Take Up and Read: How to Read a Book

Take Up and Read: How to Read a Book

This current blog series on Reflections is intended to encourage Christians to read more vigorously by providing a beginner’s guide to some of the Christian classics in such fields as theology, philosophy, and apologetics. Hopefully a very brief introduction to these important Christian texts will motivate today’s believers, as St. Augustine was called to in his dramatic conversion to Christianity, to “take up and read” (Latin: Tolle lege) these classic books.

This week’s book is not a Christian classic but rather a contemporary classic on reading titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This volume revolutionized my understanding of reading and became one of the most important books that I have ever read. I learned so much from this work that I return to it yearly for continuous review and study in the art and science of reading.

Why Is This Author Notable?

Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001) is arguably the most educated person of the twentieth century. An American educator, philosopher, and bestselling author, he was associated with both Columbia University and the University of Chicago. He also served as an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as well as cofounded The Great Books of the Western World series. In his long career he authored more than 50 scholarly and popular books. Having written books on God and religion, Adler converted to Christianity late in his life.

What Is This Book About?

Adler first wrote How to Read a Book in 1940, and it became a best seller on the topic of classical reading. He heavily revised the book in 1972 with the help of coauthor Charles Van Doren, an educator who worked with him on the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In exploring all phases of reading, the work is divided into the following four parts:

Part 1 covers the different dimensions of reading, including the art and activity of reading. The authors distinguish between reading for information and reading for depth of understanding. They also explore learning by instruction as opposed to learning by discovery. Part 1 also covers the first two levels of reading including elementary (or basic) reading and inspectional reading (skimming). The authors make a case that most readers fail to utilize inspectional reading that allows for a quick read and review of a book to determine whether a deeper reading is advisable.

Part 2 examines a deeper level of reading called analytical reading. This examination of a book calls for a more deliberate read, which involves asking a series of questions as one reads. The goal is to come to terms with the author’s message by identifying the author’s key sentences, propositions, and arguments. There is also instruction in dealing fairly with the viewpoint expressed in a book. This section also offers advice on how to mark and outline a book for greater understanding and future review.

Part 3 covers the different kinds of reading that a person encounters. There is guidance provided on how to read such works as practical books, literature, plays, and poems, as well as books that cover the topics of history, science and mathematics, philosophy, and social science. The authors provide many practical suggestions in making one’s way through the various genres and types of reading.

Part 4 covers the final and ultimate level of reading, known as syntopical reading. Syntopical reading involves the reading of multiple books on a single topic and coming to an evaluation of the topic independent of the sources that were read. This approach to reading is similar to developing a thesis or dissertation on a research topic.

How to Read a Book closes with a discussion of how critically important reading is to the continued growth of the human mind. The authors make their case that reading good and great books is the best way to grow and preserve the mind throughout one’s life.

Here is Adler and Van Doren’s advice about the kinds of books one should read in search of greater understanding:

“You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.”1

Why Is This Book Worth Reading?

How to Read a Book has remained a perennial best seller since it was written in 1940. It really is a contemporary classic on all phases of reading. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, and this book served to truly revolutionize my understanding of reading. This single book changed my intellectual life, and for it I’m grateful.

  1. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 339.