Dante's Reviews > How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler
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's review
Apr 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: expository, non-fiction, practical, reading, favorites, reference
Recommended to Dante by: Doug Geivett
I own a copy , read count: 1

I'm reading this awesome book again. I'll be writing my notes for each chapter below (It will be like a "running account" of my summary of and thoughts about every chapter). So, be warned, this is going to be a very, very, very long review. I hope I'll be able to write a shorter version after I'm done with the book.


Basically, How to Read a Book is a practical book. It aims to help people become intelligent readers. To read intelligently means to read actively. To read actively means to read skillfully. This means that reading is actually a skill (in the same way that writing is a skill). It is an activity. Therefore, it is never passive. And, to read skillfully means to read not for information and amusement but for understanding. The authors propose that, in order to achieve this aim (intelligent, active, skillful reading), readers must observe certain rules. These rules are discussed in detail throughout the book.

The book has 4 parts and 21 chapters. Part 1 (The Dimensions of Reading) talks about the nature and levels of reading. Part 2 (The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading) talks about what analytical reading is, how to go about reading a book analytically, and the general questions you must ask or the general rules you must observe when reading a book analytically. Part 3 (Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter) talks about, well, the different approaches to different kinds of literature: expository books, imaginative literature, etc. Part 4 (The Ultimate Goals of Reading) talks about the fourth and highest level of reading -- syntopical reading.

Part One: The Dimensions of Reading

Chapter One: The Activity and Art of Reading

Adler and Van Doren says that reading is an activity. Therefore, reading is active, not passive. He gives an analogy -- baseball. Reading is like "catching" the ball in baseball. It is an active thing. And because it is active, it requires skill. This book aims to help readers develop that very skill.

Adler says that there are different goals of reading -- information, amusement/ entertainment, and understanding. This book is mainly concerned with the latter goal. So, the goal of this book is to help readers learn how to read for increased understanding. That means to read in order to move from understanding less to understanding more. That also means reading in order to become wise or enlightened.

The authors also differentiate between reading for information and amusement, and reading for increased understanding and enlightenment. On the one hand, you are reading for information when, after reading the book, you are only able to state the facts in the book. On the other hand, you are reading for increased understanding and enlightenment when, after finishing the book, you can state the things in the book and at the same time explain what they mean.

Adler and Van Doren says that books are like absent teachers. Books can teach us something (they can help us increase our understanding about the world) although their authors may no longer be physically present. That's great news, because that means that we have access to the greatest minds in the history of civilization!

Adler and Van Doren says that the goal of this book is to help readers learn the skills they need in order to become well-read, as opposed to being merely widely-read.


I love Adler's baseball analogy of reading:

Pitcher/ hitter = Writer/ author
Catcher = Reader
Ball = The ideas or information contained in the book

I also like to be reminded that reading (at least, reading for increased understanding, which is the main goal of this book) is never passive. Reading is active -- it is an activity. That is, it involves the performance of certain mental acts. And you shouldn't take it for granted. When you read a book, you must allow it to influence or affect you.

However, I'm not sure if I agree with the authors when they say that our goal, if we wish to become intelligent and skillful readers, is to read difficult books so that our understanding about things will increase. I mean, can we not read books that are entertaining (and therefore easy to read) but can also increase our understanding about life and the world?

I love the idea about books being "absent teachers"! That's an awesome thought, isn't it? That means that, as readers, we still have access to the greatest minds in human history! We can still "approach" them and allow them to teach us, even if they are no longer with us physically. We can "go to" Plato, Aristotle or Aquinas and "sit at their feet" while they "lecture" us about their philosophy.

Lastly, I love Adler's distinction between being well-read and being widely-read. I agree with him that our goal should be to become well read and not merely widely-read.

Chapter two: The Levels of Reading

Adler and Van Doren talks about the different levels of reading:

1. Elementary reading
2. Inspectional reading
3. Analytical reading
4. Syntopical reading

Elementary reading asks the question, "What is the sentence saying, and what do the words mean?" Inspectional reading asks, "What is the book about as a whole? What is its structure? What are its parts?" Analytical reading asks, "What is the author saying? What does he mean? What are his arguments? Are they true? So what?" And syntopical reading asks, "Given all these books/ literature about this particular topic or issue, what analysis or conclusion can I make?"

These levels are cumulative, so a reader cannot master the highest level of reading (syntopical reading) without first mastering elementary, inspectional, and analytical reading.


I like how the authors break down the skill of reading into levels. It's very helpful.

Our ultimate goal should be syntopical reading.

Chapter three: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

Basically, Adler and Van Doren says that elementary reading has four stages: reading readiness, word mastery or the ability to understand basic words, rapid growth of vocabulary, and the further refinement of these skills.

A child has to go through each of the above stages in order to master this reading level. This does not happen quickly. In fact, it takes years of practice. It starts during nursery or thereabouts, when the child becomes ready physically and intellectually to read. Then the child goes through his elementary years and learns to read basic books. During these years, the child's vocabulary grows and he begins to develop his understanding of context. Then, during his high school years, he further develops and refines his reading skills.

