“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

Chapter 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

“Successful communication occurs in any case where what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader’s possession. “

This book is for readers who seek understanding through books. Adler mentions many times that since reading is an activity, it must be active. To truly read, one needs to try to understand everything on thy own. Reading is learning from an absent teacher which means that you must answer your questions on your own.

When one reads a book one of these two things happen:

1.)    Either you understand everything perfectly

2.)    You understand enough to know that you don’t understand it at all —˃ Hence what you are reading contains something that will increase your understanding.

Conditions necessary for reading in order to gain understanding:

1.)    Initial inequality in understanding: someone must possess insights that the other lacks.

2.)    The reader must overcome this inequality when equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.

  • Adler defines learning as: understanding more.
  • Facts increase information
  • Insights increase understanding
  • Enlightenment is achieved when besides knowing what the author says, you know what he means and why he says it.
  • Sophomores: term used by the Greeks to describe wisdom morons or misreaders of books which means that they never got the message the author was trying to give them.

Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading

1st level of reading: Elementary reading/ basic reading literacy:

  • Learned in elementary school
  • The question to ask oneself at this level of literacy is: “What does the sentence say?”

2nd level of reading: Inspectional reading

  • Given a certain amount of time, get the most out of the book.
  • The question to ask oneself at this level of reading is “What is the book about?” and “What is the structure of the book?”
  • **“We shouldn’t be achieving superficial knowledge of a book at the same time that we are trying to understand it” We should examine the book first and then read it in order to gain understanding. **

3rd level of reading: Analytical reading

  • The best and most complete reading given unlimited time.
  • Ask questions of what one is reading.
  • Francis Bacon said “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”
  • In this level of reading people chew and digest books.
  • It is only for the sake of understanding.

4th level of reading: Syntopical reading:

  • Most complex and systematic.
  • This reader compares one book with another and with other stuff.
  • The syntopical reader is able to construct understanding that is in none of his books. This means that the reader is constantly thinking and questioning himself while reading a book, this leads him to make connections and to gain understanding that is not in the book.

Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

There is a lot of concernment with world-literacy and diverse ways to teach how to read have developed. Dominating at the beginning and lately is the ABC learning method.

  • We need to master the elementary reading in order to start learning.
  • Most of or a lot of students don’t know how to read or don’t dominate the art of reading.
  • Only “individual desire, ability and need” will take Americans to a higher and necessary stage of reading.

Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

Systematical skimming or pre-reading.

  • The main aim of doing this is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading or not.
  • It tells you lots of things about a book.
  • Looking at the cover, reading the preface, looking at the table of contents and the index can give you a pretty good idea of what the book is about.
  • Look at the chapters that seem important to its argument and if they have summary statements in their opening and closing, read them.
  • Read the end of the book because many authors summarize it at the end.
  • Look through the pages
  • 2nd inspectional/superficial reading:

–          Read throughout the book without bothering on the things that you don´t understand, focusing on the things that you know for sure. “Don´t miss the forest for the trees”

–          Vary your speed at reading while reading different things

  • Trick to read faster: placing your thumb and first two fingers together and pointing them across a line. Push your eyes to keep up with your hand´s movement. It helps you to concentrate more and pay more attention

Chapter 5: How to be a demanding Reader

Good books deserve a fine reading because we expect repayment from them

  • 4 questions that should be asked while not reading fiction:

-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 of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things?

  • The importance of writing on a book: it keeps people awake, writing things down helps us remember our own and the author´s thoughts.
  • It takes a lot of practice and it is hard to learn to read.


Chapter 6: Pigeonholing a Book

  • You must know what kind of book you are reading before you begin to read. Do this by inspectional reading.
  • Look at the title and think about it
  • Knowing that and knowing how. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do. Practical books usually have titles such as “the art of” or “how to”
  • Rules of analytical reading:

RULE 1: Know what kind of book you are reading as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. (You shall do this by inspectional reading).

Practical Books Theoretical Books
Knowing how Knowing that
Teach you how to do something you want to do. Teach you that something is the case.
“the art of”, “how to”. Says “is” instead of “should”
Ethics, politics, engineering, business. Many times: law, economics and medicine. History, science, philosophy.

Chapter 7: X-raying a Book

  • RULE 2: State the unity of the whole book in one or in very few sentences.
  • RULE 3: Enumerate the major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  • RULE 4: Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
  • Discover the theme and main point, the essence of the book.
  • Making statements regarding the essence of a look in a few sentences or a paragraph. This is the main thing, what the author is trying to prove.
  • Adler suggests that we should make our own outlines of our readings, just like the writer did.

Chapter 8: Coming to terms with an author

“A term is the basic element of communicable knowledge”

  • Spot the words that trouble you, or that are mentioned many times or in the main statements. Then, try to define the meaning of a word by using the context or the other words the author is using.
  • Sometimes the author uses different words to represent one same term (it may be expressed by a phrase)
  • RULE 5: Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words and terms.

Chapter 9: Determining an Author’s Message

  • Throughout a book authors express propositions, one cannot make a judgment on what the writer is saying unless one recognizes the main proposition available in a book.
  • Connection to “The Trivium”: “You cannot begin to deal with terms, propositions, and arguments-the elements of thought- until you can penetrate beneath the surface of language.”
  • RULE 6: Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.
  • RULE 7: Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection or sentences.
  • Finding the key sentences: the most important ones are the ones we read slow, the ones shire we understand enough to know that we do not understand it at all.

–          The major affirmations and denials an author makes, and the reason he gives for doing so.

–          Not everything we read is equally important, that´s why we should read at different speeds.

  • The principal propositions belong to the main argument of the book. They must be premises or conclusions.
  • If one can state a proposition in his own words, it means that one knows or “understands” a certain proposition.
  • Words in propositions carry knowledge that we need to decodify.
  • Look out for certain sentences that carry propositions that form an argument.
  • Every line of argument starts with assumptions or self-evident propositions (neither the writer nor the reader can deny them). Some people call this proposition “tautologies”.
  • RULE 8: Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Chapter 10: Criticizing a book fairly:

“To regard anyone except yourself as responsible for your judgment is to be a slave, not a free man. It is from this fact that the liberal arts acquire their name.”

Reading is like having a dialogue, the only difference is that here; the reader has the last word. As readers, we owe authors a considered and just judgment, this means that we should suspend our assumptions, understand, and have grounds for disagreeing. Taking into account that: “There is no book so good that no fault can be found on it.”

Adler mentions that readers need to be responsible and responsible. In the end we are the only ones responsible and accountable for every one of our actions.



Most people think that winning an argument is more important than learning the truth.  Aristotle remarks in the Ethics “It would be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.” The only way in which we can win an argument is by gaining knowledge. Disagreement is worthless unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to a resolution of a problem or a fairer approximation of the truth. Adler makes a call on humility by saying that we have to take into account that in any conversation one can be taught.

 “We hold that knowledge can be communicated and that discussion can result in learning.”


 Chapter 11: Agreeing or disagreeing with an author:

The first thing we need to do is to understand the author, but sometimes saying “I don’t understand” is a critical remark to the sequence and logic of the author’s arguments. Real reading is about reaching significant agreement or disagreement with the author. Misinterpret disagreement is irrelevant.

Prejudice and Judgment: Reading is a discipline.

  1. Remember that we are rational, but also emotional. Acknowledge your feelings, and judge a book with sole reason.
  2. Be aware of yours and the author’s prejudices or assumptions.
  3. Don’t be blind, try to be as impartial as you can. Approach a book sympathetically!

Accusations you can make to the author: *the author must give reasons for saying what he does, and so do you when you disagree with him.*

  1. “You are uninformed”
  2. “You are misinformed”
  3. “You are illogical-your reasoning is not cogent”
  4. “Your analysis is incomplete”: The author hasn’t solved all the problems he started with, or has failed to see the big picture or other side of the problem.

*the third stage of analytical reading*

Chapter 12: Aids to Reading:

“It is best to do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help; for if you act consistently on this principle, you will find that you need less and less outside help. “

But, whenever you really don’t understand what a book is saying or part of it, after you have done your best according to all the rules presented before by Adler, you can ask for outside help or use the extrinsic reading (“any aid to reading that lies outside the book being read”.).

Four categories of extrinsic aids to reading:

  1. Relevant experiences: Are important because we judge if a book is true or false based on our previous experiences, no matter how common or special they are. This is also an important test on the reading you are doing: Ask yourself if you can supply concrete examples on what the author is saying. If you can, you can say that you understood the general point of the book, if not, you should re-read it.

Common Experience: is available to all men.

Special Experience: must be sought. E.x: work on a laboratory, a visit to “El Mirador” or the Moon.

