Book Summary: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Book Cover for How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Think you already know how to read? Think again. In this summary of How to Read a Book, I take you through Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s rules for reading and the 4 questions you should ask when reading any book.

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Key Takeaways from How to Read a Book

  • We read for different reasons. How to Read a Book is mainly focused on reading for understanding, as opposed to reading for entertainment or for information.
  • Reading for understanding is a very active form of reading. It’s like being taught by a teacher, except you have to do a lot more work to answer your own questions.
  • There are four questions you should ask when reading any book:
    • What is the book about as a whole?
    • What is being said in detail, and how?
    • Is the book true, in whole or in part?
    • What of it?
  • There are four levels of reading:
    • Elementary reading. This is basic reading skills – making sense of words. The book doesn’t focus on it.
    • Inspectional reading. This involves skimming and superficial reading. Spend a couple of minutes with a book to get a sense of what it’s about and whether it’s worth reading.
    • Analytical reading. Analytical reading involves three stages:
      • Outlining (working out how various parts fit together),
      • Interpreting (what is the writer saying), and
      • Judging/criticising a book.
    • Syntopical reading. This stage involves reading a variety of books on the same/similar topic and synthesising them in order to answer your questions.
  • You should vary your reading speed as appropriate. Some books, and parts of books, are worth reading slowly. You can read other parts much more quickly, and many books are only worth a skim.
  • The authors give tips for reading different types of books: imaginative literature, practical books, history, science and maths, philosophy and social science. For example, they recommend reading stories in one sitting if possible and they also outline the 5 different styles of writing used in philosophy.
  • At the end is a very long suggested reading list from Homer to Solzhenitsyn. Unfortunately, there’s no explanation for why each work has been included, nor any recommended order or priority.

Detailed Summary of How to Read a Book

Reading for understanding

What is reading for understanding?

How to Read a Book focuses on reading for understanding, as opposed to reading for entertainment or information:

  • Reading for entertainment is the least demanding form of reading and has no rules.
  • Reading for information is not always easy to distinguish from reading for understanding. Increased knowledge of facts can itself lead to greater understanding (but you don’t have to know everything about something in order to understand it).
    There’s nothing wrong with reading for entertainment or information; it’s just that they won’t stretch your mind and make you improve as a reader in the same way that reading for understanding will.

Reading for understanding is active and challenging – but rewarding

Reading for understanding is actually very active. Many people read before going to sleep but you shouldn’t use a good book as a sedative (you can use a boring book for that).

When you read, you are being taught, except the teacher (the writer) is not there to answer your questions. You have to figure them out by yourself. To improve as a reader and gain understanding, you have to read something higher than your current level, which makes demands of you. You may not get it at first (at least not completely). But if you put the work in, you’ll come away with greater understanding. When you understand something, you should be able to explain what an author says in your own words and understand why they say it.

The challenges that come from reading for understanding are not the same as the challenges presented by a bad book. A bad book is hard to follow and analyse, because there’s nothing to pin down. They’re not worth the effort in reading well. By contrast, a good book rewards you in two ways. First, you become more skilled at reading in general. Second, you learn more about the world and life.

Four questions for active reading

When reading actively, ask and try to answer these four questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole? In other words, what is the leading theme of the book?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? What are the author’s main ideas, assertions and arguments?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? To answer this, you must first answer the first two questions. You can’t work out if the book is true until you know what its message is. But you shouldn’t just take for granted that the author is stating the truth – you must make up your own mind.
  4. What of it? Why did the author feel the need to tell you their message? What implications does it have for you?
    These four questions apply mainly to non-fiction texts but, with some adaption, can also apply to fiction and poetry.

Although you can try to answer these questions in your head as you read, Adler and Van Doren recommend writing out your answers. Active reading is thinking, and putting your thoughts into words will clarify thinking. Writing also keeps you awake and helps you to remember the author’s thoughts. They even suggest something like writing a – you guessed it – summary of the book:

After finishing the book … , turn to the front and try to outline the book, not page by page or point by point … , but as an integrated structure, with a basic outline and an order of parts. That outline will be the measure of your understanding of the work; unlike a bookplate, it will express your intellectual ownership of the book.