Ideally, by the time the child reaches high school, he should be able to read books analytically.


I can honestly say that I haven't yet really mastered this basic reading level. My vocabulary is really not that wide or deep, and sometimes I find it hard to understand the context of a given sentence, especially if the book I'm reading is advanced or tertiary-level.

Chapter four: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

Adler and Van Doren talks about the second level of reading -- inspectional reading. Inspectional reading involves two steps: systematic skimming or pre-reading and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming involves several steps:

-- Look at the book's title and subtitle (if any);
-- Read the preface;
-- Look at the table of contents;
-- Look at the index; take note of the topics and authors discussed in the book;
-- Read the summary at the end of the book or at the end of each chapter;
-- Read the first few lines of each opening paragraph of every chapter;
-- Read the publisher's blurb.

Superficial reading involves browsing the pages of the book slowly but superficially -- scanning every page casually.

Adler and Van Doren says that inspectional reading achieves two things: It helps you know whether the book is, for you personally, worthy of being read analytically or not; and, it gives you a general idea of the book which is useful for your future reference.

The authors say that there is really no such thing as a standard reading speed. Ideally, you should simply adjust your speed according to the book's difficulty.

They also talk about reading fixations and regressions -- people's tendency to not read the book straight through without interruptions. They say these two things harm our reading because they prevent us from understanding the gist of the book. They suggest that we should use "markers" or "pointers" when we read -- this can be a pen or our finger. This increases our reading speed and comprehension significantly. Also, they say that we don't have to understand everything about the book right away. What's important is that we continue reading (without fixations and regressions) and make an effort to understand the essence of the book even if we don't understand what the author is saying 100%.


I love this reading level! Basically, the idea here is that not all books that are available out there deserve to be read analytically. Majority of them are worth an inspectional reading only. And inspectional reading is very, very useful. If you follow its steps, you will have a general idea of what the book is about -- you'll know what kind of a book it is (whether it's a work of fiction or non-fiction, etc.), what its subject matter is, what its structure/outline is, and what its main arguments are.

Also, when you read a book inspectionally, you will be in a better position to decide whether the book is really that interesting or relevant for you and whether it is really worthy of your time and effort to read analytically, or whether you should just set it aside for future reference.

Adler and Van Doren's suggestion to use the finger as a "pointer" while reading is also very helpful.

Chapter five: How to Be a Demanding Reader

I think this chapter is a preparation for analytical reading, which is discussed in part 2.

Adler and Van Doren says that in order to become an intelligent or skilled reader, you must be demanding in your reading. That is to say, you should make the effort to read and understand what you're reading. You must be motivated by the desire to enlighten yourself, to increase your understanding about matters.

Furthermore, to become a demanding or active reader, you must ask questions while you read. What sorts of questions?

These four, generally:

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

These are also the four questions you ask when you are reading a book analytically. They are applicable to any type of book (fiction or non-fiction), but when it comes to works of imaginative literature, like novels, poems, or plays, these four questions are altered a bit.

Of course, you shouldn't simply ask these questions, you must also do your best to answer them. The first question helps you know the book's type and subject matter. The second question helps you know the book's structure, outline, and its main parts and arguments. The third question helps you know whether the author is right or not, or whether his arguments are true or not. And the fourth question helps you know what the book's significance and implication is to your life.

Adler and Van Doren also says that we must make the book "our own". When we buy a book, it doesn't automatically become ours. That is just the first step. The second step is to read the book and "interact" with the author's ideas by writing on the book or making marks on its significant sentences or paragraphs.

The authors also say that, basically, in order to develop the skill of intelligent reading, you must ask questions and obey those four general rules. Rules are necessarily because they give us structure and help us discipline our reading. At first, remembering and observing these rules may be very challenging, but that is just normal. Any skill is difficult to learn at first, but with habit it becomes easier.


I loved this chapter!

Basically, the above four questions lie at the very heart of analytical reading. That is, when we read a book analytically, we always ask those four questions and do our best to answer them.

I love the idea of "making a book our own". That's very true. We shouldn't fear marking our book. We must "converse" with the author's ideas. The more we do this, the more the knowledge and insights will stick to us, so that, after answering all those questions at the end of the book, a part of us is already in the book, and a great part of the book is now in us (or, in our minds, at least).

