Taking as its premise that reading is a complex activity, one that does not come naturally but must be learned, the authors present a set of goals for good reading, a set of principles to apply to the practice of reading, and a specific set of steps and rules to be followed to maximize the value to be gained from reading.

If you can ignore the somewhat dated prose, especially the pervasive use of “he” or “men” and its implicit assumption that the reader (and author) is male, and if you can get past the emphasis on the great books (Great Books) of the western canon (an emphasis that is natural and expected, given that the primary author was Mortimer Adler), I believe that this is a good and useful book. Reading it and absorbing its rules, and making those rules a habit, will not make you (or me) into a George Steiner or George Plimpton, but it might well improve our ability to quickly and completely understand the books that we read. I suppose that many of us already practice many of these rules; still, their conscious and systematic application cannot but help.

What follows is not part of the review but a brief summary, mostly as an aid to (my) memory.

This is a very methodical book, from which most traces of ambiguity and uncertainty have been vigorously excised. I will try to summarize the method here, as a kind of overview.

There are 4 levels of reading:

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Syntopical

The authors devote a brief chapter to elementary reading, outlining 4 stages in achieving this lowest level, and taking the time to express their dismay that elementary is often the highest level of reading attained even by those with a high school or college education.

There are two types of inspectional reading: Systematic skimming or pre-reading, and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming includes the following:

  1. Look at the title page and the preface
  2. Study the table of contents
  3. Check the index
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb
  5. Look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s argument, and read their summary statements, if any.
  6. Dip into the book and read a paragraph or two here and there

Superficial reading consists of reading a difficult book quickly beginning to end, not stopping to understand difficult ideas and not looking back.

Both types of inspectional reading are to be done quickly and with great concentration.

Before proceeding with their lengthy discussion of analytical reading, the authors discuss the importance of active reading. THere are 4 questions the active reader must ask about a book:

  1. What is the book about, as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
  4. What of it?

They go on to say that the reader should liberally mark up his or her book with margin notes, underlining, etc. (Easier said than done with ebooks, though Kindle does try to make it possible).

And prior to getting to the many rules that they are about to propose, they remind the would-be good reader that the goal is to transform the many rules into one habit, in the way that a novice skier eventually just skis, rather than concentrate on the many individual aspects of skiing.

The rules of analytical reading:

  1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. (This is followed by a lengthy discussion of the many categories of books, and subcategories, and ambiguities)
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence or at most a short paragraph.
  3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.
  4. Find out what the authors problems were (i.e. what problems was the author trying to solve).

Gaining understanding (interpretive reading)

  1. Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author (i.e. understand the terms that the author uses)
  2. Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.
  3. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.
  4. Find out what the author’s solutions are.


  1. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I Understand,” before you can say any of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”
  2. When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously.
  3. Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

If you disagree with an author you show at least one of:

  1. The author is uninformed.
  2. The author is misinformed.
  3. The author is illogical.
  4. The author’s analysis is incomplete.

The final part of the book deals with ‘syntopic’ reading: the reading of many books on the same subject, and emphasizes the importance of efficient inspectional reading.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
  • Author: Mortimer J. Adler
  • Published: 1940
  • ISBN: 0671212095
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars