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on October 30, 2000
How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is a very useful book for anyone wishing to give their books a more thoughtful, in-depth reading.
The book does have an agenda to push. That agenda is to see more people go beyond high school reading levels. The authors begin by reviewing how America got to the point where almost everyone could read, but very few people could read well. They offer the techniques in this book as a path from this superficial knowledge of reading to a deeper understanding of how to read more effectively and more deeply.
The book breaks down the levels of reading. They present four levels of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical.
The most time and attention is given to Analytical writing. The authors present ways to read more analytically. They also lay out rules for giving a book a fair analytical reading. I found this part very helpful personally.
The other three levels of reading are treated in much less detail. Each is more presented than taught. The authors demonstrate how each level is dependent on the one preceding it.
This book is very well put together and nicely laid out. One can tell that this was a labor of love by the authors. A feature that I found particularly interesting was the suggested reading list in the back of the book.
How To Read A Book will be helpful to any reader who desires to learn how to read more deeply. I recommend it.
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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 March 11, 2004
Do you remember being amazed by the disparity between reading abilities amongst your class-mates? I do.
Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren assert that most people never learn to read for deep comprehension. In those remembered classes, I was amongst the stronger students. Only once I was beyond college did I realize I wanted to read more closely and tackle more challenging texts.
HOW TO READ A BOOK tackles the essential skills you need to read intelligently and learn from the greatest teachers of all time.
It teaches how to read a single work on its own, how to read different genres effectively (including an interesting section on dramas and plays, which are essentially blueprints of complete performance works), and how to read books in relation to each other so one can understand the great conversation amongst books (so fascinatingly visited in The Name of the Rose).
I feel that I have made a leap in my comprehension and analytical skills by working through this book. Unfortunately, "working" is an appropriate verb. The authors are verbose, making their points over and over, to the detriment of clarity and simplicity.
If you are interested in learning to analyze philosophy and practical works, are engaging in higher studies and find your skills falling short of your expectations, or just want to push yourself, take the time to read this handbook. Expect to draw comments from everyone who sees it in your hands -- for everyone believes that reading is a simple skill. Know that you are working towards making it an art!
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on August 25, 2003
Of course, probably all of us who browse the book section of this website know how to read a book. But do you know how to read to get the most benefit out of a good book, a book that is "above your head", that stretches your mind, that introduces you to unfamiliar concepts? "How to Read a Book" presents four kinds of reading, but spends most of its pages discussing "analytical" reading. There is a lot to analytical reading, and casual readers probably won't want to make the effort. Those serious about reading, however, will benefit from using the concepts presented here. The book talks about how to read different types of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Then it moves to a brief discussion of "syntopical" reading, which is basically the type of reading necessary for researchers and college students attempting to write a paper. This is a very valuable book, but I had to dock it one star for a little too much subtle advertising for the well-known set of books the authors have assembled.
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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 September 18, 2003
This book was challenging. I have been an active reader for several years, but now I realize that I have not been reading to my full potential. First, I have learned that the books I read are not challenging enough for me. The author of this book writes that if a book is not 'over your head' you will not learn anything from it. Books that are hard for us to understand are the books that change our minds, make us grow. I tend to shy away from these types of books. Second, I learned how to read analytically. The method is simple, but time consuming. You must spend lots of time and effort to read a book analytically.
This is a great book for anyone who wants to harvest more from the books they read. The author writes, "Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing."
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on October 6, 2000
As the title suggests, this book professes to be a how-to manual for literacy. However, a large portion of the book is devoted to bemoaning the decline of education in America. It is interesting to observe the similariy of the complaints noted in this book and the complaints of today's education critics.
In any case, the tips and suggestions offered in this book are sound. Adler advocates a structured approach to reading to increase comprehension. The general gist of his recommendations hold equally well for writing as for reading.
The reader should be warned that Adler's writing style can be irritating. His tone ranges from nagging to condescending to hectoring. However, once you get past the tone and down to the actual material, this book provides for some very instructional reading.
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