This classic book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren was originally published 1940. A great deal had changed in publishing and the news media between the 1940s and the 1970s, so the authors updated How to Read a Book in 1972.
They could not have predicted how the internet would change everything again, and as a result, I found this book to be outdated in many ways. The sections on how to use reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries seem quaint now. Some of their recommendations are nearly impossible to do if you use an ereader instead of a paperback. Regardless, I got a decent amount of utility out of reading this book.
There are some great takeaways to keep in mind when selecting and reading books. We shouldn’t let difficult books intimidate us. If we don’t seek challenges, we won’t learn.
This one tip in from the book will save many hours of time: not every book needs or deserves to be read to the same extent. Think about what you want to get out of a book. Is it for entertainment? Research? Background information? It’s OK to skim books or stop reading them. That’s a hard one for me, but the authors gave me permission.
A System for Reading Books
After some general guidance and plenty of finger-wagging at their hopeless readers, the authors outline a systematic way to consume books. Readers will learn how to skim a book to decide if it’s worth their time. Then the book covers how to read two levels deeper – first superficially and then analytically.
Next, the book dives into literary criticism and comparative reading for researchers. Academics could benefit from those sections, but few others would. If that’s you, try to pick up a used copy at amazon (affiliate link) instead of paying full price.
How to Read a Book is primarily for getting the most out of your non-fiction reading. Fiction and poetry get a perfunctory treatment near the end. The key to reading for enjoyment, according to the authors, is to read the work straight through rather than trying to break it up and analyze it during the first reading.
Reading Current Events
Finally, there is a short section on reading news critically, which I think should be required knowledge for all citizens.
The authors urge you to ask these questions as you read:
- Who is writing the report? Why type of person?
- What does the author want to prove?
- Whom does the author want to convince?
- What special knowledge does the author assume?
- What opinions and prejudices does the author have?
- What special language does the author use?
- Do they know what they are talking about? (If you have no reason to believe the author has special knowledge of the subject, beware.)
Should you read How to Read a Book in its entirety?
Probably not. It’s dated, boring and frequently condescending. BUT the core concept is worth using. The only people who would benefit from reading the whole book are researchers who need to read several books on the same topic to compare them.
Most people have the basic skill to learn information from reading. That means when you finish a book, you can recite the facts from it. The process outlined in How to Read a Book increases your reading skill to a higher level of understanding. If you use that process, you can understand and explain the material.