Four levels of reading

The four levels of reading are:

  • Elementary reading. This involves the basic literacy skills you learn in elementary school. Adler and Van Doren don’t focus on elementary reading assuming that, if you’re reading the book, you’ve already reached this level.
  • Inspectional reading. Skim the book to get a sense of what it’s about and decide if it’s worth an analytical reading.
  • Analytical reading. Outline a book, interpret its contents and then judge it.
  • Syntopical reading. Work out what your questions are, read multiple books that help answer your questions, and then analyse the discussion.
    These are levels rather than types because the higher levels encompass the lower ones.

Inspectional reading

There are two types of inspectional reading, which may be performed at the same time: skimming (also known as pre-reading); and superficial reading.


The aim is to find out if the book deserves a more careful reading. Even if you plan to read a book carefully later, it’s still a good idea to skim it first. skimming will give you an idea of its form and structure. [Barbara Oakley has similarly said that this helps us learn more effectively.]

Start by looking at the title page, preface, contents page, index (if applicable) and publisher’s blurb. Move on to chapters that look important and see if they have a summary statement at the beginning or end. Flick through and read a couple paragraphs, but never more than a page or two, looking for the main contention. Make sure you read the last few pages and epilogue (if any) as authors will often summarise their main point here.

This whole process should take you a few minutes, and no more than an hour. By the end, you’ll have a good sense of what the book is about.

Superficial Reading

This seems to apply only to difficult books (both fiction and non-fiction). The first time through a book, don’t stop to look up or ponder things you don’t understand. Just focus on what you can understand and don’t get tripped up by footnotes, references, etc.

Looking up unfamiliar terms and allusions prematurely makes it harder to see the unity of the book. When you focus on the fine points, you’ll miss the big points. You’ll have a much better chance of understanding the book the second time through after you have the big picture.

Analytical reading

This section is really long – Adler and Van Doren set out 3 stages of analytical reading with 11 rules. I’ve split out the summary of analytical reading into a separate post to keep this one more manageable.

Syntopical reading

Syntopical reading is the highest level of reading and is very demanding. It is more relevant to expository works than to fiction.

Where to start

Deciding what books to read is difficult. There are two steps involved here:

  1. Compile a bibliography. Find all books that may be relevant to your chosen subject.
  2. Do an inspectional reading of all of them. Do this before you attempt an analytical reading of any of them. A common mistake is to try and combine the inspectional and analytical reading stage, which means you will read some books too slowly and other books too quickly. The inspectional reading should tell you whether the book says something important about your subject. This will cut down your bibliography substantially. It will also give you a clearer idea of your subject so that when you analytically read some books, you will be more productive.

The fundamental problem to syntopical reading is that it’s hard to know where to start. Even if you do have an idea, finding the relevant books and passages can take an inordinate amount of time. Adler and Van Doren suggest using the Syntopicon, which is an index to the set of books called Great Books of the Western World. [The Syntopicon is a reference book with 102 chapters on 102 “Great Ideas” such as Emotion, Government, Law, Medicine, etc, with an introduction (by Adler) for each chapter. Each idea is then broken down into further sub-ideas.]

Five steps of syntopical reading

After you’ve found the relevant books through your inspectional readings, the five steps involved in syntopical reading are:

  1. Find the relevant passages. In syntopical reading, the goal is to answer your problems, not the author’s. It’s rare for an entire book to be directly relevant to your subject, so you need to find the most relevant passages. You’re not trying to understand a particular book in full; you’re trying to find out how it can be useful to you. You can combine this step with your inspectional reading.
  2. Bring the authors to terms. Different authors will use different words to describe the same idea. You have to establish the terms you want to use, and bring the authors to them rather than the other way around. Essentially, it’s translation. For example, most authors only use the term “progress” to describe improvements, whereas others also use the term to describe changes that are not improvements. This may be the most difficult step in syntopical reading.
  3. Get the questions clear. [I would have thought this was the first step.] Frame a set of questions that will help answer your problem. Sometimes an author’s answer to your questions will be implicit rather than explicit, as they may not have had your particular question in mind when writing the book.
  4. Define the issues. Define the issues in a way that is as joined up as possible, which may not be in the same way as any given author. [This seems very similar to Step 3.] An issue is joined up when two authors understand the question the same way but answer it in different ways. Often, however, authors give different answers because they have conceived the question differently, rather than because their views of the subject differ.
  5. Analyse the discussion. You probably won’t be able to find the truth in one set of answers given by a single author. More likely you will find it in the conflict of opposing answers, many of which will have persuasive evidence and reasons to support them. Analysing the discussion requires not only that you ask the right questions, but you do so in a logical way, bringing order to the discussion.
What is the point of syntopical reading?

