How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book was written in 1940 by Mortimer Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren.

The book gives guidelines for critically reading what the authors consider to be the Western canon, which they refer to as the "Great Books." The 1972 revision added tips for approaching various genres (poetry, history, science, fiction, etc.) and a whole new section on syntopical reading.

Overview of the first edition

The book is divided in to three sections, with each containing several chapters.

Part I

In this section, Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which of those classes will be addressed by this book. He also makes a brief argument in favor of what he calls the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing this book.

Adler defines three types of knowledge: how-to, informational, and understanding. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that how-to knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience, that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding is equal to that of the author, and that understanding or insight is best learned from the person who first achieved that understanding--an "original communication", Adler calls it.

The idea of communication directly from those who first discovered an idea as the best way of gaining understanding is the basis for Adler's argument in favor of the reading of the Great Books. He claims that any book that does not represent original communication is an inferior source to the original, and, further, that any teacher, save those who discovered the thing which they are teaching, is inferior to these books as a source of understanding.

Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the arts of reading well, up to and including undergraduate university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings in formal education, it falls upon the individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.

Part II: "The Rules"

Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a wholly or primarily non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings, "structural", "interpretative", and "syntopical", in that order.

The first reading is concerned with understanding the structure and purpose of the book. It begins with determining the basic topic and type of the book being read, so as to better anticipate the contents and comprehend the book from the very beginning. Adler says that the reader must distinguish between practical and theoretical books, as well as determining the field of study that the book addresses. Further, Adler says that the reader must note any divisions in the book, and that these are not restricted to the divisions laid out in the table of contents. Lastly, the reader must find out what problems the author is trying to solve.

The second reading involves constructing the author's arguments. This first requires the reader to note and understand any special phrases and terms that the author uses. Once that is done, Adler says that the reader should find and work to understand each proposition that the author advances, as well as the author's support for those propositions.

In the third and final reading, Adler directs the reader to criticize the book. He claims that now that the reader understands the author's propositions and arguments, the reader has been elevated to the level of understanding of the book's author, and is now able (and obligated) to judge the book's merit and accuracy. Adler advocates judging books based on the soundness of their arguments. Adler says that one may not disagree with an argument unless one can find fault in its reasoning, facts, or premises, though one is free to dislike it in any case.

The method presented is sometimes called the "Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (SPE)" method.

Part III: "The Rest of the Reader's Life"

This is the shortest section of the book. In it, Adler briefly discusses approaches to reading fiction and poetry, while insisting that a whole separate volume would be necessary to give that topic the treatment that it requires, and suggesting several other books that address it in a more in-depth manner. He explains his preferred method of approaching the Great Books--that being to read the books that influenced a given author before reading works by that author--and gives several examples of that method. He concludes the book with a chapter expounding on his belief in the importance of reading and learning in the functioning of a democratic government and in the lives of "free men".

Reading list (1972 edition)

