How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
Moritmer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren do not disappoint in their book, How to Read a Book: A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, published by Touchstone, Revised 2011. The volume, on the whole, is systematic, methodical, cogent and thorough. The goal and purpose of their work are to give a set of principles to apply for levels of reading as well as ways to read various genres of literature. Divided evenly over four parts, Adler and Van Doren tackle their aims in this order:
Part 1: The Dimensions of Reading
Part 2: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading
Part 3: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter
Part 4: The Ultimate Goals of Reading
In several sections, the authors shed a unique light on the craft and art of reading. They accomplish this by beginning with a summary of the state of reading as an enterprise - one that has regressed at large. Because of this, there has arisen the need for classes to re-iterate and “catch up” readers that have been ill-equipped in high school. Their focus does not linger here, though, as they quickly move into the main focus of their book and this review, analytical reading.
This key section, The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading is comprised of excellent rules and methods for identifying the type of book the reader is engaging. Adler and Van Doren later expand upon this in their third section for Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading. Ironically, this is perhaps the kind of reading that is most needed to be enhance in the average reader’s repertoire, and if their summation of the state of reading is correct, is actually the level of reading needed to tackle their own work. If the casual reader picks up their book and reads merely inspectionally, or worse, they quickly “skim” the contents, they will miss the need for this book, altogether. Perhaps an unfortunate catch-22 critique of this present volume is that the skills they notice missing in reading at large, analytical reading, are needed to digest their own work. How much fault can we afford to lay on them? To meet the goals of the book, then, I would likely have to assign the book in smaller chunks with book discussions. Its strength, we might say, it also the book’s weakness. I want to assign this book as required reading for a class I might teach on Old Testament Literature at a secular college. But if the student cannot master this book, they will likely lack the discipline to master any.
The best points Van Doren and Adler make in their key sections following identifying a book are then in 1) x-raying a book 2) coming to terms with the author 3) determining an author’s message and 4) criticizing a book fairly. They do make more points than these, but these stand out. X-raying a book, for example, can be an incredibly fruitful process that saves the reader time in locating books he needs to read, and those he does not. I can already see the principles of outlining a book and locating its key unity as devices pivotal to this doctoral program. Simply finishing a book will not be enough, I am sure Van Doren and Adler would agree. Understanding a book thoroughly will save myself a great deal of pain in relocating quotes, key topic sentences, the thesis, and so forth if I can attend to the book with diligence. Room forbids me to comment on the others, but criticizing a book fairly is an important aspect that pivots on their previous point, “determining an author’s message.”
It would be beyond unfair to criticize an author on what he did not speak about if he never intended to. Thus, critique does not mean we necessarily say something negative about the author’s work, but about the summation of their work as it compares with their intent. If they did not accomplish what they set out to do, fault can be given to them (Adler & Van Doren, 91). My own extension of their rules in this section as a Christian is that if we cannot restate what an author says or means in a way that they will “own” then we are breaking the 9th commandment. This is not just a general principle tucked away in their book that we could easily forget, rather, I see it as key to all of reading, and as Christians, even more so for scripture.
Though my evaluation is interwoven in my synopsis of the germane portions of the book, I do have one point I would like to challenge regarding their accuracy. For example, under their heading for making a careful read of the book's title, they bring light to the fact that many people have mistaken the title of Charles Darwin’s famous work, The Origin of Species (Adler & Van Doren, 62). The point they make is that by incorrectly inserting the definite article “the” into the title, a mistake common to many, the meaning is altered and therefore so is the reader’s assumptions of its contents. The Origin of the Species is indeed different than The Origin of Species. While their point still stands, they actually mistake the name of the title for what is it popularly known as. The full title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. The contraction, “or” is not giving an alternate title like a tag “also known as,” but an alternate designation to understand its contents while still being part of the title. As they point out, authors of non-fiction do not do this in our modern era (Adler & Van Doren, 32). In which case, my quibble does not depart from their point. Attending to the details and skeleton of a book, from title, conclusion, chapter summaries and the table of contents, are the minimum moves a reader can make for understanding a book’s meaning and the author’s intent.
In all, this book is really quite good. I read many non-fiction books, and at times I forget how much non-fiction is “heavy lifting.” Authors are not always clear, their applications are not always pointed, and the utility is often lacking. But this book was none of those things, which make is a surprisingly easy, and immensely helpful book. I can see this book being best given to incoming freshman at a High School or College. It would also fair well in settings where their rules have been ignored and the level of reading people are engaging in is elementary, if at all. For my own part, I wish I had read this, and carefully, much earlier in my life. The additional worth that I could have attained from books would have shown this book’s worth in gold over and over again. I not only highly recommend it, I will be actively advocating for the principles of its content for my life.
One example they give is in how the table of contents of books have changed over the years. It was common for the table of contents to give the summary outlines of the argument so before you ever read the chapter, the reader knew what moves and points to expect. Mortimer Jerome Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 32.
Note: This review is adapted from an assignment at MBTS from the Fall of 2018.