The point of syntopical reading is not to give a final answer on the questions being asked. If it did, the syntopical analysis would stop being syntopical and you would just be another voice weighing in on the discussion. Instead, the point is to look at all sides and take no sides.

This is an ideal you will never reach since it’s impossible to look at all sides exhaustively. Taking no sides is more possible, but still difficult. It’s easy to become partial to a view and summarise arguments in different ways, emphasising parts that you find more convincing. To mitigate this risk, a syntopical reader should constantly refer back to the authors’ actual texts. If presenting to a wider audience, quote the authors’ opinion or argument in their own language so that the audience can judge for themselves if the interpretation of the author’s argument is correct. [I don’t really do this in my summaries, but I take extra care to present an author’s argument accurately when criticising it.]

Which books are worth a close reading?

Adler and Van Doren estimate that over 99% of all books will not make enough demands on you to improve your reading skill. They can be read for entertainment or information, but not understanding. Such books are not worth a close reading – an inspectional reading will be sufficient.

Less than 1% of books will teach you how to read and to live. These are “good books” with significant insights about subjects of enduring interest. There’s probably no more than a few thousand of such books. [Surely this number has increased since How to Read a Book was written, though.] These books are worth reading analytically only once, but you may want to return to them occasionally to check something or refresh your memory.

There is finally a much smaller subset of books that should be read over and over. These are books that your mind keeps returning to long after you’ve finished it. When you get it out again, you’ll find that the book contained less than you remembered, because your understanding has grown. With the truly great books, you’ll find the book has grown with you, in that you’ll see new things in it that you did not see before. Initially, the book was far above you (and it may always be above you), but truly great books are accessible at many levels. Adler and Van Doren estimate there are probably fewer than a hundred elite books in this subset (their recommended reading list is an appendix). However, it’ll be fewer than that for any given reader, because different readers have different tastes and interests.

Extrinsic reading aids (dictionaries, commentaries etc)

Most readers depend too much on extrinsic aids like dictionaries and commentaries. Adler and Van Doren advise that you should do what you can from just reading the book itself, and only seek outside help once you’ve done your best and the book still remains unintelligible. If you do this over time, you should need less outside help as you become more skilled at reading.

A common reason why people struggle to read the “great books” is because they were written in a certain order. A later writer may have been influenced by an earlier one. This is more relevant to history and particularly philosophy, because philosophers tend to read each other’s works. It’s less important for science and fiction books.

Commentaries and summaries

Use commentaries and abstracts (or summaries) sparingly because they may not be correct. In fact, Adler and Van Doren say they are “sometimes woefully wrong” in their interpretations. Even if they are correct, they will not be exhaustive. There may be important meanings in a book that the commentary writer has overlooked. Read a commentary only after you have read a book, else it is likely to distort your reading of the original book. [I think these are fair points to bear in mind when reading my summaries. And my summaries are relatively detailed. The danger of a summary being wrong or missing important points is much greater for very short summaries.]

There are, however, two benefits to summaries. First, they can jog your memory of a book you’ve previously read (although ideally you would have made a summary yourself). Secondly, they can help you in syntopical reading, when you want to find out if a certain book is relevant to your topic.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias

To use a reference book well, you must have some idea of what you want to know. Reference books can’t answer all questions. They usually deal with matters people generally consider “knowable”, which won’t include moral questions or predictions of the future. (The history of reference books is itself interesting, as it shows how we’ve changed our views on what is considered “knowable” over time.)

You also need to know where to find it and how the particular book is organised. [Less relevant when talking about Google or Wikipedia.]

Don’t look up every word you don’t know in a book because looking up too many words will make you lose sight of the book’s unity and order. Occasional use is fine, but even then it’s better not to during your first reading, unless the word seems important to the author’s point.

You can use a dictionary or encyclopaedia to settle arguments based on differences of fact, but not differences of opinion. Note that encyclopaedias won’t always agree as to their accounts of facts, and that “facts” can change over time as human understanding changes and grows. To some extent, facts can also be influenced by culture.

Reading speeds

The goal should not be to “read faster” but to vary your reading speed depending on the nature and difficulty of the material. Many books are hardly worth a skim. Other books should be read slowly, giving you time to comprehend it properly. But even then, you shouldn’t read the whole book at the same pace. Some parts should be read quickly, and other parts with complex and important ideas should be read very slowly.

