How to Read a Book (Adler & Van Doren) — Entry #1

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updat ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

I have started reading the 1972 revised edition of this 1940 classic, curious about this oft-quoted book. Its mission is precisely what it title suggests: an analysis of how books are read (classified into four different levels) and instructions on how to become a better reader of books. However, an important distinction is made from the very start: its aim is to assist the reader who wishes to read for increased understanding, not for information or for entertainment.

I was amused to find that Adler and Van Doren referred to a 1939 article by James Murrell, “The Failure of Schools,” in which Murrell identified a familiar-sounding pattern about reading ability in the general population:

Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taiught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level. […] The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of readin, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. […] It as been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage,or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. (quoted in Adler & Van Doren, pp.x-xi)

Murrell blamed schools for the lack of improvement in students’ reading abilitties. Adler and Van Doren seem to agree, at least in that the last of their four identified levels of reading is rarely mastered. These levels are: Elementary Reading (ability to recognize and string together written words and sentences and to extract the surface meaning); Inspectional Reading (ability to skim, get the gist of a book in a limited amount of time); Analytical Reading (ability to extract the larger points made by a text) and finally, Syntoptical Reading (complex, systematic, comparative reading — the ability to read a book while holding it in a larger context — or, the ability to read more than one book at a time) (pp.17-18).

I am also thankful to this book for having offered me a useful and concrete recommendation (in the art of Inspectional Reading) that I can apply immediately to this reading course:

The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. (p.314)

Indeed, several of the works I have consulted so far make a similar point: that it is just as important to know when not to read a book as it is to read it. Or, as Adler and Van Doren put it, that one needs to know “how to read some books faster than others” (p.315).


5 responses to “How to Read a Book (Adler & Van Doren) — Entry #1

  1. Adler & Van Doren clearly do not want reading to be fun (or subversive).
    If the teacher/professor tells you that you ar going to study syntopical reading, you just know you are not going to have any fun.
    If you substitute subversive for syntopical then you might just enjoy it.

  2. I think subversive reading may not appeal to everyone, just as much as syntopical. Reading is done for many different reasons, and Adler and van Doren clearly directed their book toward an audience who chose to read outside the entertainment realm. I think it is important that students be taught how to analytically address certain reading material, especially while in unviersity.

    Not everyone is going to enjoy reading, period. However, it would be nice if while getting an education, especially at university level, they be given proper reading analytical skills, which can be applied later in life outside of reading.

  3. We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

  4. Очень хороший пост! Спасибо за проделанную работу!

  5. That was the whole question. ,

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