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4.5 out of 5 stars73
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on June 29, 2004
I am an engineer by training, and since I have been out of grad school for a few years now, I enjoy reading books in order to occupy my mind. However, I was what Adler and Van Doren would call a "widely-read" person, which is to say that I should have been pitied rather than respected. This book really changed my perception of reading from being a casual hobby to a lifelong process of self-education, and so I am currently undergoing my conversion to being a well-read reader, or a person who reads for understanding not just information.
Others might scoff at my literary ignorance, but I was really impressed by Adler and Van Doren's suggestion that the Great Books should be read chronologically, in order to take part in this "Great Conversation" that has been going on since man learned how to write. Previously, I had regarded the Great Books as so many individual stars in a literary universe, with absolutely no rhyme or reason on where to begin reading. However, now, I am approaching these classics in a more disciplined way by following a chronological reading list, and this has added a dimension of understanding to my reading that I really had not encountered before.
Adler and Van Doren say a lot in this book that I agree with, and previous reviewers have done a good job of summarizing the levels of reading, and the activities associated with them. However, I felt that the authors' suggestions for reading fiction were a bit vague and insufficient. For example, Adler and Van Doren say that the "truth" of a work of fiction is determined by its beauty to the reader, and the reader should be able to point out in the book the source of this beauty. Such a suggestion leaves a lot of things left unsaid and I felt that the authors could have commented a little more on how the reader could go about analyzing imaginative literature.
Nevertheless, this book is a classic. If you consider yourself a serious reader, but have never been formally instructed in how to engage books, then I highly, wholeheartedly, and absolutely recommend that you read this book.
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My reasons for reading this book are many. The initial one was curiosity, because the title intrigued me. Another reason, and a more important one, was the fact that I am now studying for a Doctor of Business Administration degree, which is purely based on my learning from reading. Being someone for whom English is a second language, it is my opinion that my skills can always be improved and it was in that spirit that I took this book into my daily life.
In fairness, this is not the easiest book my hands have ever touched or my eyes have ever rested upon, but having spent the time to read it, my opinion is that it will make a significant difference to my reading and learning in the future.
It is easy to fool oneself by thinking that one knows all or most of what there is to know about reading, since most people's reading starts at an early age. Some people is likely to have that kind of attitude and dismiss this book, however if they read it they would come to discover that there is so much to be learned by reading it. "How to Read a Book" is now amongst the books that I treasure. It is a joy to read as one learns the principles of reading from its pages, and then later applys them to reading the book itself as it will have to be read in more than one sitting. I now find that my reading has been improving and my understanding of what I am reading is growing thanks to applying what I am learning from it.
I believe that anyone who reads can benefit from "How to Read a Book", even more so the ones who really need to learn from the books read, as applying the right techniques can make all the difference to the enjoyment as well as the benefits obtained from reading a book.
The authors have written such a valuable work because not only do they describe how reading a book should be approached but also whether a book should be read at all so at a minimum the reader would save time after reading it, if not improving their skills in reading, however I think they will achieve both things.
I now find that my reading has been improving and my understanding of what I am reading is growing thanks to applying what I am learning from it, as I revisit it. I believe that anyone who reads can benefit from "How to Read a Book", even more so the ones who really need to learn from the books read.
Amongst the many things learned from the book is how to read the work of poets and philosophers, which have always attracted me. Not having English as my first language, I did not have an early exposure to the works of people like Shakespeare; therefore I am glad that now I will be able to do it the right way and therefore obtain maximum enjoyment from it.
I am sure others can write a much better review than I did, so I will stop here and just say that this is a great read and I thoroughly recommend it to any reader, not matter now advanced they think they might be, because this book will make them better readers.
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on December 14, 2015
In this book, Alder is always promoting the idea of reading the "Great Books", the set of books that began and have maintained a sort of 'Conversation' about great topics; liberty, love, freedom, ethics, etc. This book gives you the tools to tackle those books. That said, the recommended books are daunting even with the proper tools.

Your level of understanding must expand itself to match the level of understanding that is required to read any given book, and that requires grappling over the terms, concepts, arguments, propositions, and lines of reasoning the author posits. You have to be the one who fishes out these things, and finally, you must agree or disagree with them on the basis of evidence. They don't teach you this stuff in high school.

Few know how to read at this level. I've read this book and I can't even say that I can. This book was very difficult to trot through. I think that this was intended by the author; to give us a form of training for the more difficult stuff. 5 stars.
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on November 4, 2003
In this very useful book, Adler and Van Doren admirably succeed in showing the reader how to become a more able reader. For anyone, student, businessman, or otherwise whose success is dependent upon being able to quickly and thoroughly understand written material, this book will rapidly repay the purchase price and the time invested in reading it.
