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Summary of How To Read A Book By Mortimer Adler

HOW TO READ A BOOK
by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

  • The aim of the book is to get readers to be active when reading a book. Active reading means asking the book the right questions, in the right order, as one reads. As one learns from a teacher by asking questions, so one also learns from a book.
  • This summary will follow this structure: Question To Be Asked - Reading Level It Pertains To - Reading Stage- Rules for that Stage - Notes to be made. But first, some explanatory notes on some of the key concepts in the book.
  • On Reading Levels & Their Stages:
    • Reading Levels are different positions on the qualitative scale of reading. The higher the level, the higher the quality of reading and comprehension implied.
    • Reading stages are steps within the reading process. One step follows from the other.
    • Each level is contained in the subsequent level. Each stage follows on from the previous stage. If you skip the levels, or the stages within the levels, you won’t fully understand the book you’re reading.
    • Level 1: Elementary Reading: The most basic level. The Aim here is to understand the words and sentences at the literal level. It’s what we learn when we learn how to read or learn a foreign language. It is not a true level of reading.
    • Level 2: Inspectional Reading. The aim here is to get the most out of a book within a given time - usually a relatively short time, and always too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.
      • Stage 1: Systematic Skimming or Pre-Reading. The aim of this stage is to discover whether the book deserves a more careful reading. This stage seperates the chaff from the kernels of nourishment.
      • Stage 2: Superficial Reading. The aim of this stage is to form a vague idea of the book in its entirety, by reading it through from start to end quickly and never stopping no matter how hard it gets. Similar to speed reading - but with the difference that Superficial Reading is about reading at different speeds.
    • Level 3: Analytical Reading. Reading for the sake of understanding.
      • Thorough, complete or good reading. The best reading you can do. It makes heavy demands on the reader.
      • This is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.
      • Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it.
      • It is hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment.
      • Stage 3: Interpretive Reading: Aimed at understanding the author’s meaning by breaking it down.
      • Stage 4: Critical Reading: Aimed at making your own judgement about the work by putting forward your own independent reasoning about the author’s meaning.
    • Level 4: Syntopical. Not covered yet.
  • On The Rules Of Reading.
    • Reading is an art. Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules.
    • The key thing is forming the habit via repetition. It’s possible to know the rules of an art, but not posses the art, because one hasn’t formed the habit of the art via constant repetition.
    • Follow these rules long enough and often enough, and they will become habitual and effortless.
  • On Notes.
    • Active reading means having a conversation with the author. The conversation can vary in terms of its depth or shallowness. Note taking, either in the book itself or on a notebook, is a record of the responses, thus transforming the conversation from a monologue to a dialogue.
    • There can be no real active reading without notes. If anything, notes at least keep you awake.
    • There are therefore 3 kinds of notes for the 3 levels of higher reading.
      • Structural Notes:
        • They capture your answers to Questions 1, 2 and 3 below.
        • These answers pertain to the structure of the book, and not its substance.
        • The best place to make such notes is on the contents page, or perhaps on the title page.
      • Conceptual Notes:
        • They capture your answers to Questions 4, 5 and 6 below.
        • These answers pertains to the author’s concepts, and also your own, as they have been deepened and broadened by your reading of the book.
      • Dialectical Notes:
        • They capture answers to questions posed during a Syntopical reading of several books.
        • They pertain to shape of the discussion that is being undertaken by several authors, even if unbeknownst to them.
        • They often have to be made on a seperate sheet since they pertain to several books.
  • Q1: What kind of a book is it?
    • Reading Level: Inspectional
    • Stage: Systematic Skimming
    • Notes To Be Made: Structural Notes
    • Rules for the Stage
      • Rule 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
        • Look at the the title page and preface - read quickly. Pigeonhole the book into a category: imaginative vs. expository…and from there, each of these broad categories has its own subcategories.
        • Study the Table of Contents.
