How to Read a Book – An Outline

HOW TO READ A BOOK by Mortimer Adler and Mark VanDoren.
I first read this book when I was around 17, having owned it for some time, presumptuously assuming it beneath me because I had been an avid reader most of my life. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. This is one of the most valuable books I have ever encountered.
I have passed this book along to several people with impressive academic credentials who were similarly impressed, having never encountered stand-alone systematic reading instruction in the course of their education. Consensus is that this is an invaluable systematic approach to getting the absolute most out of reading for education rather than mere entertainment.
Adler and VanDoren outline systematic reading into five stages: 1. Inspectional Reading, 2. Active Reading, 3. Annotative Reading, 4. Analytical reading, and 5. Syntopical Reading (Reading multiple books on one subject).
The progression is as follows:
1. Inspectional Reading.
1.1. Look at the title page and read the preface.
1.2. Study the table of contents.
1.3. Check the index.
1.4. Read the dust-jacket or book cover.
1.5. Skim the book.
2. Active Reading.
2.1. What is the book about as a whole?
2.2. What is being said in detail, and how?
2.3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
2.4. What of it?
3. Annotative Reading.
3.1. Underlining.
3.2. Vertical lines at the margin.
3.3. Star, asterisk, or other do-dad at the margin.
3.4. Numbers in the margin: to indicate a sequence of points in a developing argument.
3.5. Numbers of other pages in the margins: to indicate relevant passages on other pages of the book.
3.6. Circling key words or phrases.
3.7. Writing in the margins.
4. Analytical Reading.
4.1. Finding out what a book is about.
4.1.1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
4.1.2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
4.1.3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4.1.4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.
4.2. Interpreting the book’s contents.
4.2.1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
4.2.2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
4.2.3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
4.2.4. 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.
4.3. Criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge.
4.3.1. General rules of intellectual etiquette. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
4.3.2. Special criteria for points of criticism. Show wherein the author is uninformed. Show wherein the author is misinformed. Show wherein the author is illogical. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.
5. Syntopical Reading. Studying more than one book on a particular subject.
5.1. Surveying the field preparatory to Syntopical reading.
5.1.1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
5.1.2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.
5.2. Syntopical reading of books from the bibliography compiled.
5.2.1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in order to find the most relevant passages.
5.2.2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority of them can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
5.2.3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of them can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
5.2.4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that my not have been their primary concern.
5.2.5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.
To recap, in criticizing a book, as Adler points out, outside of agreement with the author’s presentation, analysis, interpretations, or arguments, there are only four ways to disagree with any aspect, or with the whole:
1. Because the author is uninformed (Lacking information).
2. Because the author is misinformed (Wrong or incorrect information).
3. Because the author’s reasoning is flawed (Argument includes non-sequiters or other logical flaws).
4. Because the author’s account, analysis, or presentation is incomplete.
I make it a point to re-read this book at least once a year, as a refresher. Of course is goes without saying that this outline is no substitute for reading the book.
James Sass
Abraxas Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s