Book Review: How To Read A Book

How To Read A Book, by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

I first read this book over a decade ago as an undergraduate student in college, when I was reading a lot of books but before I started writing formal (and critical) reviews of the works. In my work to plan for a speech, I bought this book to add to my collection again, and it is a book that I will likely consult again at least in part to reflect upon different areas of discussion that the authors bring up. This book is designed for an intelligent reader who wishes to learn how to read great books well, and it is a challenging read for even the best readers, because it makes heavy demands on the mental effort of reading and responding to the most difficult and rewarding books that can be read. Of particular interest is the fact that the author assumes (probably correctly) that those who are great writers are almost invariably great readers and that those who are great readers will probably almost inevitably become great writers as a result of their conversations with the books that they have read. A great deal of the enduring popularity of this book is probably due to the fact that it encourages it readers to become active and responsive readers, critical but also receptive to books and seekers of books of quality where they may be found.

In terms of its organization, the book is thoughtful, if not necessarily balanced. It is helpfully organized, with its first part dealing with the dimensions of reading, which examine the first two levels of reading (elementary and inspectional reading, which look at the surface elements as well as the barebones structure of a book, respectively). The second part deals with analytical reading, where a reader seeks to reconstruct the argument of an author and give a meaningful critique of that argument. The third part of the book provides incomplete but representative tips on how to profitably read different genres of books, ranging from histories to mathematical treatises to literature, and the fourth and shortest part of the book discusses the purposes of reading (namely, to expand our understanding and give us insights we could not gain on our own efforts) as well as some all-too-brief thoughts on reading syntopically, that is, reading a wide variety of books on the same subjects in an intersubjective way, creating a larger context from which a field may be understood on a wide scale.

This book is fascinating from a variety of standpoints. Not only does it represent a defense of what is essentially a humanistic project (the Great Books project, in a very Western European standpoint), but the goal of reading widely and coming to an understanding of a field in toto itself assumes the possibility of an ultimate meaning of concepts and a shared understanding that is possible, so that works are speaking in a great conversation rather than each person being left alone as part of an unceasing monologue. The book’s combination of erudite scholarship, flattery of its reading audience, and deftly personal touch have made it an enduring classic among the highly literate and culturally conservative. It manages to reveal a lot about its author, its cultural context, and it manages to be both instructive and often amusing. About the only failure of the book is the fact that the syntopticon is largely unknown, perhaps because it is too ambitious for anyone in the contemporary period to know all that is worth knowing about any subject, and difficult to find technical works about science, math, or social sciences, or even philosophy and history, that are written in an accessible and yet technical manner for the educated lay reader. Despite the immense difficulty of the highest level of reading, this remains a useful work in helping those who can already read somewhat well become world-class readers.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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