That being said, there are bad reading habits that unnecessarily slow down our reading. Examples include subvocalisation, fixating/stopping on certain words in a sentence, and regressing to phrases or sentences already read. These habits are wasteful. The mind is able to take in a sentence or even a paragraph at a glance.

To fix these bad habits, Adler and Van Doren suggest placing your thumb and first two fingers together as a “pointer”. Sweep the pointer across a line of text, slightly faster than feels comfortable for your eyes to move. Force yourself to keep up with the pointer. Keep practising, and keep increasing the speed at which your pointer moves. This improves your concentration as well as your reading speed. When you focus on your pointer, it’s harder to daydream and let your mind wander.

How to read particular types of books

Imaginative literature

Be open to imaginative literature and allow it to move you – don’t resist it. Imaginative literature aims to please rather than to teach. But it can still teach us indirectly by giving us experiences to reflect on.

Unlike expository books which try to express things as clearly as possible, imaginative literature tries to maximise ambiguity and relies on implications. Don’t waste your time looking for terms, propositions and arguments.

How should you criticise imaginative literature? Obviously it doesn’t make sense to judge its truth. We should only require that the story must be plausible, in that it could have happened in the world the author has created. Even though you don’t “agree” or “disagree” with the author, you shouldn’t criticise imaginative literature until you fully appreciate what they have tried to make you experience. Adler and Van Doren encourage you not only to state whether you like or dislike a book, but to also explain why. Your initial critical reaction will often say more about you than about the book.

How to read novels and stories

Read stories quickly and with complete immersion, ideally in one sitting. Otherwise, you may forget things that happened and it will be harder to grasp the unity of the book.

Don’t disapprove of a character’s actions until you understand their motivations.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the many characters and incidents when reading some novels, such as War and Peace, particularly if they have strange-sounding names. Think of it like moving to a new town. There are lots of new people in the beginning but, over time, the important characters will become clear. So too with events – we may not understand events as they occur; only when we look back on them.

The major epics – the Iliad, the Odyssey, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost – are incredibly demanding to read. But the rewards that come from a good analytical reading of these epics are at least as great as for any other books.

How to read plays

A play, when read, is not a complete work. It is only a complete work when performed on a stage. To that end, try to imagine directing the play when you read it. Tell your actors how to deliver certain lines or act a scene. You will learn a lot from doing so and have a lot of fun, too.

Most plays are not worth reading, because they are incomplete works, intended for the stage. Great plays that are worth reading include those of: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, and Molière. Reading these plays can be difficult because of how language has changed since they were written. if you come across a puzzling passage, try reading it out loud, slowly, and with expression. This will often clear up difficulties.

Greek tragedies are perhaps the most difficult to read for several reasons:

  • When originally conceived, three tragedies were presented at the same time, dealing with a common theme. With one exception (the Oresteia of Aeschylus), only single plays or acts survive.
  • We know almost nothing about how Greeks directed their plays, so it’s hard to direct them mentally.
  • The plays were often based on stories their audiences knew well, but which we do not.

Two pieces of advice for reading tragedies:

  1. The essence of a tragedy is (lack of) time. In any Greek tragedy, the problem could have been resolved if there had been enough time.
  2. When the plays were acted, the actors wore buskins on their feet that made them taller than the members of the chorus, as well as masks. The chorus did not wear buskins, and sometimes wore masks. Keep that size difference in mind when reading the words of the chorus and actors.
How to read poems

Many people find poetry difficult, obscure, complex and not worth reading. [Definitely me.] Adler and Van Doren argue that lyric poetry is not always as demanding as you may think if you approach it in the right way, and the rewards are often worth the effort you are willing to put in.

When reading a poem, you should read it through without stopping, whether you understand it or not. Any good poem has unity, and you won’t see this unity unless you read it without stopping. Then, read it again, out loud. When you say the words out loud, it forces you to understand them better. The rhythm of the poem will help you understand where to place any emphasis.

Even though you may not “come to terms” with a poem, you should still try to find its key words, as it can help with understanding. Those key words may reveal themselves through rhyme, rhythm, or repetition.

Most good poems involve some sort of conflict. Often this conflict is implicit, rather than explicit – the conflict between love and time, life and death, transience and eternity.

