how-to-read-a-book-mortimer-adler

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler – Book Summary

Summarising book….

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What you will learn from reading How to Read a Book:

– Different types of reading you can apply to get the most out of your book.

– How to read actively by priming yourself with useful questions.

– How to approach specific books (history, science, etc.) in the best way.

How to Read a Book – Book Summary:

Ask yourself this question, were you taught how to read a book? 

We were all taught how to read (otherwise you wouldn’t be here), but were you taught how to read a book?

Do you remember your teacher teaching you the differences in approaching history books to poetry books? I sure don’t.

This has to be one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time. Mortimer J. Adler is incredibly eloquent and writes in a way that almost feels like meta-writing (writing about writing).

As well as this book being a manual for approaching different types of books and getting the most of them, he also highlights amazing points to do with the pursuit of knowledge and the importance self learning. After all, what is a book if it isn’t an absent teacher.

The Dimensions of Reading

The more active your read is, the better quality of reading.

Reading is a conversation between the author and the reader. The reader needs to actively listen, or in other words actively read.

  • Sometime an author can use a word in one meaning but the reader can read it as something else, so the translation is broken.

The illusion is that, reading information = understanding.

You have to learn the information in order to understand it.

Types of Reading

  1. Elementary Reading: What does the sentence say? (words) 
  2. Inspectional Reading: What is the book about? (meaning)
    • The best you can read within a given time frame.
    • Always active
  3. Analytical Reading: Opposite of skimming. 
    • The best you can read without a given time frame.
  4. Synoptical Reading: Reading numerous books and connecting them.
    • You need to prepare to read

 

Increase your vocabulary by reading in different contexts, e.g. Science, English, Language.

You have to have good rudimentary reading ability before you can move onto the others.

There are two type of Inspectional reading

Skim Reading 

  • Skimming certain part of the book

Superficial 

  • Read the book through without stopping
  • By focusing so much on the small points, we are blind to the over arching big points

Vary the rate at which you read depending on the kind of book you’re reading.

Apply progressive overload to your reading. The book should be just harder than your skill level can cope with.

You have to learn all of the reading stages separately first, so that you can then use them all together.

 

Analytical Reading

Pigeonholing a Book

Analytical Reading 1st Rule: YOU MUST KNOW WHAT KIND OF BOOK YOU ARE READING, AND YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS AS EARLY IN THE PROCESS AS POSSIBLE, PREFERABLY BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO READ.

Make sure you really know the title. The author would’ve put a lot of work into naming it so that it really makes sense to their content.

Practical books  

  • What works in short/ long term.

  • Convert knowledge into rules.
  • Its the difference between knowing and knowing how.

Theoretical = something to be seen or understood

  1. Science = emphasis on things outside our daily experience
    • Occurs from special experience, not normal
  2. Philosophy = emphasis on things within our daily experience
    • Occurs from common experiences
  •  
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X-Raying a Book

Analytical Reading 2nd Rule: STATE THE UNITY OF THE WHOLE BOOK IN A SINGLE SENTENCE, OR AT MOST A FEW SENTENCES (A SHORT PARAGRAPH).

  • Aimed at the unity/ simplicity
  • Difference between type of book / what the books about

Analytical Reading 3rd Rule: SET FORTH THE MAJOR PARTS OF THE BOOK, AND SHOW HOW THESE ARE ORGANIZED INTO A WHOLE, BY BEING ORDERED TO ONE ANOTHER AND TO THE UNITY OF THE WHOLE.

  • Aimed at the division/ complexity
  • See how the different sections of the book add to the overall theme

Mortimer Adler uses a perfect analogy to describe the structure of a book:

“The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through. If the flesh is thick enough, and if flabbiness is avoided, the joints will be detectable and the motion of the parts will reveal the articulation.”

Analytical Reading 4th Rule: FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHOR’S PROBLEMS WERE

 

Coming to Terms with the Author

Nonfiction books: 

Author tries to make everything unambiguous + reader tries to distil everything to one meaning.

  1. Author = Narrowing info down to one meaning.
  2. Reader = Comparing info to all its meaning to find the best one

A term can be represented by numerous words, just like the core point can be represented by numerous terms.

Unambiguous words = Terms

Word meanings change over time, so if you can state a definition, it can last over time.

Novel words pique our interest.

When finding key words, you should compare it to all the other key words surrounding it. The words related are the context.

The author and the reader are trying to meet in the middle, the meaning.

RULE 5 FIND POETRY THE IMPORTANT WORDS AND THROUGH THEM COME TO TERMS WITH THE AUTHOR.

“You have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the words in the context that do understand.” 

“Books are absent teacher.” 

 

Determining an Authors Message

Most people read books without breaking through its shell and becoming aware of all the treasure inside.

These consist of the words, terms, sentences, propositions and they all comprise to = the whole book.

Sentences and paragraphs are grammatical units. They are units of language. 

Propositions and arguments are units of thought and knowledge.

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 OF SENTENCES.

If you do not ask any questions about the book, you cannot expect to learn anything new because you will only be looking for things you know.

Propositions are the answers to questions.

Discover the meaning of propositions by interpreting the words that make up the sentence. 

If you interpret the conclusion first, look for the reason that makes it up. 

Likewise, if you interpret reasons first, see how they combine to create the conclusion.

Rule 8: FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHORS SOLUTIONS ARE.

 

Criticising a Book Fairly

When reading a book, don’t let any external source affect your opinion. Maintain your own opinion until you’ve read it fully.

We cant criticise something unless we understand it, hence why we need to read for understanding, not information.

RULE 9. YOU MUST BE ABLE TO SAY, WITH REASONABLE CERTAINTY, “I UNDERSTAND,” BEFORE YOU CAN SAY ANY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING THINGS: “I AGREE,” OR “I DISAGREE,” OR “I SUSPEND JUDGMENT.

Only after trying your hardest to understand can you blame the book.

WHEN YOU DISAGREE, DO SO REASONABLY, AND NOT DISPUTATIOUSLY OR CONTENTIOUSLY.

An argument is irrelevant if you believe there is no understanding to get out of it.

RESPECT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND MERE PERSONAL OPINION BY GIVING REASONS FOR ANY CRITICAL JUDGMENT YOU MAKE.

 

Agreeing or Disagreeing with the Author

One can understand a point yet still disagree with it.

When critiquing a book:

  • Be aware of the emotions you’re bringing to the table.
  • Know what your pre-judgements are (this gives a comparison for later)
  • Be impartial, try not to take sides

If we consider a book like a conversation, we must maintain good reading 

manners and hear what the other has to say 

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism 

RULE 12: Show wherein the author is uninformed. 

  • Meaning the author lacks knowledge for the problem he is trying to solve

RULE 13: Show wherein the author is misinformed. 

  • Meaning the author is projecting the wrong information.

RULE 14: Show wherein the author is illogical. 

  • Meaning the author lacks reasoning for his point. The conclusion does not match the reasoning.

RULE 15: Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

 

Aids to Reading

Read other books. 

Try and read topics in chronological order (the classics first) so that you can see all the authors trains of thought

Do as much as you can in terms of trying to understand a book, only when youre stuck should you look for extra help.

 

Different Kinds of Reading

Practical Books

Practical books can never solve a problem, they can only tell you how to solve it.

Ask yourself two questions when reading a practical book

  • What are the author’s objectives?
  • What means for achieving them is he proposing?

 

Imaginative Literature

It is much easier to be pleased than taught.

Beauty is harder to analyse than truth.

Imaginative literature tries to communicate an experience only the reader can 

have. It visual display is constructed by only them.

If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality!

How to classify imaginative literature

  • Classify the kind of book it is
  • Grasp the whole unity of the book
  • Discover the core idea and the parts that add up to make the core

The elements of fiction are its episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and action.

Terms are connected in propositions The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene or background against which they stand out in relief.

 

Stories, Plays, and Poetry

Stories

  • We want stories to play to our unconscious want, e.g. love, etc. 

Plays

  • Plays are written in a way that leaves a lot of gaps that are filled by the actors themselves.
  • The reader needs to supply the dimension of the stage. They need to see it being acted.
  • Tragedies tend to have the urgency factor of time.

Poetry

  • Poetry for us consists of words, its just these words have been placed strategically.
  • By writing in rhyme of rhythm you can control where the emphasis goes.
  • Reading it in a certain rhythm, you might stumble on a word… this is the authors plan. He can direct the reader how to read it.
  • You get as much out of poetry as you put in.
  • The very act of speaking the words forces you to understand them better. You cannot glide over a misunderstood phrase or line quite so easily if you are speaking it. Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss. And the rhythm of the poem, and it’s rhymes, if it has them, will help you to understand by making you place the emphasis where it belongs.

 

History

We read history to find out whats happening now (paradoxically).

Think of history as a story + a date. The date (context) cant change but the story (moral) can travel through time.

We can never really be sure if history is accurate or not. The interpretations come from the writers who they themselves have biases.

The best way to get the most accurate results is to read numerous account of the same historical moment.

Questions to use approaching historical books:

  • What does the author want to prove? 
  • Whom does he want to convince? 
  • What special knowledge does he assume? 
  • What special language does he use? 
  • Does he really know what he is talking about?

 

Science and Mathematics

Today scientists tends to be written by experts for experts. 

  • This can advance science quickly but at the cost of the public being left out.

Try to understand the problems that the scientists and mathematicians were trying to solve. E.g. why did they want to figure out what 1 + 1 was.

Think of mathematics as a language, it has its own vocabulary and syntax. You have to learn how to read (maths language) before you can read a book (tackle an equation).

Most of the time it is our fear of maths that makes us avoid it when in reality we would actually find comprehensible. 

 

Philosophy

Philosophy books prey on thinking, and because thinking is done by everyone, it makes them common.

The philosopher, like the poet, appeals to common experience of mankind. He refers you to your own common sense and your daily observation of the world in which you live.

Questioning is at the root of philosophy. However they aren’t just any questions, they are questions for understanding not information.

Schools, universities and work all condition us into questioning for information rather than understanding. We need to break this habit. 

When we acquire a child’s curiosity and mix that with an adults perspective, great things can be accomplished. 

Philosophy is split into two groups of questioning: theoretical/ speculative and practical/ normative

  1. Theoretical/ speculative: concerns what is or happens in the world.
  2. Practical/ normative: concerns what is good and evil, or right and wrong. What ought to be done or sought

 

Social Science

Social Sciences are dedicated to systems within society, e.g. law, economics, politics, etc.

They are to do with man kind, personally (internal). Whereas sciences are to do with the world around us (external).

Biology bridges the gap between social sciences and sciences (chemistry, physics, maths).

Such fields as anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology constitute a kind of central core of social science.

Much social science is a mixture of science, philosophy, and history, often with some fiction thrown in for good measure.

Because there can be numerous topics within a social science book, the reader job is to identify which one is the core.

 

Syntopical Reading

A Syntopicon is a book used to find book references on a particular subject.

Syntopical reading refers to reading numerous similar books at the same time in order to solve a problem of yours. 

The idea is to gain numerous perspectives which you can then compare to find the most accurate one/ meaning.

When reading analytically you are reading for the authors. When you read syntopically you are reading for what you’re trying to figure out for your own means.

Meaning of something comes from comparison

  • All the answers could be wrong
  • All could have truth
  • Just one might be true
  • But we don’t know until we compare all of them

STEP 1 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: FINDING THE RELEVANT PASSAGES

  • The idea is to find the best books to tackle your problem. The way you discover these is through inspectional reading. This will give you a clear consensus on whether it is an appropriate book or not.

STEP 2 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: BRINGING THE AUTHORS TO TERMS.

  • Different authors use different terms, so it is the readers job to take all their terms and find a universal meaning you can apply to all of them.
  • You are essentially creating a tool with which you can speak to all the authors.

STEP 3 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: GETTING THE QUESTIONS CLEAR

  • The difficulty is that the questions we want answered may not have been seen as questions by the authors. But even he does not discuss the question explicitly, we can sometimes find an implicit answer in his book.

STEP 4 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: DEFINING THE ISSUES.

STEP 5 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: ANALYZING THE DISCUSSION

  • Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntonically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read.

 

Reading and the Growth of the Mind

You have to read books above your comprehension to stretch your mind. This only works when we read actively. To do this we need to prime ourselves with the rules discussed.

There are some books that match your intellect and so you obtain everything you need from them.

The classics are like a never ending treasure chest of knowledge. The reason, of course, is that you yourself have grown in the meantime. Your mind is fuller , your understanding greater. The book has not changed but you have. Such a return is inevitably disappointing.

 

Rules:

THE FIRST STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: RULES FOR FINDING WHAT A BOOK IS ABOUT

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.

 

THE SECOND STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: RULES FOR INTERPRETING A BOOK’S CONTENTS

5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

 

THE THIRD STAGE OF ANALYTICAL READING: RULES FOR CRITICISING A BOOK AS A COMMUNICATION OF KNOWLEDGE.

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand.”)

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. 

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

13. Show wherein the author is misinformed. Disayreement

14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.