  1. Other books: “Not only are many of the great books related, but also they are written in a certain order that should not be ignored. A later writer has been influenced by an earlier one.”-And also by what is happening at the time that they are writing it-, I’d like to add. Books are related to one another, great authors were great readers and so they were part of the conversation that now we can partake of. Chronology, for the same motives, is important while reading the Great Books.
  2. Commentaries and abstracts: There are to be used wisely and there is a rule in using them: “you should not read a commentary by someone else until after you have read the book. The problem with reading commentaries or summaries first, is that they bias your point of view and really shorten the understanding and enrichment you can get out of a book.
  3. Reference books: Are useless for people who know nothing. Adler gives us 4 things that we should now: 1) you must ask good questions, you must know what you want to know; 2) Know what kind of question you are asking and which of the reference books will answer that question; 3) You must know how to use a reference book, understand how the work is organized; and, 4) You must know that what you intend to know is considered knowledge (not moral questions or questions of the future).
    -Dictionary: Dictionaries are books about words, not things.  It is important to read the explanatory notes and list of abbreviations of the dictionary in order to fully grasp the meaning of words, or to answer to your question, in an ideal way.
    -Encyclopedia: Encyclopedias show purely facts, if you are able to connect this facts you gain understanding.


Chapter 13: How to Read Practical Books:

What is a practical book? Any book that contains rules-prescriptions, maxims, or nay sort of general directions-. With this said, there are two types of practical books: 1)Present rules, whatever other discussion they contain is for the sake of the rules. 2)Principles that generate rules. E.x. books of economics, politics or morals.

The advice on asking questions while you read is applied to every kind of book. So Adler gives us 4 questions that help us understand what the authors of practical books are saying. The first two are the same that were stated before, and the last 2 are a bit changed:

  1. What is the book about? What does the author wants me to do?
  2. How does the author proposes that I do this?
  3. Are the authors objectives, together with the means he proposes to reach them, accord to your conception of what is right to seek? And on the best way on seeking them (means)?
  4. If you agree with the author’s ends and means, you will act according to them. If now you didn’t agree with him or he didn’t persuade you that it is important enough.

Chapter 14: How to read imaginative literature

“The beauty of any work of art is related to the pleasure it gives us when we know it well.”

It pleases rather than teaches. But it is not so easy to know exactly why you are pleased by reading a certain book.


  1. Don’t resist the effect the book has on you. Let it take you were it has to take you.
  2. Do not look for terms, but try to read between the lines.
  3. Don’t criticize an imaginative text based on what you think is truth.
  4. Don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author tried to make you experience.


  1. Recognize what kind of fiction you are reading
  2. Make sure you can summarize the plot in a little narration. Not in an argument or proposition.
  3. Discover how the whole is constructed out of all its part.

Lyric: representation of a concrete experience. It attempts to re-create that experience in the reader.

Chapter 15: Suggestions for reading stories, plays, and poems

Stories: Ideally, and in order to grasp the unity of the whole, a story should be read at one sitting or at least in the shortest time plausible. We should also be careful to distinguish those books that satisfy our own particular unconscious needs before saying that a story is good. Good stories remain liked by most during long periods of time because what they wished to say is still and forever true.

EPIC Recommendations –literally-: Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid (Virgil), Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost (Milton).

Plays: Are only apprehended when acted on stage, so the reader must supply that dimension and while reading it, make a pretense of seeing it acted. They are better read aloud, slowly and with expression.

Tragedies: remember that there is never enough time in tragedies, so the characters have to make very important decisions in a very short time. Imagine every detail that the author describes!

Poetry: Words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way. First, read it through without stopping; second, read it out loud; third, read it over and over and over again. Any good lyric poem has a unity.

Chapter 16: How to Read History

All history is written from some point of view. It is a mixture of facts and the arrangement of facts. Some people, like Tolstoy believe that the causes of human action are so complex and hidden that it is impossible to know why anything ever happened. Adler points out that if one at least wants to understand an event or period, it is necessary to ready more than one account of it. This will teach you how men acted in the past and how they act in all times and places, including our present times.

Questions to ask:

  1. What is the particular subject of this history account?
  2. How the historian has chosen to tell the story? How is the book organized?
  3. Judge only after you understand what is being said.

Biography and Autobiography: Narrative account of the life of someone; is a history of a person or a group of people. Autobiographies reveal much more of the author’s soul.

*definitive biography: mostly written after the person is death. The author gathers all the materials he’s got from the person. Is the scholastic version of a biography.

*authorized biography: Are many times biased to make the person seem better than what he/she really is. Mamones.

Current Events: We can’t know everything, we can’t know if what we think we know is true; “and yet we must try to know, so far as that is possible.”

Chapter 17: How to Read Science and Mathematics

“an activity of the mind that is essential to education, the central aim of which has always been recognized, from Socrates day down to our own, as the freeing of the mind through the discipline of wonder.”

Adler says that he is teaching how to read scientific and mathematical classics and some modern popularizations. In those days, when there was no institutionalized specialization, all scientific and mathematical books were written for laymen, for anyone that could read them. More modern books on these topics are written only for the people in the same field of study as the author.