The authors identify four levels of reading: 1)elementary reading - the ability to pick up a page of printed material and understand the words on it and their grammatical relation to each other; 2)Inspectional reading - the sort of reading one does in the library or bookstore to determine whether a book is worthy of the time to read it thoroughly; 3 - Analytical reading - the most thorough level of reading one can engage in with a single work. It is the level at which one converses with the book in a sense; 4)Syntopical reading - Reading many books about a single subject with the goal of gaining a comprehensive knowledge of it. The authors make the point that all books aren't worthy of the same level of reading. The authors don't have a problem with casually reading a novel for enjoyment, but that isn't the sort of reading this book describes. This book is a guide to the process of reading to learn and grow.
The elementary level is only briefly described. After all, in order to make any use of this book, it is necessary that one first have the skills to read it. The chapter on inspectional reading may prove to be the most useful to many readers. Many students do not seem to have much skill in finding appropriate books for research, or they waste a lot of time on a book only to find out that it really is not helpful for their purposes. Many practical suggestions are offered to remedy this problem. The value of inspectional reading goes beyond this, however. Adler correctly notes that the teaching of literature in high school is particularly prone to destroying any comprehension or delight in the works studied by attempting to move to an analytic approach to the work without first getting the big picture to provide context.
The bulk of the work is devoted to analytic reading. They divide this type of reading into three stages and offer four or so rules for each stage. In going through this process, the student should become thoroughly acquainted with what the book is about (what type of book it is, what problems it is trying to solve, etc.), understand what the propositions are that the author offers to solve his problem and how those are supported, and finally, be able to offer an informed critique of whether the author failed or succeeded in his attempt.
Having described how analytical reading works in relation to expository works, the authors then devote 100 pages to explaining how the rules must be expanded or modified when dealing with specific types of literature such as history, fiction, or philosophy.
Syntopical reading is covered in only one chapter. It is essentially an analytical reading of works or portions of works that pertain to a matter of interest. The rules and guidelines offered in that section are those that relate specifically to finding the right works, and then understanding when they are addressing the same matter (a subject sometimes made difficult by differences in terminology).
The book is well organised and very easy to read. Anyone already capable of reading at the elementary level should be able to begin making use of the material in each chapter as soon as they have read it. This book would be an excellent gift for anyone graduating high school and preparing to go on to college.
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on August 13, 2003
This is a great book. This book can make a big improvement in how effective you are in reading. It mostly focuses on how to master a book. It talks about various levels of reading, but mainly the book is trying to help the reader to completely understand and own a book after reading it.
A reader or listener is like a catcher in a baseball game, it takes both the effort of the pitcher (author) and the effort of the catcher (reader) to transmit an idea. In reading only in part, only part of the idea may be caught.
The goals of reading: reading for information, reading for understanding. To gain understanding you have to work on the book. Reading for understanding is aided discovery.
The authors point how that there are different levels of reading:
1) Basic reading (See Spot run)
2) Reading with a limit on time, systematic skimming.
3) Reading for maximum understanding, or unlimited time
4) Reading several books, synoptically, this is the ability to do research from several books.
So in reading a book you need to decide what it is you want out of the book. For example you may decided after skimming the book that you are not interested in reading any more. "HOW TO READ A BOOK" gives tips on making that decision, and then how to do a good job of reading at a given level.
The authors give tips on how to skim a book, to check the title page, the table of contents, look through the index, and read the publishers jacket. At some point along the way you may decide you are no longer interested in the book. Next you figure out which chapters are important to the book, read them, and read the summary arguments of the book.
Much of the book is on the third level, where you try to own or master a book, so but the time you are done with the book you have increased your understanding of a topic.
The essence of active reading, trying to answer four basic questions:
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? What does it mean to me?
There are several suggestions on how to mark up a book, so that when you come back to it later you can quickly remember the key points, and use it as a reference book. And marking up the book helps you to process the material at a deeper level.
This is well worth reading, and reading several times, until you own the book.
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on May 5, 2004
Absolutelly awesome. Just an advice. Read it...and PRACTICE it. It's worth it. Don't read anything before this incredible book. Don't be one of those lazy people who take a glance the book in 2 minutes and throw it away because they alredy "know" all that stuff. This is a practical book. The fact that the book is easy to read and understand, and that is a matter of common sense, doesn't mean that it's a bad book. Take at least 30 min a-day, a full month. Only when you put all that text into practice you will know how incredible book you had in your hands. I did.
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on March 2, 2004
This book is an excellent overview of how to get more out of what you read. Some of what it contains will be common knowledge to most college students. However, there are some excellent points made about dissecting a book and such. I especially enjoyed the section about how to read different types of books and how to read syntopically. Even if you are used to reading analytically, this book is worth picking up.
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on November 8, 2003
A guide to reading for the serious reader. It teaches about the different reading levels and the needed rules to accomplish them. Good book for anyone that wants to master the art of reading, in specific analytical reading of classics and other great books. Not so good for someone looking to learn how to speed read or take in the most information with minimum effort.
