Mortimer Adler on How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler is one of my favourite twentieth century philosophers. My encounter with his writings began with his best selling ‘How to Read a Book’ first published in 1940. Since then, (not in 1940) I have collected any book of his that I can get my hands on. My annual trip to Haye-on-Wye has Mortimer Adler on the top of my book list and many others are in my Amazon wish list. I wrote the following as a handout for a class I gave on ‘How to Read a Book’ and I reproduce it here for the benefit of all.

The rules below, although common sense, are given to promote active reading not only for information but for understanding.

 INSPECTIONAL READING

Stage 1

Look at the title and its preface. This is done so as to discover the aim of the book and its scope. Special care should be taken to note the subtitles and other indications. You should then place the book in an appropriate category in your mind with other books of the same nature.

Study the table of contents. This is analogous to reading a map before going on a trip. Many authors go to considerable effort creating the table of contents; it is a shame to see their efforts wasted.

Check the index. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and authors and books referred to. When you see something crucial, look it up in the cited pages. This should give you a sense of what you discovered in 1 and two above.

Read the publishers blurb. This most often is a summary of the main points of the book.

At this stage you may decide if you want to read the book more carefully, or not read it at all.  

Stage 2

Turn through the pages sparingly, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages. Never more than that. Thumbing through the book likewise is analogous to placing your hand on the pulse of the book. Most important are the last few pages of the book.

The above process should take a few minutes, an hour at most. This is what we mean by active reading. How many times have you daydreamt through reading several pages and then discovering that you haven’t understood anything at all? Doing the above minimises this risk.

Read the book superficially. Meaning do not try to understand every word or every page of the book the first time. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be ready to read it well the second time.

Four questions a reader asks.

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 part?

4] What relevance does it have?

These four questions are the obligations of a reader. They apply to anything from a book, article to an advertisement.  

Using a pencil and highlighter are also useful tools to underline major points, using stars or asterisks, numbers to indicate sequence of points, numbers of other pages to indicate where else the same point has been made, writing questions or answers on the page.

The best way to increase your reading speed is to keep a pencil and sweep it across a line faster that it is comfortable for your eye to keep up with. Force yourself to keep up with the pointer. You will soon be able to read the words as you follow your pencil. Practising this and gradually increasing your speed will double or treble your reading speed.

However, our point is that the ideal is not to be able to read faster but to be able to read at different speeds, and to know when different speeds are appropriate. As it might have saved you time but does it increase comprehension? Comprehension does not simply mean regurgitating facts but implies deeper questions that are pre-requisites for analytical reading. 

 

ANALYTICAL READING

Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. You must know if you are reading a novel, a poem, or an expository textbook like hidayat al-Nahw.

State what the whole book is about in utmost brevity. Every book has a skeleton hidden underneath it. Your job is to find it by using x-ray eyes. To do so is to discover the theme or main point of the book. This should be in a few sentences or at most a short paragraph. See appendix 1.

Write the major parts of the book in order and relation and summarise this as you have summarised the whole. In the above rule you state the unity of the book. In contrast, here you state the parts of the book. A book is like a house, comprising many rooms which are independent in part in its decoration etc but they are also connected by stairways and corridors. Similarly, a book is an orderly arrangement of parts.

A formula for structuring this is as follows: the book is about so and so and such and such. The author accomplished this in four major parts. (1) The first part deals with such and such, the second with such and such, the third with such and such and fourth with such and such. (2) The first of these major parts is divided into three sections. The first considers x, the second considers y and the third z. (3) in the first section of the first part the author makes two points. The first is A and the second is B. And so forth.   

The degree of approximation of this formula varies with the character of the book and your purpose in reading it. Nonetheless, the underlying structure remains the same.

 Define the problems the author has tried to solve. The author starts with questions and then tries to answer them in the book. It is your job to find these questions if not explicitly stated by the author.

Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. Every author uses terms in specific ways. It is important to interpret the contents of the book to know what the author means by these terms. This task is twofold. The first to find the key words and the second to determine the meaning of these words.