People sometimes resort to commentaries and author biographies to try to understand a poem. But knowing the context of a poem doesn’t mean you’ll understand the poem itself. There is no substitute for reading a poem over and over. Great poems deserve many repeated reads.

How to read practical books

A practical book can’t solve the problems it sets out to solve. Only the reader can solve those problems, by taking action. How to Read a Book, for example, is a practical book. But to solve the problem of learning to read, the reader has to take action in the real world by practising on many books. Since the author of a practical book cannot anticipate the exact real-world circumstances their reader will face, any advice in the book will be general, not specific.

Some practical books, like How to Read a Book, mostly contain rules. Other practical books may focus more on the principles that underlie rules (e.g. books about economics, politics, morals), so you may have to read between the lines to find those rules. This distinction is not always clear-cut as books often contain both rules and principles. It’s more a matter of relative emphasis.

Judging a practical book involves two questions:

  1. What are the author’s objectives?
  2. What means does the author propose for achieving those objectives?

When you judge a practical book, everything depends on the author’s goals. If you don’t think the author’s goals are worth pursuing, the book will be irrelevant to you. Every practical book contains some form of propaganda and persuasion, as the author tries to convince you their goals are worth pursuing. They may play to your emotions in the process – be alert to this.

When reading a moral treatise or political or economic book, you should be aware of the context in which it was written. For example, Aristotle’s Politics was written in the context of slavery.

With respect to the four questions for reading:

  • What is the book about? – not much change here.
  • What is being said in detail, and how? – not much change here.
  • Is it true? – this one changes a bit. Focus on whether the author’s objectives are worth pursuing and, if so, whether their suggested means are the best ways of pursuing them.
  • What of it? – this one changes the most. A practical book implies action so if you agree that the author’s goals are worth seeking and that the means recommended are likely to achieve those goals, you should probably act as the book suggests. One reason why you may not is if you don’t think you are the target audience for the book.

How to read history

Adler and Van Doren emphasise the “story” in “history” – they see narration as being the essence of history. Facts are difficult to find. It’s hard enough to work out what the “facts” are in a courtroom, which deal with recent events and where we can cross-examine witnesses. Imagine how much harder it is to find facts that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago.

There are two rules of reading history:

  1. Read more than one account of the same event or period where possible. Historians can take different approaches to history, and those approaches affect how they depict events.
  2. Read history to learn about human nature. Thucydides, for example, gives the only surviving account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The main point of reading Thucydides is not to find out what actually happened but to learn from the Greeks’ mistakes, which people have repeated over and over since. Thucydides’ work has influenced many leaders in subsequent years.

With respect to the four questions for reading:

  • What is the book about? – all history has a limited scope. You should understand what the author has set out to do.
  • What is being said in detail, and how? – look at how the author has divided up their book and which aspects they’ve focused on.
  • Is it true? – the author may have misunderstood some facts, misused some sources, or overlooked something.
  • What of it? – history may affect our actions more than any other literature. It gives us suggestions for what is possible, so that we can seek to repeat it or avoid the same mistakes.

Biographies are a type of history, as they give an account of a person’s life.

A definitive biography is meant to be the final, exhaustive, scholarly work on a particular person’s life. It’s usually written after several non-definitive biographies have been written and found to be inadequate. Definitive biographies are not always easy to read, since they are so thorough.

An authorised biography is usually commissioned by the subject’s heirs or friends. They tend to be biased towards making the subject look good.

Similar issues arise with the trustworthiness of autobiographies. But although an autobiography cannot be completely true, it cannot be completely false, either. Every autobiography will reveal something about its author.

Current events

Reading about current events comes with many of the same issues as reading about history – we can’t be sure we are getting all the facts. When reading a contemporary book, you should beware of a potential hidden agenda in the way you don’t when reading Aristotle, Dante or Shakespeare.

The most important thing to know is who is writing the report, and how they see the world. What does the author want to prove, and to whom? Do they assume any special knowledge/bias or use special language? (Many authors just write for those who agree with them.) Do they know what they are talking about?

Digests (and summaries!)

You cannot condense the very best articles and books without losing something. For these articles or books, then, the summary should encourage you to read the original.

For the average informational article, however, a digest or summary is usually adequate – and often even be better than the original. The more condensed a digest is, the more selection that has occurred. It’s therefore important to know something about the character of the condenser as they too could have a hidden agenda. But you can only find out what was omitted by reading between the lines of the digest. [If the condenser has written summaries of books you have read in full, you could read those summaries to see how faithful they are to the original.]

