DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I Thought I Knew How to Read a Book

Written by: on October 5, 2017

I remember my father recommending this book to me when I went to college, 20 years ago. I did not read it, then. I thought it was oddly titled to begin with, a play on words, to be sure, but logically impossible to be of any assistance. “If I needed to know how to read a book, then I would not be able to read Adler’s book,” I thought. “But if I were able to read Adler’s book, then I must not need it, and therefore, I shall render it useless.” Truth be told, I could hardly get myself to read the books I had to read for class. No way could I get myself to read an optional book about how to read the books I don’t want to read anyway. Such was my attitude at 18 years of age! Truth be told again, I could have really benefited from this book, had I taken the time to mine it for it’s useful and relevant nuggets.

This book will serve as a reference for me throughout this program, as I am confident that I will turn to it for help when I am looking to either categorize a book or when I encounter a large work that will require (probably for the sake of time) a more skillful reading of that genre.

Adler’s, How to Read a Book can be helpful to any serious reader in three ways. First, the opening chapters provided a comprehensive overview of the various goals and purposes of reading, along with an overview of the various levels of reading. One could spend an hour and read those chapters alone and find transformation in her reading almost immediately. For the person who has neither read this book nor has been taught various approaches to reading, this book prevents a paralysis that any reader might experience if her only way to read a book is cover to cover.

This, therefore, is the author’s intended purpose of the book: to equip readers with the capacity to effectively read larger quantities of various genres of books in limited amounts of time. The author makes clear that this is not simply “speed reading.” In fact, Adler argues that speed reading in the way that it is usually taught in speed-reading courses—as simply a technique of reading at a higher rate—does nothing helpful for comprehension, and therefore is only rarely helpful. Adler writes: “With regard to rates of reading, then, the ideal is not merely to be able to read faster, but to be able to read at different speeds” (loc. 714 kindle).

The second value of this book for the serious reader includes the very practical tools for the reader’s toolbox. Side note: Adler gives instruction for how to increase the rate of reading concise enough to not need to waste time or money on a speed-reading course. For me, I found interest in the four questions the author suggests the reader should ask about any book:

  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?” (the question of significance)

(loc: 861 kindle)

Another set of useful tools is Adler’s seven ways to intelligently mark a book:

  1. Underlining
  2. Vertical lines at the margins
  3. Star, asterisk, or other doodad at the margin (use sparingly)
  4. Numbers in the margin
  5. Numbers of other pages in the margin
  6. Circling of key words or phrases
  7. Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page

(loc. 865 kindle).

The third value of Adler’s “How to Read a Book” is the depth in which the author described how to effectively read the main genres of books most readers will encounter. In this way, the book will serve as a resource to pull off the shelf in order to review a book’s genre before reading the book. For instance, when I finally choose to sit down to begin reading Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” (something which is on my bucket list but not in the next ten years), I will turn to Adler’s rules for analytical reading:

  1. You must know the kind of book you’re reading
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences
  3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole…”

(loc. 979-1,240)

I will also review the chapter on how to read philosophy, but I won’t find much as much help as the beginning student of theology from the section “A Note on Theology,” though I did appreciate his brief summary of the distinctive of natural and dogmatic theology.

It turns out that the title of the book is appropriate in that it first calls out the false assumption of the reader: that just because you can read a book cover to cover, does not mean you know how to truly read a book. Again, this book is valuable in three ways. First, the opening chapters provide enough of a comprehensive overview that alone can transform a novice reader’s ability to step into a higher level of reading. Second, the book provides a multitude of practical tools for the reader’s toolbox. Third, the book serves as an excellent reference for a thorough review on every major genre.


About the Author

Chris Pritchett

9 responses to “I Thought I Knew How to Read a Book”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Chris!

    Wow, your dad must be brilliant. He was a man ahead of his time to recommend the reading of this book. It made me wonder if he studied for his doctoral degree?

    I support your writing and thoughts about this book helping us read better certain types of books, or as you put it, “genres.” That part was helpful to me, and to be honest, I almost ice skated past the genre descriptions that I am not interested in. Please don’t tell Dr. Jason (grin).


