Friday, February 03, 2012

[Book] Adler and Van Doren – How to Read a Book

1. This is not a book review but a book recommendation.

To those whom have any academic aspirations, please learn the reading techniques taught in this book for reading non-fiction as soon as possible - preferably by either Grade 11 or 12.

I first read How to Read a Book (1972) by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren in 1980 after it was recommended to us by a professor.

This book has significantly influenced my reading habits since.

The first two years of university is very time demanding; I have the impression that some professors expect one to be omniscience after taking an introductory course.

My guess is most students will not have time for extra-curricular reading in their first two years of university.

But by the time of either the junior or senior years, the paces of the courses are usually more relax.

Yet the reading techniques of this book are so very useful from the beginning of university.

2. Mortimer J. Adler first wrote How to Read a Book in 1940.

A "Revised and Updated Edition" came out in 1972 with Charles Van Doren as co-author.

A check in Amazon indicates that the 1972 edition is still the most current one.

And in all of the last 70 years, there is no other book similar to what Adler and Van Doren have written.

3. Adler and Van Doren divided non-fiction reading into four levels:

(a) Elementary reading;
(b) Inspectional reading;
(c) Analytical reading;
(d) Syntopical reading.

Please read the book and find out what these four levels are about!

4. I will give three examples of how this book has affected my reading habits.

(Adler and Van Doren 1972, 142-143):
"RULE 9. YOU MUST BE ABLE TO SAY, WITH REASONABLE CERTAINTY, "I UNDERSTAND," BEFORE YOU CAN SAY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING THINGS: "I AGREE," OR "I DISAGREE," OR "I SUSPEND JUDGMENT." (Emphasis in original.) These three remarks exhaust all the critical positions you can take.

(a) I have learned from Adler and Van Doren that one must be able to say "I understand" before one can say "I disagree".

(b) I have learned from Adler and Van Doren that besides agreeing or disagreeing with an author, one can suspend judgment.

(c) Unrelated to the above quotation, I have learned from Adler and Van Doren the importance of inspecting a book (i.e. skimming, pre-reading, superficial reading, pigeonholing and x-raying a book).

As I grow older, time is becoming a more and more precious commodity.

I am becoming more and more picky about the books I spend time reading.

And knowing how to inspect a book to determine whether it is worth reading becomes more and more important.

Nowadays, I would say I spend nearly 50% of the time I budgeted for reading just in inspecting books to determine whether they are worth reading.


Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles Van Doren. 1972. How to Read a Book, Revised and Updated Edition. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.