How to read science and mathematics

Today, science tends to be written for experts and assumes a lot of specialised knowledge. This is similarly true of other fields – philosophers today tend to write for other philosophers; economists write for other economists; even historians. This was not always the case. Until around the end of the 19th century, authors wrote their scientific works for a lay audience. Adler and Van Doren recommend at least trying to read the great scientific classics by the likes of Galileo, Newton and Darwin.

Finding out what the author’s problems were (Rule 4) is particularly important for reading science and mathematics. The point of reading classic scientific books is not to become knowledgeable about the subject matter since the science has moved on since then. Rather, the point is to understand the history and philosophy of science. To do that, you have to understand the problems the authors were trying to solve and the background to those problems.

One thing that makes scientific books easier to read is that they tend to set out their terms, propositions and arguments clearly. (Poetical works, by contrast, do not – so are harder to read well in many respects.)

The two main difficulties in reading a scientific book are:

  1. Following the arguments. Science is mostly inductive – it relies on observable evidence to establish a general proposition. That evidence comes from experiments. Understanding the history of science therefore requires becoming familiar with classical experiments, as well as the classical books. But you can still make a start without going through all those steps.
  2. Mathematics. Adler and Van Doren argue that maths is beautiful and intellectually satisfying, as it gives a “really logical exposition of a really limited problem”. They encourage you to learn the language of maths, starting with Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, to gain an appreciation for it. However, if your aim is to read a scientific work with some maths in it (rather than a maths book itself), you can often skip the maths – or at least the parts that give you trouble – and get a better grasp of the whole. Remember – you’re not trying to become competent at the subject matter but just to understand the problem.
Popular science

Popular science books and articles are for a lay audience, so contain relatively few descriptions of experiments and little mathematics. But they’re not “easy” to read either. You still have to read actively and the rules for analytical reading apply perhaps with more force than almost anywhere else.

Such books can be very good, but they suffer from the same problems that summaries and digests do – you have to rely on the writer’s judgement of what is worth including.

How to read philosophy

The most important thing to do when reading philosophy is to work out:

  • What questions is the author trying to answer?
  • What assumptions does the author make?
  • Are there any “controlling principles” underlying his work?

Those questions and assumptions may be explicit or implicit. For example, Aristotle’s works assume that you have read his other works. When a philosopher asks you to assume something, you should do so even if you think the assumption is untrue. See what follows from that assumption and reasoning. It’s also a good mental exercise to pretend to believe something you don’t.

Distilling an author’s controlling principle is hard. For example, Plato’s works contain a controlling idea that philosophical conversation is perhaps the most important of all human activities. Plato rarely discusses this idea explicitly in his works, but it’s a theme that runs throughout. It may require years and many re-readings to distil such principles. But Adler and Van Doren recommend you take the time to discover these principles yourself, rather than taking the shortcut of reading what other people have written about those philosophers.

Different branches of philosophy

We can divide philosophical questions into theoretical questions and normative questions:

  • Theoretical questions ask what is, or what happens, in the world. Within this division, there can be questions about being or existence (metaphysical philosophy) or questions about knowledge and its limits (epistemology).
  • Normative questions ask what we should do. These can be further divided into questions about how to live a good life, or what is right and wrong (ethics) and questions about how society should be run (politics or political philosophy).
How philosophy books have changed over time

The great philosophical books ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask – the fundamental first-order philosophical questions about what happens in the world and what we should do.

Professional philosophers today have largely given up on answering those questions. Instead, they focus on second-order questions about our first-order knowledge. For example, how do we think about such questions? How do we express our thoughts in language? Such questions are less relevant to a lay audience. Philosophy writers today no longer write for a lay audience – they usually write for other philosophers. Adler and Van Doren recommend reading philosophical books up to about 1930, which were targeted at the general reader.

Not all of the questions philosophers have asked and answered are “philosophical” (or what we would consider philosophical now, anyway). For example, philosophers used to think that celestial bodies (which didn’t seem to change) and terrestrial bodies (which changed a lot) were made of different matter. Scientific advances since then, namely the invention of the telescope, show that celestial bodies actually do change, and that they are made of the same matter as terrestrial bodies.

