How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

While the main focus of this site is Islamic literature, I thought it would be highly beneficial to the Muslim reader to read this book on… how to read.

Overview of the first edition

How to Read a Book is in three parts, each of several chapters.

Part I: The Activity of Reading

Author Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which classes will be addressed. He also makes a brief argument favouring the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing How to Read a Book.

There are three types of knowledge: practical, informational, and comprehensive. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that practical knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience; that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding equals the author’s; that comprehension (insight) is best learned from who first achieved said understanding — an “original communication”.

The idea of communication directly from those who first discovered an idea as the best way of gaining understanding is Adler’s argument for reading the Great Books; that any book that does not represent original communication, is inferior, as a source, to the original, and, that any teacher, save those who discovered the subject he or she teaches, is inferior to the Great Books as a source of comprehension.

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 “critical”, 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, though this term is not used in the book.

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”.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
by Mortimer J. Adler

2 thoughts on “How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

  1. I was recommended that book from my English teacher. I couldn’t remember the author, but this is definately the book.

    I actually read the Agenda To Change Our Condition, by Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir and I think it is an excellent read and has practical advice for everyone.

    Thanks for sharing this book!

  2. Regarding the “criticizing the book” stage, is Adler expecting the reader to jot down the criticisms, perhaps in the back of the book; or just ponder them in one’s mind, for an hour or so?

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