Mark the most important sentences in the book and discover the premises that they contain. One must find the most important sentences in the book. These are sentences that contain the judgements on which his whole argument rests.

Know the authors arguments by constructing them out of sequences of sentences. Every argument contains premises and a conclusion. This rule asks you to enunciate what those premises and conclusions are.  

Determine which of the arguments the author has solved and which he has not; and of the latter which the author knew he had failed to solved. When you have reached this stage having done all of the above you may now feel reasonably sure that you have understood the book.

At this stage you can now answer the first two obligatory questions for a reader.

 

Do not begin criticism until you have completed the summary and interpretation. That is do not say I agree or disagree until you can say “I understand”.

Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. Winning the argument is not what is important. Some readers merely criticise for the sake of criticising. The important thing is to learn the truth.

Demonstrate that you recognise the difference between knowledge and personal opinion by presenting good reasons for criticism you make.

Show where the author is uninformed.

Show where the author is misinformed.

Show where the author is illogical.

Show where the author’s analysis is incomplete.

Appendix 1

Summary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

This is an account of the variation of living things during the course of countless generations and the way in which this results in new groupings of plants and animals; it treats both of the variability of domesticated animals and of variability under natural conditions, showing how such factors as the struggle for existence and natural selection operate to bring about and sustain such groupings; it argues that species are not fixed and immutable groups, but that they are merely varieties in transition from a less to a more marked and permanent status, supporting this argument by evidences from extinct animals found in the earth’s crust, and from comparative embryology and anatomy.

Bibliography

Adler, M. J. & Doren, V. D. (1972). How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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6 Comments

  1. JazakAllah khayr Shaykh, a gem of a post! Only if I had read this during my uni years… would have saved quite a bit of time! lol

    I do have an humble request: if time permits, how about a slightly more detailed post covering the rules of argumentation briefly but more the ettiquetes of disputation with for example non-Muslims and how to respond to those who become abusive, or whether we should respond at all and when should one should stop his discussion and remain silent. I remember reading something by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (rahimahulla) on this topic a while ago.

    Reply

  2. Dear Shaykh,

    JazakAllah khayr for the most helpful post. I have often wondered what the best methods are for approaching books, for my own reading I feel is at times less effectual than it can, and should be. I hope to use this as a guide from now onwards, and may perhaps pick up Mortimer Adler’s book time permitting.

    Regards,

    Luth

    Reply

  3. JazakAllah for the post.

    A question that arises if you could please answer it, it would be much appreciated.
    When reading a text where the author has made a reference to someone elses work or a footnote or such as in the post reference to an appendix. Should the reader continue reading and look at the appendix later or stop reading and look at the appendix then continue reading?
    Also would it be possible to post something on speed reading?

    JazakAllah
    Salaam

    Reply

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comments. I have read Tony Buzan’s ‘Speed Reading’ and it requires a lot of practise to be able to get to the pace that he posits. The best thing that works for me however, is to make an initial differentiating judgement; what requires a fast read from what does not. Too many a time I have seen people who read texts too quickly that ought to be read slowly, and those who read too slowly what shoud be read quickly. Therefore, I would advise that comprehension is the underlying factor in deciding what should only be skimmed and what should be thoroughly mastered. The method that best works for me is the one referred to above by following the line on the page with a pencil by moving it a little too fast for your eyes and forcing yourslf to keep up with it. I have trebbled my reading speed as a result of this.

      As regards to footnotes, if they are crucial in understanding the main text they should be read at the their first encounter, but only if the footnotes are by the actual author of the book. If on the other hand they are footnotes by a commentator etc, they should be avoided in the first reading and only read on the second or third attempt. This is because reading them with the original text in the first reading may well influence your comprehension of it, and it most probably has misinterpreted the author. Therefore, reading the book firstly without extinsic aids like commentaries and footnotes will help you make your own mind about the book, and subsequently you may refer to the footnotes/commentaries to see what others have understood.

      These are my own views. Others are welcome to share theirs.

      Shazad

      Reply

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