How to Read a Book

I have spent roughly a quarter of my life thus far in higher education.  Ergo, I read a lot.  Recently, I discovered a little gem in the Marquette University library that deserves mention: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler.  Granted, there is a fair degree of irony in learning how to read a book by reading a book on how to read a book, so let me give you a moment to chuckle to yourself and reflect on the absurdity of such a situation.

Now that we’re past all that, let me tell you why you should read this book and give you a few pointers that I gleaned from it.  Some are common sense, others are not.

1) Reading is a cooperation between author and reader.  The author’s goal in writing anything is to convey information, and the reader’s goal in reading is to (obviously) obtain information.  ‘Good reading’ could thus be said to occur when a) the author has successfully conveyed her point, and b) the reader possesses the skills to read and understand what the author has written.  In this sense, the book levels a challenge to writers as well as readers.  Regardless of their brilliant insights, an author will fail to be effective if they cannot be coherent.

2) There are three levels of reading: elementary, inspectional and analytical.  You (the one reading this page) are currently engaged in at least elementary reading, as you are recognizing that there are words in front of you that convey some sort of meaning.  Inspectional reading and analytical reading, however, are higher ‘forms’ of reading.  Inspectional reading involves surveying the book from cover to cover.  First, you examine the structure via the table of contents.  Then you take a look at the index (if your book has one) to see which topics are being treated.  Last, you speed read the book, which amounts to little more than skimming.  The entire inspectional stage should take less than an hour, and will give you a rudimentary familiarity with the book’s contents.  The real insight that Adler gives is that some books demand only to be read at the inspectional stage!  You may find, after your survey of the book, that you have gleaned all the information you need from your cursory overview of the book.  If this is the case, there is no need for you to go through and read it carefully.  Not all will agree with this point, of course, but I for one found it to be as refreshing as it is ridiculous.

3) Reading a book should be seen as a conversation with the author.  When you are engaging in ‘demanding reading,’ you must have a good idea of the author’s purpose in writing.  What is their thesis?  What do they aim to teach you or convince you of?  After you have discovered their goal, hold them to it.  How well does the author support what she claims to support?  Are there any logical fallacies or assumptions in the writing?  In the end, how convincing is the thesis?  What could have made it better or more convincing?  For those comfortable with writing in their books (I am one of these), this conversation will take place tangibly in the margins.  For those who dislike writing in books, or for those who read library copies of books, this conversation will take place on a separate sheet of paper.  Regardless of where it takes place, it must take place.  By actively engaging the author, one learns to be a ‘demanding,’ or ‘active’ reader.  In the end, you will arrive at a deeper understanding of the presented material by critically engaging it along the way.

There is of course much more to be said about this book, but I don’t want to give it all away here!  If you are serious about reading, and wish to become a better reader, go pick it up!

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