        • Check the Index, if present. Note the range of topics and other books and authors that have been referred to. Note and crucial-looking terms, and track them down in the text and see how they’ve been used.
        • Read the publisher’s blurb.
        • From the knowledge gleaned above, look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the author’s arguments. Read the introductions and conclusions.
        • Read the last few pages, bunting for the author’s summary of the work.
        • Dip in and out - sampling randomly.
  • Q2: What is the book about, as a whole?
    • Reading Level: Inspectional
    • Stage: Superficial Reading
    • Notes To Be Made: Structural Notes.
    • Rules for the Stage
      • Rule 2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
        • Done via Superficial Reading: “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without stopping to think about the things you don’t immediately understand.”
        • E.g. with Shakespeare - never stop to try and look up words/ language/ read footnotes and explanations on the first reading: read it through, quickly, in one sitting.
        • The same applies to expository works: when reading for the first time, fight FOMO and discouragement and read straight through the portions you have no way of understanding. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.
        • Speed reading: the ideal is to be able to read at different speeds.
  • Q3: What is the structure of the book? What are its parts?
    • Reading Level: Inspectional.
    • Stage: Interpretive Reading
    • Notes To Be Made: Structural Notes
    • Rules for the Stage
      • Rule 3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
      • Rule 4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve or questions he has tried to answer.
        • Examples of theoretical questions: Does something exist? What kind of thing is it? What caused it to exist, or under what coniditions can it exist, or why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its charateristic properties, its typical traits? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or of a different sort? How does it behave?
        • Examples of practical questions: What ends should be sought? What means should be chosen to a given end? What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order? Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse? Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that?
  • Q4: What is being said in detail, and how?
    • Reading Level: Analytic
    • Stage: Interpretive Reading
    • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual Notes
    • Rules for the Stage
      • Rule 5. Come to terms with the author by intepreting his key words.
      • Rule 6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
      • Rule 7. Know the author’s arguments , by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences, of sentences.
      • Rule 8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  • Q5: Is the book true, in whole or in part?
    • Reading Level: Analytic
    • Stage: Critical Reading
    • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual
    • Rules for the Stage The Rules of Intellectual Etiquette when Posing Criticism.
      • Rule 9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your intepretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgement, until you can say “I understand.”)
        The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
        • Rule 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
          The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
          • When an analysis is incomplete, it means the author has either:
            • Not solved the problem he set out to solve.
            • Hasn’t seen all the implications and ramifications of what he is stating.
            • Failed to make distincitions that are relevant to the undertaking.
            • Didn’t take the full opportunity of his materials.
        • Rule 14. Show wherein the author is illogical.
          The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
          • This means that certain propositions do not follow on from each other (non sequitur) or are inconsitent.
        • You cannot really be a demanding, active reader if you shirk the responsibility of judging a book.
        • It’s a sign of true teachability to critique ANY book so long as you understand it first and can demonstrate said understanding. Critiquing means agreeing, disagreeing or suspending judgement, not only disagreeing, as is commonly understood.
        • Before passing judgement on a book, make sure you are aware of the author’s previous works that he or she may be basing their current thinking on. Make sure that you fully understand that previous work first.
      • Rule 10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
        The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
        • When you disagree, do so reasonably. Truth, not winning an argument, is what matters.
      • Rule 11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make.
        The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
        • Every disagreement is an opportunity for being taught, and all disagreements are remediable.
      • Rule 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
        The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
        • This means that certain relevant knowledge is missing - state it, and show the relevance thereof.
      • Rule 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
        The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
        • This means that certain facts are put forward as being the case, when they are in fact not the case.
  • Q6: What of it? Why does the author think this important? If so, what are the next steps.
    • Reading Level: Analytic/ Synotopical
    • Stage: Critical Reading
    • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual/ Dialectical
    • Rules for the Stage.