I just find the four questions very helpful. They guide me and provide structure to my reading. Also, they remind me that books are very, very important. Essential, even. So we shouldn't take them for granted. We shouldn't read them casually, especially if we're reading for understanding. We should allow them to influence and affect us. For example, after reading an apologetic book like Reasonable Faith by the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, we shouldn't just set it aside and act as if nothing happened and nothing changed. We should instead ask ourselves, "Is what William Lane Craig saying true? Are his arguments really good? Does God really exist? If so, what are its implications to my life? What is its significance? What part of my mindset, mentality, philosophy, or worldview should I change, as a result of agreeing or disagreeing with Dr. Craig?"
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Quotes Dante Liked

Mortimer J. Adler
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Bestselling Guide to Reading Books and Accessing Information

Mortimer J. Adler
“Television, radio, and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from the outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. They are like drugs. We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them. Eventually, they have little or no effect. Then, if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And we we cease to grow, we begin to die.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Mortimer J. Adler
“The ability to retain a child's view of the world with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare - and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Mortimer J. Adler
“The complexities of adult life get in the way of the truth. The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions - simple once they are stated, vastly difficult before. If we are to follow them we too must be childishly simple in our questions - and maturely wise in our replies.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Mortimer J. Adler
“If you ask a living teacher a question, he will probably answer you. If you are puzzled by what he says, you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking an analysis yourself.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
tags: 15

Mortimer J. Adler
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
tags: 49

Reading Progress

04/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-40 of 40) (40 new)

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Kwesi 章英狮 Hello Dante, where did you buy your copy?

Dante Hi Kwesi,

Mine is just an ebook. Have you heard of this book before? :)

Kwesi 章英狮 Nope. Haha.

Dante It's a really good book. You might want to try it.

Or, we can be reading buddies hehehe.

Kwesi 章英狮 Haha. What do you mean? I thought you already read the book.

Dante I'm reading it again for the second time hehe.

Kwesi 章英狮 Sige! I ordered it online last week so we can read it. Next month pwede?

Dante Wow, you ordered pa! Hehehe. Good for you. Sure, next month is fine with me. Just tell me the exact date. :)

Kwesi 章英狮 Okish! I'll PM you soon.

Dante Hi Kwesi,

Sorry for the late reply.

Okay, just PM me! Thanks!

Kwesi 章英狮 Dante, natanggap ko na ang copy ko. Kailan tayo magsimula? Haha.

Dante That's great! How about this coming Monday? hehe

Kwesi 章英狮 Sure, meron ka bang reading plans or anything before we start?

Dante What do you mean, like rules? :)

I'm open to anything. We can read one chapter a day if you like. Or one chapter every two days, because the book is a bit challenging hehe.

Kwesi 章英狮 Haha. I'm fine with 1 chapter a day.

Dante Okay :)

I forgot, we need to post the thread 3 days in advance pala, as per forum rules hehehe... so Friday na lang tayo start, is that okay with you? :)

Kwesi 章英狮 Okay lang din, but don't expect much from me. Haha.

Dante Hehehe no prob... Let's just enjoy the book :)

Kwesi 章英狮 Haha. Okay! Remind me if you already open the thread!

Dante I just started the thread! :)

Dante I liked the rules you laid out for The Inheritance of Loss hehehe... Let me know if you want me to edit the thread (that is, if you want to specify the rules we should follow, the dates per chapter, etc.) Thanks!!!

Kwesi 章英狮 Haha. I don't usually follow the reading plan so if ever, we'll discuss it it by chapters na lang.

Yusra Thanks for posting this!

Dante Yusra wrote: "Thanks for posting this!"

No prob, thanks!

message 25: by Dave (new)

Dave I like the running review idea, more useful for us than marginalia, thanks!

Dante Thanks, Dave.

message 27: by Mohammed (new) - added it

Mohammed Alshanakhnakh great review. I like how you structured it.

message 28: by Ryan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ryan fantastic review! keep em coming

message 29: by M'heeraw (new) - added it

M'heeraw Love your review.

Andrea I really wish they have a physical copy of this book here in the Philippines. Will really try to look for it at the local bookstores around my area. Anyways this was a really nice review.

Dante Andrea wrote: "I really wish they have a physical copy of this book here in the Philippines. Will really try to look for it at the local bookstores around my area. Anyways this was a really nice review."

Hi, Andrea. Thanks! But this review is unfinished.

Where in the Philippines do you live? I'm in Cebu.

Andrea Hi I live in Las Piñas, NCR

Andrea Finished the book. Ordered it online. I'm rereading it again and writing down my own notes. Lovely book. I just stumbled upon liberal arts/classical education not to long ago and I'm going down the rabbit hole fast.

Andrea Finished the book. Ordered it online. I'm rereading it again and writing down my own notes. Lovely book. I just stumbled upon liberal arts/classical education not to long ago and I'm going down the rabbit hole fast.

message 35: by Julian (new) - added it

Julian Vidal Dante, I speak on behalf of everyone, we are in your debt for providing such a thorough comment on this book, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of Adler and Van Doren's scientific approach, but for now, it's outstanding - only on page 6.

message 36: by Bhuvana (new)

Bhuvana Vignaesh reading your review is more sufficient for me....what an elaborated review...thanks

Dante You're welcome, Bhuvana!

Dante And thank you!

Dante Hi Julian! Oh my, I'm terribly sorry for this extremely late reply! Thank you so much! I haven't finished the review. I plan to re-read the book and review it again.

Dante Hi Andrea! Oh dear, your comment is even older. I'm so sorry. I seldom check my Goodreads. I love and am intrigued by classical education. I have two paperback copies of How to Read a Book. Lol

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