# Homer: "Iliad", "Odyssey"
# The Old Testament
# Aeschylus: Tragedies
# Sophocles: Tragedies
# Herodotus: "Histories"
# Euripides: Tragedies
# Thucydides: "History of the Peloponnesian War"
# Hippocrates: Medical Writings
# Aristophanes: Comedies
# Plato: Dialogues
# Aristotle: Works
# Epicurus: "Letter to Herodotus"; "Letter to Menoecus"
# Euclid: Elements
# Archimedes: Works
# Apollonius: Conic Sections
# Cicero: Works
# Lucretius: "On the Nature of Things"
# Virgil: Works
# Horace: Works
# Livy: History of Rome
# Ovid: Works
# Plutarch: Parallel Lives; Moralia
# Tacitus: Histories; Annals; Agricola Germania
# Nicomachus of Gerasa: Introduction to Arithmetic
# Epictetus: Discourses; Encheiridion
# Ptolemy: "Almagest"
# Lucian: Works
# Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
# Galen: "On the Natural Faculties"
# The New Testament
# Plotinus: The Enneads
# St. Augustine: On the Teacher; "Confessions"; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
# The Song of Roland
# The Nibelungenlied
# The Saga of Burnt Njál
# St. Thomas Aquinas: "Summa Theologica"
# Dante Alighieri: The New Life; On Monarchy; "The Divine Comedy"
# Geoffrey Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde; "The Canterbury Tales"
# Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks
# Niccolò Machiavelli: "The Prince"; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
# Desiderius Erasmus: "The Praise of Folly"
# Nicolaus Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
# Thomas More: "Utopia"
# Martin Luther: Table Talk; Three Treatises
# Francois Rabelais: "Gargantua and Pantagruel"
# John Calvin: "Institutes of the Christian Religion"
# Michel de Montaigne: Essays
# William Gilbert: On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
# Miguel de Cervantes: "Don Quixote"
# Edmund Spenser: Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
# Francis Bacon: Essays; Advancement of Learning; "Novum Organum", New Atlantis
# William Shakespeare: Poetry and Plays
# Galileo Galilei: "Starry Messenger"; Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
# Johannes Kepler: Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Concerning the Harmonies of the World
# William Harvey: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals
# Thomas Hobbes: "Leviathan"
# René Descartes: Rules for the Direction of the Mind; "Discourse on the Method"; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy
# John Milton: Works
# Molière: Comedies
# Blaise Pascal: The Provincial Letters; "Pensees"; Scientific Treatises
# Christiaan Huygens: Treatise on Light
# Benedict de Spinoza: "Ethics"
# John Locke: Letter Concerning Toleration; 'Of Civil Government'; Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Thoughts Concerning Education
# Jean Baptiste Racine: Tragedies
# Isaac Newton: "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"; "Optics"
# Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding; Monadology
# Daniel Defoe: "Robinson Crusoe"
# Jonathan Swift: A Tale of a Tub; Journal to Stella; "Gulliver's Travels"; A Modest Proposal
# William Congreve: The Way of the World
# George Berkeley: Principles of Human Knowledge
# Alexander Pope: Essay on Criticism; Rape of the Lock; Essay on Man
# Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu: Persian Letters; Spirit of Laws
# Voltaire: Letters on the English; "Candide"; Philosophical Dictionary
# Henry Fielding: "Joseph Andrews"; Tom Jones
# Samuel Johnson: The Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; The Lives of the Poets
# David Hume: Treatise on Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding"
# Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "On the Origin of Inequality"; On the Political Economy; Emile, "The Social Contract"
# Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
# Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments; "The Wealth of Nations"
# Immanuel Kant: "Critique of Pure Reason"; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals; "Critique of Practical Reason"; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
# Edward Gibbon: "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"; Autobiography
# James Boswell: Journal Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D.
# Antoine Laurent Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry
# Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison: "Federalist Papers"
# Jeremy Bentham: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
# Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Faust"; Poetry and Truth
# Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier: Analytical Theory of Heat
# Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit; Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
# William Wordsworth: Poems
# Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems; Biographia Literaria
# Jane Austen: "Pride and Prejudice"; Emma
# Carl von Clausewitz: "On War"
# Stendhal: The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
# Lord Byron: "Don Juan"
# Arthur Schopenhauer: Studies in Pessimism
# Michael Faraday: Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
# Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology
# Auguste Comte: The Positive Philosophy
# Honore de Balzac: Pere Goriot; Eugenie Grandet
# Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Men; Essays; Journal
# Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Scarlet Letter"
# Alexis de Tocqueville: "Democracy in America"
# John Stuart Mill: A System of Logic; On Liberty; Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
# Charles Darwin: "The Origin of Species"; "The Descent of Man"; Autobiography
# Charles Dickens: "Pickwick Papers"; "David Copperfield"; "Hard Times"
# Claude Bernard: Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
# Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience; "Walden"
# Karl Marx: Capital; "Communist Manifesto"
# George Eliot: Adam Bede; Middlemarch
# Herman Melville: "Moby-Dick"; Billy Budd
# Fyodor Dostoevsky: "Crime and Punishment"; "The Idiot"; "The Brothers Karamazov"
# Gustave Flaubert: "Madame Bovary"; Three Stories
# Henrik Ibsen: Plays
# Leo Tolstoy: "War and Peace"; "Anna Karenina"; What is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
# Mark Twain: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"; The Mysterious Stranger
# William James: "The Principles of Psychology"; "The Varieties of Religious Experience"; Pragamatism; "Essays in Radical Empiricism"
# Henry James: The American; The Ambassadors
# Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"; "Beyond Good and Evil"; The Genealogy of Morals; The Will to Power
# Jules Henri Poincare: Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method
# Sigmund Freud: "The Interpretation of Dreams"; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; "Civilization and Its Discontents"; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
# George Bernard Shaw: Plays and Prefaces
# Max Planck: Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
# Henri Bergson: Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory; "Creative Evolution"; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
# John Dewey: How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; Logic; the Theory of Inquiry
# Alfred North Whitehead:. An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
# George Santayana: The Life of Reason; Skepticism and Animal Faith; Persons and Places
# Lenin: The State and Revolution
# Marcel Proust: "Remembrance of Things Past"
# Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy; The Analsysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
# Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
# Albert Einstein: The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
# James Joyce: 'The Dead' in Dubliners; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; "Ulysses"
# Jacques Maritain: Art and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
# Franz Kafka: The Trial; The Castle
# Arnold J. Toynbee: A Study of History; Civilization on Trial
# Jean Paul Sartre: Nausea; No Exit; "Being and Nothingness"
# Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "The First Circle"; "The Cancer Ward"

