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.