“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope."

-Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

How to Read a Book (revised edition) by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

How to Read a Book (revised edition) by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

The first book I am putting on the Old Wooden Bookshelf is How to Read a Book, the revised and updated version by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I am starting with this book because it has been my road map through books: deciding what to read, how to read it, and how to get the most out of what I read. Investing time in reading How to Read a Book has dramatically paid off for me. Its techniques have helped me get the most out of my other books. Here are some of the main points:


Schools have failed to teach people how to read beyond a basic level. Most people read at a sixth grade level because they lack understanding about the higher levels of reading (x). The focus of the book is not on reading solely for information or entertainment (10), but for people who read books to gain increased understanding (3).


Specific definitions that are introduced throughout the first few chapters are the difference between reading for understanding, information, or entertainment. Reading for understanding, the premise of this book, means reading something challenging, that you may not fully understand. The author compares the act of reading something over your head to "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps", and clarifies that it is hard work (8). Reading for information is when the reading material is at your level, but has new information. This would be like reading the news. The material is easily understood, and written just like it was yesterday. The reason you are reading it is to find out what sports team won the game, or which direction the stock price of that company went. The author suggests that informational reading can increase your knowledge, but is probably not going to increase your understanding. The third kind of reading discussed is reading for entertainment. The author makes clear that these goals can overlap (reading for understanding could be informative or entertaining), but How to Read a Book is about getting better at reading difficult books to increase understanding.


The levels of reading are elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. The higher levels are more demanding and include the lower levels. That means levels one through three must be employed to successfully read at the fourth level (16).


The first level is elementary reading: learning how to read in the basic sense of understanding words, sentences, and paragraphs. Improving this level is often the subject of speed reading courses (17).


The second level is inspectional reading: getting as much out of a book as possible in a short amount of time. By definition, it must be less time than it would take to read the entire book. This is also called systematic skimming, or prereading a book (18).


The third level is analytical reading: this is getting the most out of a book with no time limit. Analytical reading is giving the book a full reading and "chewing and digesting" the material (19).


The fourth and most demanding level of reading is syntopical: reading multiple books on a subject and synthesizing ideas that may not be present in any of the individual books (20).


Important takeaways from Adler and Doren's How to Read a Book are as follows:


Reading for understanding means choosing books that are over your head and challenge you to grow.

Reading is active, not just receiving information, and should require mental exertion (the more the better).

There are four levels of reading. Basic literacy is where most people stop and is only the first level.

Inspectional reading can save you a lot of time and effort. Get as much from a book as possible in fifteen minutes by reading the table of contents, front and back cover, preface, and excerpts from different chapters. This will help you understand what kind of book it is and what it is about before getting too involved. Inspectional reading may help you realize that the book is not what you thought.

Reading is Hard Work

Reading is Hard Work

Three Ways to Choose Your Next Book

Three Ways to Choose Your Next Book