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:
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true, in whole or in part?
- 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:
- Vertical lines at the margins
- Star, asterisk, or other doodad at the margin (use sparingly)
- Numbers in the margin
- Numbers of other pages in the margin
- Circling of key words or phrases
- 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:
- You must know the kind of book you’re reading
- State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences
- Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole…”
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.