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

Reading To Be A Good Reader

Written by: on September 2, 2015

The book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book, definitely qualifies as a “how to” book, and it has many practical helps. After reading it, I have a new appreciation for how challenging it must be to write such a volume without making it feel like a Saharan adventure.  Although the authors give many illustrations, large portions of the book felt very dry.

In spite of these comments, there really is practical help to be found within.

I find it helpful to accept that one goal of reading is to grow personally, as a benefit of learning from someone with superior knowledge in a particular discipline. An author instructs in an area of their expertise and the good reader comes to a book in same way one would enter a classroom in order to hear a lecture and learn. The mind grows by moving from understanding less to understanding more. In order to help their readers become better readers Adler and Van Doren discuss levels of reading and stages of learning to read well.

As I read through this book, I realized that I already owned, and had in fact read a good bit of it about four decades ago. This epiphany came in the middle of the recommendation that the place to begin with a book is first to do overview type reading: to read the title, table of contents, dust-cover comments, preface, etc. In fact, I recalled an occasionally used phrase; “to ‘Adlerize’ a book.” The “verbizing” of Adler’s name encourages this practice of overview reading. It is helpful to get this big picture ‘feel’ for the book before reading the whole volume.

I appreciate the challenge that reading WELL requires reading ACTIVELY. This means the reader works at and with certain processes and questions in order to fully understand a book. Adler gives a number of rules to help this procedure. The suggested questions and rules can jump-start the mind in order to BE active while reading, and they provide a structure for disciplined reading.

The rules and questions provided will help the reader analyze and better understand a given book, and will help to develop the skill to compare different books written in the same area of study. I think this last skill of comparative, or “Syntopical Reading,” may be a major reason we are assigned to read Adler at the outset of our D. Min. Studies. We are being asked to read many books in our courses, and of course this comparative reading will be particularly necessary in developing a dissertation.

I must be honest, however, and say that the system is cumbersome enough (four active questions and fifteen rules for analytical before arriving at syntopical reading) that it will require discipline to apply all the analytical questions when reading a book. I have printed a list of the questions and rules, and have them on my book stand in order to refer to them easily.

The principles and practices presented in How to Read a Book are worthy of our serious consideration and engagement, so if you’re interested being a GOOD reader, strap on your CamelBak water pack and venture into How to Read a Book.

About the Author


Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

6 responses to “Reading To Be A Good Reader”

  1. Claire Appiah says:

    You are to be commended for making an immediate and direct application of what you have gleaned from Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book, How to Read a Book. I read this book about five years ago, but I did not retain too much of the information because at that time there was no necessity for its application academically. You have a fantastic idea on how to keep these teachings vivid in your mind and readily accessible for application. This is a concept I can definitely incorporate into my DMIN study/research program. This is a serious book for the serious reader and writer who want to excel in their endeavors.

  2. Hi Marc. Love the desert metaphor. I totally agree. One thing that really helped me make it through this desert was the fact that even the authors see their rules and steps as an “ideal” and not all that realistic for most readers. Sometimes for me, working through certain books forces me into survival mode. I am happy to know though, that even in deserts, there are new discoveries.

  3. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Dare we think about Jesus returning from the wilderness in the power of the Spirit?
    Ok – that’s not really a serious comment.

  4. Can you send me the lists that you have compiled from this book? Or even better can you post them here on this page so that I can handily have your knowledge? Your time creating them is so valuable that I would like to save some of my limited time to acquire those. Please!

    It was a bit dry for sure but a manual that explains anything is going to be that way until you need it to make a change or to move forward. I take this book that way. As a technical manual that I know where the information is stored when I need it in greater detail.

    Looking forward to this journey and getting to know you.


  5. mm Marc Andresen says:

    There’s nothing special or creative about the list – but here it is:

    How to Read a Book

    Active Reading – 4 questions to ask:
    -What is the book about as a whole? Observation-what does it say?
    -What is being said in detail, and how? What are the assertions and arguments? What is meant?
    -Is the book true, in whole or in part? Interpretation – what does it mean to me?
    -What of it? What are the implications? Application – What I am going to do about it.

    Rules for reading a book

    Stage 1 – Finding what a book is about – chapters 6 and 7 – Summary p. 95
    Rule 1: Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
    Rule 2: State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. State the unity of the book.
    Rule 3: Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. The major parts of the book, and how these are organized into a whole.
    Rule 4: Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

    Stage 2 – Interpreting a book’s contents Chapters 8 and 9 – Summary p. 136
    Rule 5 Come to terms with author by interpreting key words
    Rule 6 Mark important sentences & grasp leading propositions through the important sentences
    Rule 7 Locate and know basic arguments, finding them in connection of sentences (paragraphs).
    Rule 8 What are the author’s solutions? Which problems were solved and which not.

    Stage 3 – Criticizing the book as a communication of knowledge – Chapters 10 and 11
    A. General Maims of Intellectual Etiquette
    Rule 9 Don’t criticize without completing and understanding (outline and interpretation)
    Rule 10 Don’t disagree contentiously
    Rule 11 Show (how) to recognize difference between knowledge and personal opinion by good reason: for critical judgements.
    B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism
    Rule 12 Show where author is uninformed
    Rule 13 Show where author is misinformed
    Rule 14 Show where author is illogical
    Rule 15 Show where author’s analysis is incomplete.Chapter 20 – Syntopical Reading

    I. Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading
    1. Crate a tentative bibliography…use library catalogues…bibliographies…
    2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to determine which are germane to the subject.
    NB – These 2 steps aren’t chronological – they affect each other, with the 2nd serving to modify the fist.

    II. Syntopical Reading
    1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage 1 in order to find the most relevant passages.
    2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all…can be interpreted as employing…
    3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers…
    4. Define the issues, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.
    5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.

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