      • The author doesn’t explicitly state rules for this stage. Implicitly though, as contained in various parts of the book, they are:
      • Rule 14. If you agree with the book, then you need to either change your thinking around the subject (if it’s a theoretical book), or change your praxis (if practical).
  • HOW TO READ IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE/ FICTION.
    • Imaginative literature pleases rather than teaches. It is important to bear in mind that it is much harder to analyze and critique beauty than truth.
    • Appreciate this rule: The role of fiction is not to convey knowledge itself, but the experience that gives rise that knowlege. Hence, “Show don’t tell” is the Kerygmatic rule of imaginative literature - in other words, “If you want to have an impact by conveying knowledge, ask “What exprience gave rise to this knowledge?”
    • By creating experiences, imaginative books teach not primarily but derivatively by creating expreiences from which we can lear, and therefore, everyone will learn differently because everyone will experience differently.
    • SOME DON’TS:
      • Don’t try to resist the effect that a workd of imaginative literature has on you. This is because imaginative literature allows us to escape to a deeper, greater, more profound reality. This kind of escapism is good.
      • Don’t look for terms, propositions and arguments in imaginative literure. Hence why cineforums of fiction filmes are senseless. If you can discuss an “argument” a film puts forward, it meanst it’s a film not worth watching and therefore you have wasted your time. Documentaries are different though. What does this mean for book clubs, like “The Inklings” say?
      • Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth that apply to knowledge, but by the standards of truth that apply to versimilitude and plausibility.
    • Q1: What kind of a book is it?
      • Reading Level: Inspectional
      • Stage: Systematic Skimming
      • Notes To Be Made: Structural Notes
      • Rules for the Stage
        • Rule 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
          • Look at the the title page and preface (seldom present in imaginative literature) - read quickly. Pigeonhole the book into a category: Is it lyric poetry? Epic poetry? Short story? Play?
          • Read the publisher’s blurb.
    • Q2: What is the book about, as a whole? What is the leading theme? What are the subordinate themes?
      • Reading Level: Inspectional
      • Stage: Superficial Reading
      • Notes To Be Made: Thematic/ Premise Notes. A kind of structural note that relates to the themes of the work.
      • qqRules for the Stage
        • Rule 2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
          • Done via Superficial Reading: “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without stopping to think about the things you don’t immediately understand.”
          • E.g. with Shakespeare - never stop to try and look up words/ language/ read footnotes and explanations on the first reading: read it through, quickly, in one sitting. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. If you read too slowly you lose the sense of unity, clarity and coherence.
          • Read it straight through without stopping. Try and do it in one sitting.
          • Speed reading: the ideal is to be able to read at different speeds.
          • Express/ grasp the unity of the whole work by formulating the plot in a sentence or two.
    • Q3: What is the structure of the book? What are its parts?
      • Reading Level: Inspectional.
      • Stage: Interpretive Reading
      • Notes To Be Made: Thematic
      • Rules for the Stage
        • Rule 3. Outline the progressions of character behaviour and emotional relationships over time.
        • Rule 4. Define the question or questions that the author is posing about an emotion, society, a certain time period, characters and relationships.
          • Examples of questions. Substitute “something” or “it” with “love”, or “envy” or “friendship” or “whatever other theme.” Does something exist? What kind of thing is it? What caused it to exist, or under what conditions can it exist, or why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its charateristic properties, its typical traits? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or of a different sort? What does it look like? What shape can it take in this circumstance, or that other circumstance, or with this character and situation, or that other character and situation.”
    • Q4: What is being said in detail, and how?
      • Reading Level: Analytic…
      • Stage: Interpretive Reading
      • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual Notes
      • Rules for the Stage
        • Rule 5. Familiarize yourself with the characters and their thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
          • In imaginative literature, the ideas, propositions, arguments and assertions are the characters and their throughts, feelings, speeches and actions.
        • Rule 6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

        • Rule 7. Know the author’s arguments , by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences, of sentences.
            1. Become at home in the imaginary world, be as one more there, shed your skin and step in. Consent to the lawys of their sociery, breathe its air, taste its food, travel its highways.
                1. Follow their adventures and recount in your own workds the key incidents and events in which the characters are involved.
        • Rule 8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
    • Q5: Is the book true, in whole or in part?
      • Reading Level: Analytic
      • Stage: Critical Reading
      • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual
      • Rules for the Stage The Rules of Intellectual Etiquette when Posing Criticism.
        • Rule 9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your intepretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgement, until you can say “I understand.”)
          The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
          • Rule 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
            The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
            • When an analysis is incomplete, it means the author has either:
              • Not solved the problem he set out to solve.
              • Hasn’t seen all the implications and ramifications of what he is stating.
              • Failed to make distincitions that are relevant to the undertaking.
              • Didn’t take the full opportunity of his materials.
          • Rule 14. Show wherein the author is illogical.
            The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
            • This means that certain propositions do not follow on from each other (non sequitur) or are inconsitent.
          • You cannot really be a demanding, active reader if you shirk the responsibility of judging a book.
          • It’s a sign of true teachability to critique ANY book so long as you understand it first and can demonstrate said understanding. Critiquing means agreeing, disagreeing or suspending judgement, not only disagreeing, as is commonly understood.
          • Before passing judgement on a book, make sure you are aware of the author’s previous works that he or she may be basing their current thinking on. Make sure that you fully understand that previous work first.
        • Rule 10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
          The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
          • When you disagree, do so reasonably. Truth, not winning an argument, is what matters.
        • Rule 11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make.
          The author lists this under the heading “General Maxims for Intellectual Etiquette”
          • Every disagreement is an opportunity for being taught, and all disagreements are remediable.
        • Rule 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
          The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
          • This means that certain relevant knowledge is missing - state it, and show the relevance thereof.
        • Rule 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
          The author lists this under the heading “Special Criteria for Points of Criticism”
          • This means that certain facts are put forward as being the case, when they are in fact not the case.
    • Q6: What of it? Why does the author think this important? If so, what are the next steps.
      • Reading Level: Analytic/ Synotopical
      • Stage: Critical Reading
      • Notes To Be Made: Conceptual/ Dialectical
      • Rules for the Stage.
        • The author doesn’t explicitly state rules for this stage. Implicitly though, as contained in various parts of the book, they are:
        • Rule 14. If you agree with the book, then you need to either change your thinking around the subject (if it’s a theoretical book), or change your praxis (if practical).
    • LEVEL 2: INTERPRETIVE READING. This involves interpreting a book’s contents by asking the following questions: “What is being said in detail, and how? What are the ideas, propositions, arguments and assertions?”
    • LEVEL 3: CRITICAL READING. This involves criticising a book as a communication of an experience, by asking the following questions: “Is the book plausible, in whole or in part? Does it satifsy mind and heart? Do I appreciate the beauty of the work?
      • Don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.
    • SUGGESTIONS FOR READING STORIES: Read them as fast as possible, so you can enjoy the unity of the experience.
    • SUGGESTIONS FOR READING PLAYS:
      • Once you’ve done a structural reading of a play, try to direct it in your mind’s eye. Tell the actors how to play what scenes, what came before, what’s coming after, what their motivation is, how this is all building to the climax, of the scene, the sequence, the story.
      • When reading Shakespeare, read it out aloud in the tough bits that are hard to understand.
    • SUGGESTIONS FOR READING POETRY:
      • Read through in one sitting, without stopping.
      • Read it again, but aloud.
    • My Critique of the Book
      • The Author sometimes mixes up Inspectional Reading with Analytical reading. For the most part, he places the questions to do with the structure of the book under the heading “Inspectional”, though in the listing of rules, he places it under “Analytical reading”.
      • That is the only “correction” I can offer to the author. Also, I would have made the book easier to read, by enumerating the chapters according to the questions that active reading requires. I have done this in my outline of the book.
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