How to Read a Book

Paul from Triablogue outlined Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s excellent book, “How To Read A Book.”

Be a demanding reader. Reading, if you’re going to learn anything or gain enlightenment, must be active. The more active the reader is, the better. The demanding reader should be asking these 4 questions of the book:

(1) What is the book about as a whole? This should be stated succinctly. (2) What is being said in detail and how? You should know the main assertions and arguments which constitute the author’s message (3) Is the book true in whole or in part? Once you have understood the book you are obligated to make a judgment regarding it. Make up your own mind. (4) What of it? Asking things like: (a) How should I then live in light of what I’ve learned? (b) What should I do with this knowledge?

A. Stage one: Rules for finding out what the book is about.

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. This is also referred to as pigeonholing a book. (a) Is it a poem, play, epic, work of philosophy or theology, history, science, etc.(b) Is it theoretical or practical.

2. Succinctly state what the book is about. That is, find the main theme or point of the book. You should be able to state this in a sentence, paragraph at most.

3. Outline the book. See this outline for an instantiation of this rule. Basically, you want to get at the bones of the book. The basic structure. The construction of the major themes and arguments.

4. Define the problem(s) the author has tried to solve. To see the unity of a book you need to know why it has the unity it has.

B. Stage two: Rules for interpreting the book’s content.

5. Coming to terms with the author.

6. Grasp the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

7. Find the author’s argument by finding them in the key sequences of sentences.

8. Find which problem(s) the author solved and which one’s he did not. If he did not, find out if he knows that he did not.

C. Stage three: Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge. You are required to criticize the book you read. You owe the author that. Criticize, or offering a judgment, does not necessarily mean that you disagree with the author. You can offer the judgment that you agree with him, you have learned something, and he has answered what he set out to. If you disagree, which is your right, be sure you have completed the above steps. You cannot critique that which you do not understand.

9. General maxims for intellectual etiquette.
10. Special criteria for points of criticism.

The above outline provides the rules and strategies required for reading well. Many folks are well read, not many read well.