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

How to Read a Book When You Already Know How to Read

Written by: on September 8, 2016

When I saw that Adler’s and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book was listed as part of our course reading, it brought to mind an encounter I had when I first read the book several years ago. While I was reading the book on a park bench, a man came up to me and said, “That’s funny, you’re reading a book on how to read a book. Don’t you know how to read already?” I chuckled and said, “Yes, I know how to read.” However, as I read the book, I realized that there was a whole other level of reading of which I was not aware. On this read it became even more clear that there is “reading,” and then there is “reading to learn.” The latter is the level that Adler and Van Doren espouse in their book. They call it “active reading.”

According to the authors, “active reading” is different from passive reading in its goal. The goal of “active reading” is not entertainment or even general knowledge, though both are a part of the equation. The goal of “active reading” is to guide the reader, “to pass from understanding less to understanding more by [one’s] own intellectual effort….” (P. 8) How to Read a Book is the “how to” book for those who what to know how to read for the purpose of learning.

One of the foundational premises of the book is that every book has a message. An active reader looks for the message of the book. They then proceed to seek out the authors supporting arguments and logical structure. This process leads the reader to the point where they must acknowledge either agreement or disagreement with the writer’s message. The reader should base the decision on the author’s argument, supporting structure and ultimate conclusion and not on emotion or feeling. In either case, the reader must act on the new knowledge. Without action, the process of active reading is not complete. The activity has some similarities to the process of determining authorial intent when studying the Scriptures.

Throughout the 21 chapters, Adler and Van Doren delineate the necessary steps for active reading. At the very beginning of the book, the authors highlight what they consider to be the four levels of reading. The four levels are: Elementary Reading—the basic ability to read with understanding; Inspectional Reading—skimming the book for general content, order and structure; Analytical Reading—deep reading for understanding the author’s intent; Synoptical Reading—an analysis of reading across a whole spectrum of books, leading to a new way of understanding or a discovery that was not in any specific book. (P. 16-19) In the remainder of the book, the authors explain how to apply the attributes of the four reading levels to different classes of books, from novels, plays and poems, to history, science and mathematics. The authors acknowledge that the process is grueling but necessary—“the more active reading is, the better it is.” (P. 328)

Though Adler and Van Doren do not specifically address a leadership application for their thesis, there is relevance none the less. For example, it is not a stretch to carry this simple quote over into the realm of organizational leadership. “A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts.” (P. 77) Like a good book and a good house, a good organization has structure and continuity that enables it to have a precise, logical and measured purpose. Additionally, the very premise of the book (active reading) lends itself to leadership application, especially in the realm of critical thinking. A good leader reads situations actively, quickly and accurately. They must be able to understand the message and arguments of the situation and formulate their structured plans and arguments based on that read. This then leads to a declaration that will convince and help people to move to action.

To conclude, How to Read a Book is an excellent book to begin the DMin course of study. The active reading technique and the book in general will serve as helpful resource and manual for the journey ahead and the many books to follow.

About the Author

Jim Sabella

16 responses to “How to Read a Book When You Already Know How to Read”

  1. Katy Lines says:

    Good connection between active, critical reading and organizational leadership skills. I’m curious how you think those connections might carry over into the syntopical reading?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks Katy. I appreciate the kind comment and the question. I’m always cautious about stretching the connection too far, from the context of the book. In any case to answer your question—and this is my opinion based on experience and not research—unless I am misunderstanding the true nature of synoptical reading, the ability to read synoptically is the same ability a leader uses to make informed decisions. After evaluation of the situation, they draw from multiple sources/experiences to come up with unique solutions for unique circumstances. I think that’s problem solving at a higher level. It is in this way that, “How to Read” bridges the academic process to real world solutions. Critical thinking, active and synoptical reading all merging in the real world where we develop unique solutions for life’s unique circumstances.
      Again, my opinion based on experience and not research. I welcome hearing from you or others who might not agree. I enjoy the discussion.

      • Katy Lines says:

        Yes, Jim, that is what I imagined/hoped you’d say regarding the practical connection to leadership. Like you said, connections & metaphors only go so far, yet the link between syntopical reading and leaders sourcing from multiple people/experiences to solve problems seems like a strong connection.

  2. Yes, I liked the house analogy too. Nice summary.

  3. Mary Walker says:

    I appreciate how you connected the lessons to how we study the Scriptures. Important for us to remember as we learn to think critically.

  4. Chip Stapleton says:

    Jim, I think you do a good job of highlighting that the system can be applied to other areas – the leadership connection is a good one (it’s also dangerous….I know I am often tempted to quickly put a person or a conversation on ‘skim’)


    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks Chip. I agree. It takes work to listen too.

    • Katy Lines says:

      Ooh, Chip, that connection hurts. “Skimming” people/conversations like we do a book– that is easy to do. Anticipating what they’re going to say next, preparing for what my response to them will be. Skipping the listening part. Nice (and convicting) connection.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    So you have read this book before. Your posting made me wonder at points was I reading the same book. The author lost me when they integrated their selected books into the writing. I began to quickly skim through. I look forward to your postings as an encouragement to keep reading. Thank you for your incite.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Jim I liked your leadership application of Adler. It was a great reminder of how important those key points in this book relate to how we engage with the world as great leaders. 🙂

  7. Thank you, Jim, for the correlation between this book and leadership! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes good sense. Maybe you should write a book called, “How to Be a Leader When You’re Already a Leader.” 🙂

  8. Jim Sabella says:

    Great idea! Thanks Kristin.

Leave a Reply