Different philosophical styles

There are at least five styles of philosophical works in the Western tradition. Some philosophers have tried more than one style. The five styles are:

  1. The Philosophical dialogue. For example, Plato employed this style in his Dialogues [I think this was the style in The Courage to be Disliked]. It is a conversational, even casual, style with a series of comments and questions. Adler and Van Doren think that Plato was a master at this, but that no one else has been able to use this style effectively.
  2. The Philosophical treatise or essay. Aristotle’s treatises marked a new style of philosophy. Immanuel Kant also adopted this style and his treatises are more polished than Aristotle’s. Treatises have a straightforward order, with a beginning, middle and end. They lack the element of drama that is present in Plato’s presentation of conflicting views. This is probably the most common style.
  3. The Meeting of Objections. St Thomas Aquinas employed this style in his Summa Theologica. He raises a question, gives an (incorrect) answer with supporting reasons, and then counters that wrong answer with his own views and supporting reasons. The key feature of this style is that it explicitly recognises conflicts and attempts to meet all possible objections to its claims.
  4. The Systemisation of Philosophy. In the 17th century, Descartes and Spinoza tried to organise philosophy in a similar way to math. Spinoza for example wrote Ethics in mathematical form, with propositions, proofs, etc. You can skip a lot when reading Spinoza, in the same way you can skip much of Newton’s works. (You cannot, however, skip anything in Kant or Aristotle, because their line of reasoning is continuous. Nor can you skip anything in Plato, as that would be like skipping part of a play.)
  5. The Aphoristic Style. Nietzsche adopted this style in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Some modern French philosophers have used this style, as have Eastern philosophers. The author is like a “hit-and-run” driver who raises a subject, suggests a truth or insight, and then runs off to another subject without properly defending or exploring what he’s said. It’s not expositional at all. The reader has to do much of the work of thinking, making connections, and constructing arguments for positions. Readers who enjoy poetry may find this style enjoyable, but serious philosophers who want to follow and criticise an author’s line of thought may find it irritating.
Philosophy vs science

The difference between science and philosophy is not always clear. Science generally tries to describe the nature of things whereas philosophy tries to explain those things.

Both fields seek to prove general truths, but their methods differ. At a very high level, scientific books emphasise things that lie outside your normal, daily experience, while philosophical books do not. A philosophical book encourages readers to refer to their own normal and common experiences to verify the writer’s claims.

Answering philosophical questions is different from answering scientific or historical questions. You can’t really perform experiments or do research. All you can do is think. Your thinking doesn’t have to be in a vacuum – you can test it against your experience. But philosophical questions are tested against common experiences, the kind of experiences you have by being human. Ultimately you have to answer philosophical questions yourself and come up with solid arguments to back up your answers. You can’t defer to experts as you may have to do in science.

Both philosophy and science use technical terms. Philosophy is particularly tricky because philosophers often take terms from common speech and use them in a special, technical sense. It’s easy to misunderstand what a philosopher is saying.

How to read social science

The “core” of social science includes anthropology, sociology, politics and economics. These fields try to understand human society. A broader definition of social science may also include law, business and education, but those fields are often more focused on training people for professional work.

Social science often appears easy to read because it describes experiences common to most people (like philosophy). It’s also often written in a narrative style. Many concepts used in social science have become commonplace so we feel familiar with its jargon. Terms such as culture, status, in-group, etc have seeped through into everyday conversation. The author’s attitudes and views also tend to come through strongly, as people are likely to have strong opinions on matters of social science.

However, social science is actually quite hard to read for several reasons:

  • To read analytically, you have to put aside your opinions temporarily. You must remain open to understanding what the author is trying to say. Your priors may also interfere with your attempts to judge the book fairly and answer the question, What of it?
  • The apparent familiarity of the jargon can be an obstacle to understanding. Technical terms are widely misused in popular journalism, and authors may not stipulate their terms clearly up front.
  • Social science is a mixture of different fields. Much of it is a mix of science, philosophy and history, maybe even with some fiction thrown in. The mixture also varies from book to book. This makes it hard to answer even the first rule of analytical reading, What kind of book is this?
  • Typically, there won’t be a single, authoritative work on any social science subject. The fields are constantly evolving and authors have to keep revising their books. To understand a topic, syntopical reading is particularly important.

