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Lessons from “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler

Reading is an art and a science. Most of all it is an active pursuit.

Thus we can roughly define what we mean by the art of reading as follows: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.

Moritmer J. Adler, How to Read a Book
First Edition Cover

Mortimer Adler had a problem; he saw people reading incorrectly. So he wrote a book about how to read. The book is called How to Read a Book, but his advice can be followed when going through articles in your Pocket list, or the newspaper, or the Instructional Manual that came with your car. For the ultimate goal for all reading is Understanding. To acquire knowledge you did not have beforehand. Adler professes that reading, in a literal sense, is an activity. As in, you have to be active to read.

The Four Levels of Reading

The book it self can be categorized as a Instruction Manual. It wants to teach you the value of reading a book to maximize understanding. And it presents practical tools to help you achieve that goal. The framework used is ‘The Four Levels of Reading’.

Elementary Reading

This is the early learning stage. This is the early stage of literacy. When children are beginning to understand what sentence is, and what is its literal meaning. This is the type of reading taught is schools during Early Education.

Inspectional Reading

This level can also be called Skimming. However, Adler is adamant that it is not casual skimming that would suffice.

Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically. When reading at this level, your aim is to examine the surface of the book, to learn everything that the surface alone can teach you. That is often a good deal.

This level require careful examination of a books most salient points in as little a time possible. Inspectional readings are for people short for time. Like students who have to finish a book with in a limited period. Or people who lack the skills for Analytical Reading.

Analytical Reading

This level of reading requires overcoming a sharp difficulty curve. The majority of the book is made up of teaching you to read in this manner and how to apply it to different types of books. Analytical Reading requires you to pay attention as a reader during the reading and use note-taking to participate in the ‘conversation’. This level of reading asks 4 questions:

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

You are supposed to the write down the type of book it is, the problem it is trying to solve, summarize it in both in a short format(‘The Unity’), and an Outline with respect to every section(Question 1). You need to also to single out the important Terms, the Propositions & the Questions that the author is trying to answer, the problem you are trying to solve(Question 2).

Criticism is also part of the conversation(Questions 3 and 4). Though there are some caveats that the author wants you to follow:

As a matter of fact, the reader is the one who has the last word. The author has had his say, and then it is the reader’s turn. The conversation between a book and its reader would appear to be an orderly one, each party talking in turn, no interruptions, and so forth. If, however, the reader is undisciplined and impolite, it may be anything but orderly. The poor author cannot defend himself. He cannot say, “Here, wait till I’ve finished, before you start disagreeing.”

Ordinary conversations between persons who confront each other are good only when they are carried on civilly. We are not thinking merely of the civilities according to conventions of social politeness. Such conventions are not really important. What is important is that there is an intellectual etiquette to be observed. Without it, conversation is bickering rather than profitable communication.

The tenets of criticisms are:

  • Understand before you criticize.
  • Be reasonable in disagreement.
  • Respect the difference between knowledge and opinion.
  • In case of matter of difference in knowledge, you’ll have to show that the author is:
    • Uninformed
    • Misinformed
    • Illogical

If all of this overwhelming, Mr. Adler and his co-author caps of the section with this:

Before proceeding to Part Three, perhaps we should stress, once again, that these rules of analytical reading describe an ideal performance. Few people have ever read any book in this ideal manner, and those who have, probably read very few books this way. The ideal remains, however, the measure of achievement. You are a good reader to the degree in which you approximate it.

Syntopical Reading

A fancy way of saying ‘Comparative Reading’. Here you read through multiple books for the specific information relevant to your research goals. This is Inspectional Reading on steroids. This level is the opposite to Analytical reading. Instead of the author asking the questions and setting the problem, it is the reader that sets those goals. Instead of coming to terms with the author and their proposition, it is your job to bring all the authors to your terms. Rather than arriving at a conclusion regarding the truth of someone else’s thesis, you come to the truth using synthesis of the relevant knowledge.

For example, suppose you want to know how the Monguls managed to carve an empire without a hierarchical agrarian society, which was the norm for all other imperial orders? A traditional historian would tell you a list of ‘Great Men’ were responsible, while also recounting the events that happened. A Geographer would tell you about the environment that led to the rise Genghis Khan. An engineer would say that the Monguls had the superior weapons technology, The Compound Bow. You can also ‘consult’ military historians, cultural historians, and many other experts through their books, blogs, Youtube videos or any other medium. Most of these books would include information that is not relevant to answering your question. It is your job to answer your question by synthesizing the relevant ideas presented in all the disparate fields.

Syntopical Reading, as explained by Mr. Adler & co., might be the most important skill in the hyper-media age of today. By the end of 2020, the digital world is supposed to store 44 Zetabytes. Humans have trouble with large numbers, but a zeta byte is a thousand billion Gigabytes of data. That would be the storage in a trillion of the most expensive smartphone on sale today. Humans can’t make sense of all of it, but we need that ability. To synthesize relevant information in this environment is to succeed.

Thoughts

When I came across this book recommendation in a flurry of Hacker News comments, I was curious as to why adults would want to learn how to read a book. Reading it provided me the clarity to satiate that. It is a wonderful book as far instructional manuals go. Even if it is a little esoteric. The skills it gives you are more than useful today. They can not only be used to get the most out of books, but also blogs/articles, videos, audio, and many other media as well. If you are a seeker of knowledge, whether as a matter of curiosity or for practical purposes, this is must read.

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