  2. david says:

    Thanks for this post. So, I’m interested in how your “active measures” for reading (like underlining, starring, etc) work out when using a kindle. This is a serious question (not snarky, even though I am a physical book person myself). Do you do a separate list or place for notes, ideas, and quotes? Maybe having to do something more intentional like that will actually drive your engagement with the reading. Just wondering 🙂

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      I’m chiming in here because I have become an avid Kindle user…moving over seas, and then the cost of shipping English books to France has sort of driven me to depend on Kindle. (I also like that it’s more environmentally friendly and that I can easily travel with hundreds of books at a time). But I’ve also adapted to the highlight and note-taking features so much so that I’m starting to prefer Kindle for academic reading. Everything I highlight gets stored together, so that I can pull up all my highlighted passages in one place. Same with any notes I make using the notes feature. If I want to quote a book in a research paper, I can copy and paste the citation into Word, and the footnote information comes up automaticially. And If I need to find a passage, I can easily do so by plugging a word or phrase into the the search function.

      When reading for pleasure…when NO highlighters would be involved, I still prefer a real book.

    • Chris Pritchett says:

      Hey Dave- I don’t really know. I’m not all that skilled at it. But this time I highlighted and took notes – I use the kindle app on my iPad – and was able to pull up a stored compilation of all my highlights and notes, and that was cool. I have also found the Dictionary app helpful–it’s so easy to look up words on the spot, which I need to do quite regularly.

  3. mm M Webb says:


    Hey from the Middle East! I thought you did a fine job digesting and then critiquing Adler and Van Doren’s book. I used Kindle to read, scan, and review. I like the word search feature on the electronic format.

    Also, thanks for your compassionate and responsive FB Post on Dallas. I am especially proud of you for “calling out” the evil one as the responsible created being who inspired those horrific acts of violence.

    Adler says that we should be just as critical when reading about current events (243). I commend you for your analytical review, which pointed you to the source. Thanks for pointing us to the “One” solution that Paul gives his metaphor about, Jesus Christ.

    Stand firm,

    M Webb

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    I had forgotten the important suggestion that utilizing varying speeds of reading would provide significant benefit to the reader. In pushing through seminary over the past 3 years I just trained myself to read quickly and digest what I deemed would be necessary material for getting through a given course. Unfortunately, that means much of the material is lost to me now. (Which might have as much to do with age as it does with reading ability.)

    I 2nd Dave’s question to you and address your earlier question to me. I am not sure how Adler/Van Doren would approach kindle books. They are valuable in so many respects but there is certainly something lost in the connection I feel with them. However, using them may be a useful means of demystifying books and taking a slightly more utilitarian approach as suggested in their synoptical reading.

    I think you distilled the essence of the book well and clearly have been applying much of its material without even knowing you were doing so.

  5. Hey Chris, great post. I have to say I would have had the same response at 18 if my dad suggested I read this book. Seemed too elementary and silly, but like you, I agree with the amazing practical nature of the book and I appreciated you pulling out the helpful tools and listing them in your blog for all of us to easily reference back to. I sure did enjoy my time with you in Cape Town and so glad you are close enough to hopefully connect with in the near future. Just know you and your wife have two huge fans on the other side of the state.

  6. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Chris, I appreciate your synopsis and outlining of major questions as a reference blog as a researcher and reader. Since you are reading on a kindle as well, I too am interested in Dave and Dan’s questions. I am liking my new kindle alright but am missing my old school print version.

    Also, I wonder, now that you have read this text, how would you ‘state the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences’?

    Oh, and thank you for your gender inclusive language.

  7. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Trisha, thanks for your question. I think I would answer that by referring you to the first sentence of my fourth paragraph where I state the author’s purpose. I think the author’s purpose is where the unity is found. “This, therefore, is the author’s intended purpose of the book: to equip readers with the capacity to effectively read larger quantities of various genres of books in limited amounts of time.” I’m curious how you would state the unity of the book as well…I will get to your post soon!

Leave a Reply