Other interesting points

  • It seems the proliferation of bullshit has been a problem long before the Internet started, which I find oddly comforting. Adler and Van Doren write:
… so much of current writing outside the sphere of the exact sciences manifests so little concern with truth.
  • There are some useful demonstrations in the book. For example, Adler and Van Doren suggest how you might outline the US Constitution. There are also several reading exercises in the end, with extracts from their recommended reading list (e.g. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Aristotle’s Politics).
  • John Stuart Mill had read all of Herodotus and six dialogues of Plato by the time he was 8.
  • Newton developed his theory of gravity as well as an explanation of the composition of white light when the Great Plague in 1665 forced him to retire to a farm. There, he conducted experiments in optics and chemistry. He was in his early 20s at the time.

My Thoughts

How to Read a Book contains some useful advice, particularly in the sections on how to read philosophy, which is an area I would like to explore further. The rules on analytical reading seem to overlap a lot with rules for critical thinking. Much of it seemed sensible enough, if a bit obvious. I do think the idea of “coming to terms” is important and underrated. I’ve long thought that many arguments and disagreements are because people mean different things by the same words, and could be avoided if people defined their terms more explicitly. It makes sense that the same principle can apply to reading books. I also agreed with the authors’ emphasis on structure and seeing the “unity” of the book. Structure, too, is often underrated – even more so in the case of writing than reading.

The biggest takeaway for me was that I should try reading some classics by Plato, Aristotle, maybe even Newton and Darwin. It had never even occurred to me to read the original works of prominent scientists. I do think Adler and Van Doren undersold the value of reading for information and they came off a bit elitist with their estimates of how many books are “worth” reading. There was definitely a bias towards philosophy (which may be expected, given Adler’s background) but I appreciated the tips for reading philosophy because I’ve previously felt daunted by it. Knowing that John Stuart Mill read Plato when he was 8 makes me think I at least have a chance at understanding it. I also found the explanation of the five different philosophical styles helpful. If I hadn’t read this book, I can imagine picking up Nietzsche and feeling put off by it, not wanting to read another classic philosophical work again for a long time.

I was not fond of Adler and Van Doren’s writing style. Funnily enough, writing style is not a ground on which you can “fairly” criticise a book, according to them! Their tone comes off like lecturing at times and they used too many excessively long, indirect sentences for my liking. For example, when talking about how to criticise a book:

“We are saying, in short, that disagreements are arguable matters. And argument is empty unless it is undertaken on the supposition that there is attainable an understanding that, when attained by reason in the light of all the relevant evidence, resolves the original issues.”
— Adler and Van Doren

Translation: “Disagreements can be resolved through argument. Arguments can resolve issues by employing reasoning and taking account of all relevant evidence.” At first I thought this wordy writing style may have been a product of the times, but they heavily revised the book in 1972 and I’ve read books before then that are much more succinct.

Overall, I think they underrate the stylistic and readability element of books. It may be true that you’re not going to get the same thing reading, say, Nietzsche directly as you would from a modern interpretation of Nietzsche. But if the latter is infinitely more readable, I would say it is worth reading more than the original. Even if the interpretation is “wrong”, as a reader you should think critically about it anyway, and you can derive value from reading and refuting wrong ideas. Adler and Van Doren treat reading for entertainment as completely distinct from reading for understanding. But, although I read non-fiction to learn things, I also read for enjoyment. The two go together.

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What did you think of How to Read a Book? Have you tried to tackle the reading list? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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3 thoughts on “Book Summary: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

  1. The ivory-tower tone of the book comes across pretty strongly even through this summary. I especially think about how 99% of books are apparently are not worth reading for understanding, not to mention the quick dismissal of subvocalization (which, ironically enough, has been shown in research to help with retention of ideas).

    That being said, it is nice to see a breakdown of how books can and should be read, at least for the primary purpose of understanding new ideas. Do you think you’ll look to actively apply any of the rules suggested for reading comprehension?

    1. I hadn’t heard that about subvocalisation before. That’s good to know – I often do it even though I try not to, so maybe now I can stop worrying about it.

      The 4 questions to ask of any book seem useful, but I sort of do it already anyway. “What of it?” is one I could ask more often.

      I may try to apply some of their suggestions for syntopical reading. Tyler Cowen has recommended something similar about reading books in clusters. I definitely won’t do it as fully described by Adler and Van Doren, though – I expect to be a bit more casual in my approach

  2. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs
    I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It will always be helpful to read content
    from other authors and practice a little something from their websites.

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