How to Read a Book



Read page. Turn page. Repeat.

Sounds simple, right?

Nope. It just so happens that most of us don’t know how to read a book.

Fortunately, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren are there to help.


How to Read a Book by the two men mentioned above has the difficult task of addressing a problem that few people think exists. Their purpose for the book is not to teach speed reading or similar skills; rather, they aim to instruct readers in how to best gain understanding through the reading of books. As the subtitle states, the authors hope to guide readers in the intelligent reading of books.

They do this primarily by breaking reading into four levels: elementary (this is the most basic stage of reading words on a page), inspectional (which is all about developing a book’s main idea through skimming and superficial reading), analytical (which dives deepest into a book, gaining as much understanding as possible), and syntopical (which is comparing a variety of books to gain an even greater understanding of a particular topic).

In the appendices, there is also a list of recommended books, spanning millennia and genres, and self-assessment tests and exercises for evaluating one’s competency within each of the four levels.

Notable Quotations

[Television, radio, and magazines] are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think. (p. 4)

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keep you awake—not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author. (p. 49)

The Audience

I honestly can’t think anyone, who is able to read, that would not benefit from this book.

We often seem to equate skilled and mature reading with enhanced vocabulary, but the authors argue that there is much more to it than that.

If the goal of reading is to gain a greater understanding, then we should constantly press ourselves to read books that are just beyond our comfort zone.

How to Read a Book puts the tools in your belt for tackling books that just might presently seem too difficult for you.

Why You Should Read This Book 

This purpose of the book fits well with Proverbs 3:13, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding.” The Bible beckons Christians to learn, to grow in knowledge and wisdom.

Proverbs 1:7 states that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Because it is impossible to know the God of the Bible without also fearing His holiness and omnipotence, true understanding comes through knowing God.

Convenient to the discussion, God chose to reveal Himself to us through a book, the Book. Therefore, learning how to better read books will help a Christian better understand the Book, the Bible, which leads us to knowing God more.

Before you pick up another book (the Bible excluded, of course), read this one. It’s that helpful.



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