, where they are.

It is a sound maxim of careful reading to make every step in an argument explicit, even if the author has omitted some steps in the argument.

Any good argument can be put into a nutshell.

In the first place, remember that every argument must involve a number of statements. In the second place, discriminate between the kinds of argument that points to one or more particular facts as evidence for some generalisation (inductive reasoning) and the kind that offers a series of general statements to prove some further generalisations (deductive reasoning). In the third place, observe what the author says he must assume, what he says can be proved or otherwise evidenced, and what need not be proved because it is self-evident. Such things as axioms and assumptions or postulates are needed for the proof of other propositions. Every line of argument, in other words, must start somewhere: with assumptions agreed upon between writer and reader, or with self-evident propositions, which neither the writer nor reader can deny.

  • RULE 8: Find out what the author’s solutions are.

Determine which of his problems the author solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. Did he raise any new questions?

The two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments. You work down to propositions and arguments by dividing the book up into parts. You work up to arguments by seeing how they are composed of propositions and ultimately of terms. When you have completed the two processes, you can really say that you know the contents of the book.

3. The Third Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Criticising a Book as a Communication of Knowledge“Is it true? What of it?”

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

  • RULE 9: Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand.”

The most teachable reader is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed. Teachability requires that a teacher be fully heard and, more than that, understood before he is judged.

The role of rhetoric. If our purpose in trying to communicate is serious, we wish to convince about theoretical matters and to persuade about matters that ultimately affect action or feeling. On the part of the reader, rhetorical skill is knowing how to react to anyone who tries to convince or persuade us.

The importance of suspending judgment. Not until you are honestly satisfied that you have accomplished the first two stages of reading should you feel free to express yourself. When you have, you not only have earned the right to turn critic, you also have the duty to do so. To agree is just as much an exercise of critical judgment on your part as to disagree. To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent. Suspending judgment is also an act of criticism. It is taking the position that something has not been shown. You are saying that you are not convinced or persuaded one way or the other.

All criticism that is not based on understanding is irrelevant. There is no point in answering critics of this sort.

  • RULE 10: Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

  • RULE 11: Present good reasons for any critical judgment you make, thereby demonstrating that you respect and recognise the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion. Knowledge consists in those opinions that can be defended. If we really know something, we must believe that we can convince others of what we know. Give reasons for disagreements so that issues are not merely stated but also defined. In that lies all hope for resolution.

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

The reader who comes to terms with an author and grasps his propositions and reasoning shares the author’s mind. It is because of, not in spite of, your meeting the author’s mind through a sound interpretation of his book that you are able to make up your own mind as concurring in or dissenting from the position he has taken.

There are three conditions that must be satisfied if controversy is to be well conducted. First, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions you bring to a dispute, or those that arise in the course of it. Otherwise you are likely to be giving vent to feelings, not stating reasons. Second, you must make your own assumptions explicit. Otherwise you are not likely to admit that your opponent may be equally entitled to different assumptions. Third, attempt impartiality.

Judging the Author’s Soundness
These three rules are related to the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments. These are the elements he used to solve the problems that initiated his efforts.

  • RULE 12: Show wherein the author is uninformed.

He lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. You must be able yourself to state the knowledge that the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions. Lack of relevant knowledge makes it impossible to solve certain problems or support certain conclusions.

  • RULE 13: Show wherein the author is misinformed.

He asserts what is not the case, proposing as true or more probable what is in fact false or less probable, claiming to have knowledge he does not possess. You must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s. Erroneous suppositions lead to wrong conclusions and untenable solutions.

  • RULE 14: Show wherein the author is illogical.

He has committed a fallacy in reasoning. The non sequitur means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. Inconsistency means that two things the author has tried to say are incompatible. You must be able to show the precise respect in which the author’s argument lacks cogency. One is concerned with this defect only to the extent that the major conclusions are affected by it.

It is interesting, but less important, to discover lack of cogency in reasoning from premises that are themselves untrue, or from evidences that are inadequate.

Judging the Author’s Completeness
This rule bears on the structure of the whole book.

  • RULE 15: Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

He has not solved all the problems he started with, or he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or he has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to his undertaking. You must define the inadequacy precisely, either by your own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books. Suspending judgment on the reader’s part responds to an author’s failure to solve his problems perfectly.
Related books in the same field can be critically compared by reference to these four criteria. But the profoundest comparison is made with respect to the completeness of the analysis that each presents. The measure of such completeness is to be found in the number of valid and significant distinctions that the accounts being compared contain.

No higher commendation can be given any work of the human mind than to praise it for the measure of truth (and clarity and power to enlighten) it has achieved. You cannot read for information intelligently without determining what significance is, or should be, attached to the facts presented. If you are reading for enlightenment, there is really no end to the enquiry that, at every stage of learning, is renewed by the question, What of it?

The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most of our colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to become authorities in their own right.

How to Read Philosophy

A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers. One of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sorts of profound questions that children ask. We must be able to see as children see, to wonder as they wonder, to ask as they ask. We must be childishly simple in our questions – and maturely wise in our replies.

The questions philosophers ask.

There are (theoretical, or speculative) questions about being and existence; about change and becoming; about necessity and contingency; about the material and the immaterial; about the physical and the non-physical; about freedom and indeterminacy; about the powers of the human mind; about the nature and extent of human knowledge; about the freedom of the will. These are about what is or happens in the world: metaphysics, the philosophy of nature, and epistemology.