Science: If you really want to understand science you must follow really closely the experiment that the scientist did, so you can get the inductive part which is so characteristic of science. It is even better if you re-do the experiments or if you visit a lab or someplace where the experiments are being done.

-Inductive: propositions that can be observed from the evidence

-Deductive: propositions proved by other propositions already “established”.

Math: Adler reminds us that mathematic is a language and that it is the less biased language from feeling that has ever existed. He talks a lot about the beauty and satisfaction you can get from it, because of its abstraction and symbols, and he says that Euclid’s Elements are simply beautiful. If someone is willing to give The Elements a chance, I would recommend reading pages: 262-264 as an introduction to how Euclid works and as a sort of inspiration to push forward in the harsh propositions.

Chapter 18: How to Read Philosophy

Philosophy tries to answer questions of: Being/existence, change, Necessity and contingency, Physical and nonphysical, Human knowledge, Free will, Good and evil, Right and wrong, Virtue and vices, Happiness, Justice, Individuals and society, Life’s goal or purpose. The philosophical problem is to try to explain, not describe, the nature of things. The main aid to reading philosophy is to THINK on what the authors say. The main aid is our mind itself. All these philosophical questions in the end must be answered by the person who is willing to read more about them. The best you can do is read more than one philosopher on a specific subject.

Adler explains that we more or less have the same experience, but that what differences us from the great philosophers is that they have thought deeply on their experiences than the rest of us have.  There are different ways in which these philosophers have impressed their thought forever… Here are the different categories:

  1. Philosophical Dialogue: Socrates being the master of this.
  2. Philosophical treatise or essay: Most of them state the problems that are to be discussed first and then go through all their options and explanation. They have beginning, middle and end. Aristotle and Kant.
  3. The meeting of objections: debate and discussion of the main subject. Aquinas.
  4. The systematization of philosophy: or mathematization of philosophy. Descartes and Spinoza.
  5. The aphoristic style: The author suggests an insight and then runs to another subject without defending what he just said. It is more poetry and philosophy. Nietzsche, sometimes Pascal.

Chapter 19: How to read Social Science

It is really hard to define what the social science are, it is as hard to define what type of book you are reading (of the first steps that should be taken). In social science it is important to read a particular matter or problem instead of a particular author or book because it is a very rapidly changing science. Adler also recommends reading the authors that influenced the author that you are trying to read, or at least to know something about them. Social science should be read syntopically.

Chapter 20: The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

Clarify your topic of study, do some research on the best books you can find regarding this topic by inspecting all of them. Pick the best ones, the ones that satisfy or seem to be able to answer you doubts or to give you enlightenment on your field of study. Finally these rules apply:

  1. Finding the relevant passages: it is unlikely that you are going to find complete books with information important to the subject you have chosen to study. Thence, you need to go back to inspect the books that you chose, looking for passages relevant to your subject of study. Your purpose here is not to understand the book or author as a whole, but to make connections between the different books that you are reading and yourself.
  2. Bringing the authors to terms: Force the authors to use your language rather than his, because different authors might be saying the same but in different ways and via different words.
  3. Getting the questions clear: Try to establish organized, clear, questions that you can use as guidelines as to learn what each author is saying about them.
  4. Defining the issues: Most of the time authors differ in ways to see the problem or in ways to solve it. Find those differences that came through with the questions that you elaborated.
  5. Analyzing the discussion: Examine the discussion, the opposing answers, find the gaps in the arguments and by doing so you will be closer to the truth. You should try to do this objectively and keeping in mind that all of the solutions presented by the authors could be untrue.

Chapter 21: Reading and the Growth of the Mind

Adler talks about a third group of books, books that help us to grow. These are the books that after you read them, close them for a while and think about them a lot, when you return to them you find more things in them that you didn’t find the first time you read them analytically.

11 thoughts on ““How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

  1. Reblogged this on Notes from The Great Books and commented:
    carmenrodrigueza did a great job taking notes from the revised version of How to Read a Book. Most notes you’ll see online outline only the rules of analytical reading.

    She included specific rules for doing such reading on different types of books. Her post will come in handy for me as I read great books.

  2. Carmen, this is a great summary of one of my favorite books. Can you recommend another book (perhaps a favorite of yours) with the same enlightening qualities?

  3. Hey, Carmen! Loved your summary! Thanks a lot. Reading in 2018! The good thing about the internet is that it is eternal. Regards from Brazil! Aleno

  4. Carmen, thank you for putting this clear and concise summary together. I am currently re-reading the book and getting a whole lot more gems from it. This is one of the best of all time books I’ve ever read.

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