Publication data

*Mortimer Adler, "How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education", (1940)
**1966 edition published with subtitle "A Guide to Reading the Great Books"
**1972 revised edition, coauthor Charles Van Doren, subtitle "The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading", Touchstone Books, ISBN 0-671-21209-5

External links

* [ reading list] from "How to Read a Book"

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Book burning — (a category of biblioclasm, or book destruction) is the practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, one or more copies of a book or other written material. In modern times, other forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs… …   Wikipedia

  • read — (rēd) v. read (rĕd), read·ing, reads v. tr. 1. To examine and grasp the meaning of (written or printed characters, words, or sentences). 2. To utter or render aloud (written or printed material): »read poems to the students …   Word Histories

  • Read — (r[=e]d), v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Read} (r[e^]d); p. pr. & vb. n. {Reading}.] [OE. reden, r[ae]den, AS. r[=ae]dan to read, advise, counsel, fr. r[=ae]d advice, counsel, r[=ae]dan (imperf. reord) to advise, counsel, guess; akin to D. raden to advise …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Read — (r[=e]d), v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Read} (r[e^]d); p. pr. & vb. n. {Reading}.] [OE. reden, r[ae]den, AS. r[=ae]dan to read, advise, counsel, fr. r[=ae]d advice, counsel, r[=ae]dan (imperf. reord) to advise, counsel, guess; akin to D. raden to advise …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Book scanning — is the process of converting physical books into digital media such as images, electronic text, or electronic books (e books) by using an image scanner. Digital books can be easily distributed, reproduced, and read on screen. Common file formats… …   Wikipedia

  • Book of Revelation — For other uses, see Book of Revelation (disambiguation). Books of the New Testament …   Wikipedia

  • Book discussion club — A book discussion club is a group of people who meet to discuss a book or books that they have read and express their opinions, likes, dislikes, etc. It is more often called simply a book club, a term that is also used to describe a book sales… …   Wikipedia

  • read — ♦ reads, reading (The form read is pronounced [[t]ri͟ːd[/t]] when it is the present tense, and [[t]re̱d[/t]] when it is the past tense and past participle.) 1) VERB When you read something such as a book or article, you look at and understand the …   English dictionary

  • Book of Isaiah — This article is about the Book of Isaiah. For the Jewish prophet, see Isaiah. Hebrew Bible …   Wikipedia

  • read — read1 W1S1 [ri:d] v past tense and past participle read [red] ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ 1¦(words/books)¦ 2¦(find information)¦ 3¦(read and speak)¦ 4¦(music/maps etc)¦ 5¦(computer)¦ 6¦(understand something in a particular way)¦ 7¦(have words on)¦ 8¦(style of… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”