How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler

Written
  • Source: How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler from Farnam Street
  • There is reading for information, and reading for understanding. Anything easily digested is just reading for information.
  • Reading for information has its uses, but it won’t help you learn, give you an edge, or allow you to avoid problems.
  • Mortimer Adler identifies four levels of reading.
  • Elementary Reading
    • This is simply the reading as taught in elementary school, which allows you to understand the words as written, follow a story, and so on. No analysis or real thought goes into it.
  • Inspectional Reading
    • This is high-level reading that allows us to get a basic idea of an authors point without spending much time.
    • Systematic Skimming
      • This is a quick check of the book in order to discover if the book merits deeper reading.
      • 1. Read the cover and preface. This gives you an idea of what the book is supposed to be about.
      • 2. Table of contents. This establishes the journey of the book as it makes its argument.
      • 3. Understand the language of the book. This means skimming the index to see the language used, the references it makes, and so on.
      • 4. Identify the pivotal point. Hopefully now you can figure out where the pivotal chapter to the argument. Read through it quickly, see how connected it is to the book. Does it make sense?
      • 5. Read the end. The author usually summarizes the book here.
      • 6. Listen to an interview. If you can find the author discussing the book on a podcast, this is a great way to get an idea of the depth and direction of the book.
    • Superficial Reading
      • This is reading a book without engaging. Don’t bother looking up anything you don’t understand. Don’t think much about the arguments and their strengths or weaknesses. Once you’re done reading the book in this way you will either feel ok about putting it down, or you will want to go back through it to really absorb the knowledge.
      • Superficial reading is most useful when the book is too far above your level of comfort with the subject for you accurately assess the book inspectionally.
  • Analytical Reading
    • Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. — Francis Bacon
    • This is a thorough reading. Take notes, engage with the author’s arguments. There are four steps:
      • 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
      • 2. State what the book is about as briefly as possible.
      • 3. Enumerate the major parts of the book and briefly describe each one.
      • 4. Define the problems that the author is trying to solve.
    • Once done, you should be able to answer these questions:
      • 1. What is the book about?
      • 2. What is being said in detail, and how?
      • 3. Is the book true, wholly or partially?
      • 4. What of it?
  • Syntopical Reading
    • This is reading multiple related books to get a more holistic view of the subject.
    • 1. Find relevant passages in various books for the thing you are trying to learn. This involves inspectional reading of all the relevant works.
    • 2. Discover terms specific to that subject and figure out the various words that each author is using to mean the same things. Essentially, establish a translation to a common vocabulary.
    • 3. Figure out which questions you want answered. This should have some overlap with the questions the authors are trying to answer, simply so that the books will actually be relevant.
    • 4. Define and understand the issues around the question. Basically these are the things on which different authors have different opinions.
    • 5. Analyze the discussion to have an informed opinion.

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