Book Review - How to Read a Book

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Reading is something many people find valuable, whether it be for recreation or education—most people in today's world know how to read. Loads of people are likely satisfied with their current reading abilities, and perhaps even more do not have any intention to increase the amount of reading nor the intensify the difficulty of the books that they choose to read. In fact, many people have the ability to read but simply choose to not exercise it. However, for those of us who enjoy reading and wish to improve our reading skills, I cannot recommend How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading highly enough.

The book was originally published in 1940, and the most recent edition was published (with updated and timely content) in 1972. It aims to provide a guide for comprehensive reading for the general reader—"from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. You learn how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author's message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science." (From the publisher's blurb.)

The authors, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, introduce the concept of four levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. The levels are cumulative, which means that each gradation includes the techniques and skills of the lower levels.

Elementary reading is essentially the baseline ability to read that is taught at the pre-school/kindergarten, elementary and junior high school levels. These reading skills include reading readiness, word mastery, vocabulary growth and the utilization of context, and the ability to read almost anything (albeit in a relatively unsophisticated manner). This is the level of reading that perhaps the majority of the population has achieved. What is truly outstanding about reading is that once one has developed the elementary reading skills, she can teach herself to learn the skills involved with the higher levels of reading.

Inspectional reading involves two main concepts: systematic skimming or pre-reading, and superficial reading. Skimming or pre-reading involves looking at a book's title page, preface, table of contents, index, publisher's blurb, apparently-pivotal chapters, and true skimming of its content. Superficial reading is comprised of trudging through a book's content in its entirety for the first time, without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things that one does not understand right away. At this point in reading a book, one should start asking herself the four basic questions of reading:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

These questions are thoroughly fleshed out in the book, and I do not wish to focus too much on them in this review. It would be much better for you to check out this book for yourself, although I must warn you that to read it honestly is more like working through a workbook than an easy read. It takes a fair amount of effort on the part of the reader, but she is handsomely rewarded at the end of her journey.

Moving on, the book discusses note-taking techniques, which were very lacking in my own personal wheelhouse—it had been since my days at university that I regularly took notes in books, and even then, I didn't have an efficient education that demonstrated how to mark a book so that I would increase my level of understanding and retention. However, How to Read a Book certainly fills in where my formal education was lacking in this department. Even this brief section alone was worth reading the entire book, for me.

The next section of the book—the main bulk of it, in fact—covers the third level of reading: analytical reading. This part is incredibly valuable for readers wishing to improve their overall skill set, including full chapters on the following topics: pigeonholing a book, X-raying a book, coming to terms with an author, determining an author's message, criticizing a book fairly, agreeing or disagreeing with an author, and aids to reading. Again, I do not intend this review to fully explore the book's contents, and will leave it at that.

Following the section covering analytical reading, the authors explore another tangent: the various ways to approach different types of reading matter. From practical books to imaginative literature, history to science and mathematics, and a few more, this section adapts the four questions that must be asked when reading anything so that they are more applicable to specific types of reading. It was quite interesting for me to consider various types of books and reflect on my reading history and consider what I would truly like to spend my time reading in the future. The final chapter in this section discussed the reading of social science, which often requires reading multiple books about a topic. Because that is essentially the concept behind syntopical reading, it serves as a perfect segue into the next section of the book.

The final section of the book, "The Ultimate Goals of Reading", focuses on syntopical reading and the concept of reading and the growth of the mind. Syntopical reading is truly an interesting concept for me. It involves creating a tentative bibliography (generally including hundreds of books) of a central subject, quickly inspecting each book, re-inspecting all of the books that are specifically pertinent to the topic to identify the relevant passages within, creating a neutral terminology that can be used to discuss the opinions of multiple authors, establishing a set of neutral propositions by framing a set of questions to ask each author, defining the major and minor issues and assigning authors to the various sides of each issue, and providing an analysis of the discussion of the topic. This is a highly-advanced level of reading that one would embark on to do true work in a field, with the hope of providing an unheard analysis of a topic's discussion that many authors have participated in over time. It is possible that one's syntopical reading of a topic could culminate in a book that would push the discussion of a topic even further—in fact, this is indeed often the ultimate goal. The final chapter of the book offers a recap of the previous sections and discusses what good books can do for us, the various classes of books (with regard to what one can get out of reading and re-reading them), and the growth of the mind.

There are two appendices included, the first being an extremely valuable "Recommended Reading List". I must admit that this list makes my mouth salivate in anticipation of many more years of reading excellent books and the possibility of furthering my personal reading ability. The second appendix includes exercises and tests at the various four levels of reading. This is the one section of the book that I have yet to read—I may choose to explore these exercises in the future, although it will involve reading several other books from the aforementioned reading list, so it is likely to be a longterm project.

Overall, this is one of the best books I have read in the past several years. I am confident that the advice contained within it will help me improve my reading skills while simultaneously increasing the level of enjoyment that I get out of my reading practice. I must admit that when I first started reading the book, I was a bit disappointed that it is heavily biased toward non-fiction reading, when in the past I have reaped so much enjoyment from reading fiction. However, the skills that I have learned from How to Read a Book will only serve to improve my relation to non-fiction books, something that has been somewhat lacking for me previously. This is one book that I do plan on working with further in the future, whether it is simply picking it up from time to time to skim through the notes I took on its pages, choosing my next book from its impressive reading list, or working through the second appendix's reading exercises and tests. 

5/5 stars. 424 pages.