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on July 2, 2011
What the book says isn't a secret sauce guide to reading comprehension. It is rather elementary. Find the topic sentences, find the supporting sentences, understand them, and evaluate. That is the gist of it and it's something we all learn in primary and secondary schools. But the way this message is conveyed is something that will leave an indelible mark in your mind.

The book approaches the act of reading from the perspective of self-education. Of course everyone is aware that reading informs us, and even imparts us knowledge sometimes. However, much of our reading today is done out of duty (i.e. job related) or for mere entertainment. By delving into the nook and cranny of the act of reading (i.e. distinguishing between words and terms, the whole versus parts, etc.) the book shows us that reading really is about truth. By showing us how to read, it shows how truth can be gleaned from books. Not necessarily the book's truths, but by way of self-education from books, we would be able to discern our world with more clarity, Adler and Van Doren seem to say.
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HALL OF FAMEon July 22, 2003
Imagine me - there I was, for decades of my life, thinking I knew how to read a book. I'd advanced through elementary school and prep, into college and finally to graduate school when I discovered, to my horror, that I in fact did not know how to read! Perhaps that helps to explain my affinity to literacy programmes, with whom I will begin working again come this Wednesday.
But no, perhaps I overstate the situation. What I actually mean to say is that it was not until my graduate school days that I happened across the most excellent work How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This staple had somehow eluded me; familiar as I was with both Adler and Van Doren, I had never encountered this text.
This book was written in 1940, as World War II was beginning and the Great Depression ending; it was revised in the 60s and again in 70s, with the assistance of Charles Van Doren, another person who had had some difficult dealings with Columbia, due to his involvement in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Van Doren moved away from the East Coast and landed in Chicago, near Adler, at Britannica, also again near Adler, and has the kind of intellect and unconventional circumstance that Adler admired. Adler of course had his own unique academic career, failing to get an undergraduate degree due to a physical education requirement that went unmet.
The book itself is divided into four main sections with two sizeable appendices.
The Dimensions of Reading
In this section, the authors look as types of reading and reading levels. They look at basic goals for reading, and discuss different types of learning. While they do not get into the theoretical complexities of learning styles as intricately as more recent educational theorists, they do make interesting and insightful distinctions between learning by instruction and learning by discovery.
This section is, in fact, full of rules. Rules for notetaking, annotating (highlighting, underlining, summarising, etc.), skimming, comprehending, etc. are all presented in an almost overwhelming sequence. There is so much to remember while reading (and I remember how smug I felt at having discovered many, if not most, of the rules on my own). But the authors beg for the rules to be consistently applied so that they merge together to become simple habit. They use the analogy of learning to ski - the rules are important, each in and of itself, but successful skiing transcends a mere application of rules until they become a natural impulse. So it is with reading.
Analytical Reading
This is crucial for true benefit and comprehension of any book. The authors talk about analysis in stages:
o Pigeonholing a book
o X-raying a book
o Coming to terms with an author
o Determining an author's message
o Criticising a book fairly
o Agreeing or disagreeing with an author
o Aids to reading
Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter
In this section, the authors look at critical differences between different styles of books. It is obvious to even the inexperienced reader that reading a technical manual is vastly different from reading plays, poems, or history texts. Even the most educated of people occasionally stumble when confronted with high-level material from outside fields, such as asking the social scientist to deal with mathematical and scientific texts, or asking the physicist to deal with history and psychology treatises. One might argue about their divisions, but within the chapters they cover a very broad area.
The Ultimate Goals of Reading
Why does anyone read in the first place? Here the authors talk about developing beyond individual books into fields of learning, introducing ideas of synoptic reading and understanding the importance for doing so. Again charting rules of engagement for multiple texts, the authors discuss the importance of reading for understanding and deeper comprehension.
* * *
The first appendix consists of a lengthy list of the great books identified by Adler, modified over time by the various people involved in great books curriculum development. This is an admittedly Western-dominated list.
The list is certainly a long one. There are 137 authors, often with several works attached, recommended in this list. One can find this list in physical form in the Great Books series that is a companion to the Britannica. Itself only recently updated and revised, it consists of several linear feet of bookshelves, and even their recommended 10-year plan is ambition and doesn't cover the entirety of the series. The list is presented (as the book set is organized) in chronological order; this is not the best order in which to read the works.
The second appendix is actually a series of reading exercises for self-examination or group consideration. These are designed to be used for different levels of readers and different intentions. The authors tackle the question of arbitrary and cultural bias in manners of testing, coming to the pragmatic conclusion that, so long as academic and society advancement is tied to these kinds of testing and evaluations, it makes sense to learn how to do them, and however biased they may be in form or content, they still do provide a good measure, if not the best possible measure, for reading comprehension and retention.
One can tell that one's book has been successful when parody versions begin to appear. The year after the first edition of How to Read a Book appeared, there was the spoof How to Read Two Books; shortly thereafter there was a serious monograph by a Professor I.A. Richards entitled How to Read a Page.
Happy reading!
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