How To Read A Book, by Adler & Van Doren

This one's on the list (of lists) of Great Books, as well as being a source of one of those lists.

I probably should have started off with this one, eh?

Seriously, though. The subtitle is 'The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading'. It's not a primer; it's a guide to active reading, a guide to engaging worthwhile books and wrestling them to the ground.

Darn, I was going to be serious.

Adler and Van Doren make a convincing argument for active reading as a way of broadening the mind and enriching one's life. I'm not convinced by their method, which seems to require a lot of extraneous steps and moreover underestimate the readers' intelligence. For example, in their instructions about finding the key sentences and words in a work, they claim that these are going to be the sentences and words you have trouble understanding (and that you should underline them - BLASPHEMY! LIBRARY BOOKS WERE NOT MEANT TO BE WRITTEN IN!). As evidenced by the fact that a previous reader of the book chose to underline numerous words and sentences that they, apparently, didn't understand - but that were nonetheless not important at all - this is just not the case.

Their method of analytical reading requires multiple steps; first the book must be categorized, then it must be summarized, then it must be outlined, then the important terms must be defined, then it must be judged and evaluated. To give the authors some credit, they do boil this down into four basic questions: What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? And What of it?

The main focus of the book is expository reading - they do adapt their method to fiction and poetry, but clumsily. For example, they claim that to judge the 'truth' of a good story, you are judging its 'intrinsic probability or plausibility'. I'm not ready to dismiss speculative fiction so entirely, and I suspect that this is simply poor phrasing. They also neglect entirely the appreciation of the beauty of language - both for poetry and prose.

However, I am willing to give it the old college try. I started How because another book I checked out from the library at the same time, The Spell of the Sensuous, was giving me trouble. I will undertake to read The Spell of the Sensuous using the Adler/Van Doren method and report.


Hieu Kieng said...

Thanks for this useful post, I have read this book once and I think that I have just understood a small part of what the authors want to say

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler.

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost and are now available.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more: