Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How to Read A Book, or The More You (Don’t) Know

Written by: on September 8, 2016

I have to admit I was less than thrilled about the prospect of reading How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren for the first book of my doctoral studies. It just seemed odd. At this point in my academic career, reading a book about how to read seemed a little redundant. When I mentioned this to a few friends, many told me they read the book in undergraduate classes and found it to be “a complete waste of time.” Great. How would a book that undergraduate students found less than helpful move me to the next level in my own work? I am glad, however, that I trusted that this book was assigned for a reason and chose to engage the text with purpose. What I found is that reading How to Read a Book affirmed for me the old adage, “The more you learn, the less you know.” Things in this book that would have seemed pointless earlier in my educational journey now feel a bit like pure gold that I have needed all along but only appreciate in hindsight.

It makes sense to me that undergrad students who consider themselves to be good readers might view this book as a waste of time. Much of the book provides simple, common sense suggestions and explanations for the various levels of reading that may feel elementary to people who are confident in their skills. Adler and Van Doren, however, not only give these refreshers, but systematically explain the four levels of reading (Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, Synoptical), giving hints and suggested techniques for performing each level well. As I read through these hints and techniques, I found myself thinking how I wish I had read this book before doing research for my master’s thesis. Suggestions that I might have found patronizing in writing at the undergraduate level, I now realize are keys that can unlock the texts we will be reading for our doctoral coursework and that I will be using for my research. Even seemingly simple tips such as paying close attention to what you can learn from the title of a book (61-64) or being able to say what the whole book is about in one sentence (75-76), I now see as useful for classifying and organizing research.

The greatest jewel of this book is the section concerning the fourth level of reading, which is Synoptical Reading. Synoptical reading is the level used in pulling together academic research. Synoptical reading encompasses and builds on the other three levels, but involves bringing together multiple texts that support a project. At any other point in my academic journey I would have completely glossed over this section as something simple the authors are making too complex. I now understand that there is nothing simple about culling the vast amounts of reading available to find those important works that not only address a research topic, but to align with the specific questions being addressed in the project. Adler and Van Doren provide a method for Synoptical reading that is a powerful tool for research. Following their steps, research material can be discovered, organized, and addressed.

As we move forward, I look forward to dusting off some of the skills that I had let lapse before reading Adler’s and Van Doren’s reminders. I also find that I am actually excited to try my hand at following their recommended steps to reading synoptically while researching my dissertation. All in all, I am grateful that with greater learning comes the humility to realize that I do not know nearly as much as I thought I knew early on in this journey.


Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).

About the Author

Kristin Hamilton

7 responses to “How to Read A Book, or The More You (Don’t) Know”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Enjoyed reading your post Kristin! “Things in this book that would have seemed pointless earlier in my educational journey now feel a bit like pure gold that I have needed all along but only appreciate in hindsight.” Great point!

  2. Chip Stapleton says:

    Thanks for the post Kristin. Completely agree that at an earlier point in my life or ‘academic career’ I would have completely missed the value of this book.
    If I am honest, I still found it slow and kind of dull, but in the way that important, fundamental things often are.
    I, too imagine that I will be referring to this several times over the next couple of years.

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Kristin. Thanks for your candor. I must admit that this book was tedious for me. It only really took off for me in part 3. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  4. Lynda Gittens says:

    Kristen you are not alone. There is always a purpose I tell myself of why the professors assigned books I have been out of seminary for 5 years. Getting back into the heavy load of reading was not number one on my list but I know it is apart of the process. One thing I did enjoy was that many of the books encouraged my indepth reading of the scriptures.

  5. I enjoyed your simple yet concise definition of Synoptical reading and I agreed with your opening feelings of the book. Like your’s, my feelings evolved to one of appreciation as I look forward to applying some of these strategies to my research.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    I really liked how he provided a clear methodology for Synoptical reading. I found it refreshing to review the various ways we engage in reading. This book is definitely a great reference for us as we begin researching and writing our dissertation.

  7. Katy Lines says:

    I’m returning to school along with my son, who just began his freshman year at college. As I read your reflections, I am struck by my son’s brazen sense of his own ability to grasp and communicate a topic (of course, he is amazing, says the mom in me). Whereas I am much more prepared to say “the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.” If my son were to read this book now, he would probably see it as pedantic. Yeah for the “older and wiser”!

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