There are (practical, or normative) questions about good and evil; right and wrong; and the order of goods; about duties and obligations; about virtues and vices; about happiness, life’s purpose or goal; about justice and rights in the sphere of human relations and social interaction; about the state and its relation to the individual; about the good society, the just polity, and the just economy; about war and peace. These have to do with what ought to be done or sought: ethics and political philosophy.

Philosophical styles.

1) the philosophical dialogue (Plato); 2) the philosophical treatise or essay (Aristotle, Kant); the meeting of objections (St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica); 4) the systemisation of philosophy (Descartes, Spinoza); 5) the aphoristic style (Nietzsche, modern French philosophers).

Hints for reading philosophy.

The most important thing to discover in reading nay philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer. The questions may be stated explicitly, or they may be implicit to a certain extent. How the author answers these questions will be deeply affected by his controlling principles. But he may never treat them explicitly, instead allowing them to pervade every one of his works. The mark of a great philosopher is that he makes his assumptions clearer than other writers. Once you have found the author’s controlling principles, you will want to decide whether he adheres to them throughout his work. Unfortunately, philosophers, even the best of them, often do not do so. If a philosopher is inconsistent, you have to decide which of two sets of propositions he really means – the first principles, as he states them; or the conclusions, which do not in fact follow from the principles as stated. Or you may decide that neither is valid.

Philosophy asks about more than the connections of phenomena. It seeks to penetrate to the ultimate causes and conditions that underlie them. Such problems are satisfactorily explored only when the answers to them are supported by clear arguments and analysis. The major effort of the reader must be with respect to the terms and initial propositions. The words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense.

There is no trouble about assumptions. Make them to see what follows, even if you yourself have contrary presuppositions.

A philosopher refers you to your own common sense and daily observation of the world in which you live. A philosopher, faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it – which means, as we know, thinking about it.

The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

Stage 1: Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading

  • STEP 1: Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  • STEP 2: Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject. (Note that this step modifies the first.) You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. This will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. And it will allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size. The skilful inspectional reader discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says something important about his subject or not.

Stage 2: Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage 1

  • STEP 1: Find the relevant passages. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage 1 in order to find the most relevant passages.

In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read. Hence the first step here is another inspection of the whole works that you have identified as relevant. You should read the books quickly; you are reading for an ulterior purpose – namely, for the light they may throw on your own problem.

An adequate understanding of the problem is not always available until you have inspected many many of the books on your original list (Stage 1). Therefore, to try to identify the relevant passages at the same time that you identify relevant books is often perilous. Above all, remember that your task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may be very far from the author’s own purpose in writing it. The author can help you to solve your own problem without having intended to.

  • STEP 2: Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not. We must resolutely refuse to accept the terminology of any one author; we must also be willing to face the possibility that no author’s terminology will be useful to us.
  • STEP 3: Get the questions clear.

Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not. The questions must be stated in such a way and in such an order that they help us to solve the problem we started with, but they must also be framed in such a way that all or most of our authors can be interpreted as giving answers to them.

Even if he does not discuss the question explicitly, we can sometimes find an implicit answer in his book. If he had considered the question, we may conclude, he would then have answered it in such and such a way. Restraint is necessary here; we cannot put thoughts into our authors’ minds, or words into their mouths.

The first questions usually have to do with the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating. Further questions may have to do with how the phenomenon is known or how the idea manifests itself. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers to the previous questions.

  • STEP 4: Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.

You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.

The opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views. Usually, differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject.

  • STEP 5: Analyse the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.

Our task as syntopical readers is not merely to answer the questions ourselves – the questions that we have so carefully framed and ordered both to elucidate the discussion of the subject and the subject itself. We have to ask the questions in a certain order, and be able to defend that order; we must show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why; and we must be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers. Only then can we claim to have analysed and understood the discussion of our problem.
A thorough analysis of the discussion of a problem may provide the groundwork for further productive work on the problem by others. It can prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough.

Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to ensure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s view on an issue with an actual quotation from his text. The syntopical reader tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. Constantly refer back to the actual text of the authors, reading the relevant passages over and over.

The Pyramid of Books

The great majority of the several million books that have been written in the Western tradition alone – more than 99% of them – will not make sufficient demands on you for you to improve your skill in reading. These are the books that can only be read for amusement or information. You do not have to read them analytically. Skimming will do.

Good books, carefully wrought by their authors, are the ones that convey to the reader significant insights about subjects of enduring interest to human beings. There are in all probably no more than a few thousand such books. If you are skillful, you will be able to get everything out of them that they can give in the course of one good analytical reading. Your own notes in such books will be valuable if you need to return to them to check certain points or to refresh your memory of certain ideas or episodes.

There is a much smaller number of books – here the number is probably less than a hundred – that cannot be exhausted by even the very best reading you can manage. You discover on returning to them that you see new things in it – whole sets of new things – that you did not see before. A great book remains above you and is accessible at different levels. It can continue to lift you. You should seek out the few books that can have this value for you. They are the books that will teach you the most, that you will want to return to over and over, and that will help you grow.


PREVIOUS ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES: Shocking Tales of Harsh Noise

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1 Response to How to Read a Book (series: Book Reviews, part 3)

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