This post is part of my "research" series.

Adler, Mortimer J, and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-4483-1. Original publication: How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. Simon and Schuster, 1940. OCLC 822771595.

  1. Why
  2. In one paragraph
  3. Table of Contents
  4. An alternative outline
  5. Highlights
    1. Levels of reading
    2. Skimming
    3. Superficial reading
    4. Rules of analytical reading
    5. Rules of syntopic reading
    6. Unintelligibility as a heuristic
  6. General commentary


Because it was recommended by Samo Burja1. I put some weight on Samo's advice because of his articles on the theory of power, collected in book form as Great Founder Theory2.

In one paragraph

This book complements Eco's How to Write a Thesis almost perfectly. Adler's focus is the technique of reading itself, at multiple levels of depth. There is an entire chapter just about "inspectional reading", and the treatment of skimming was rather useful. While Adler is an academic philosopher and it shows, I found plenty of applicable advice. Take with a healthy dose of skepticism, specially on any alleged "purposes" or "benefits".

Table of Contents

Page numbers absent due to working from an EPUB.


1. The Activity and Art of Reading
    Active Reading
    The Goals of Reading: Reading for Information and Reading for Understanding
    Reading as Learning: The Difference Between Learning by Instruction and Learning by Discovery
    Present and Absent Teachers
2. The Levels of Reading
3. The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
    Stages of Learning to Read
    Stages and Levels
    Higher Levels of Reading and Higher Education
    Reading and the Democratic Ideal of Education
4. The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
    Inspectional Reading I: Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading
    Inspectional Reading II: Superficial Reading
    On Reading Speeds
    Fixations and Regressions
    The Problem of Comprehension
    Summary of Inspectional Reading
5. How to Be a Demanding Reader
    The Essence of Active Reading: The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks
    How to Make a Book Your Own
    The Three Kinds of Note-making
    Forming the Habit of Reading
    From Many Rules to One Habit

6. Pigeonholing a Book
    The Importance of Classifying Books
    What You Can Learn from the Title of a Book
    Practical vs. Theoretical Books
    Kinds of Theoretical Books
7. X-raying a Book
    Of Plots and Plans: Stating the Unity of a Book
    Mastering the Multiplicity: The Art of Outlining a Book
    The Reciprocal Arts of Reading and Writing
    Discovering the Author’s Intentions
    The First Stage of Analytical Reading
8. Coming to Terms with an Author
    Words vs. Terms
    Finding the Key Words
    Technical Words and Special Vocabularies
    Finding the Meanings
9. Determining an Author’s Message
    Sentences vs. Propositions
    Finding the Key Sentences
    Finding the Propositions
    Finding the Arguments
    Finding the Solutions
    The Second Stage of Analytical Reading
10. Criticizing a Book Fairly
    Teachability as a Virtue
    The Role of Rhetoric
    The Importance of Suspending Judgment
    The Importance of Avoiding Contentiousness
    On the Resolution of Disagreements
11. Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author
    Prejudice and Judgment
    Judging the Author’s Soundness
    Judging the Author’s Completeness
    The Third Stage of Analytical Reading
12. Aids to Reading
    The Role of Relevant Experience
    Other Books as Extrinsic Aids to Reading
    How to Use Commentaries and Abstracts
    How to Use Reference Books
    How to Use a Dictionary
    How to Use an Encyclopedia

13. How to Read Practical Books
    The Two Kinds of Practical Books
    The Role of Persuasion
    What Does Agreement Entail in the Case of a Practical Book?
14. How to Read Imaginative Literature
    How Not to Read Imaginative Literature
    General Rules for Reading Imaginative Literature
15. Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems
    How to Read Stories
    A Note About Epics
    How to Read Plays
    A Note About Tragedy
    How to Read Lyric Poetry
16. How to Read History
    The Elusiveness of Historical Facts
    Theories of History
    The Universal in History
    Questions to Ask of a Historical Book
    How to Read Biography and Autobiography
    How to Read About Current Events
    A Note on Digests
17. How to Read Science and Mathematics
    Understanding the Scientific Enterprise
    Suggestions for Reading Classical Scientific Books
    Facing the Problem of Mathematics
    Handling the Mathematics in Scientific Books
    A Note on Popular Science
18. How to Read Philosophy
    The Questions Philosophers Ask
    Modern Philosophy and the Great Tradition
    On Philosophical Method
    On Philosophical Styles
    Hints for Reading Philosophy
    On Making Up Your Own Mind
    A Note on Theology
    How to Read “Canonical” Books
19. How to Read Social Science
    What Is Social Science?
    The Apparent Ease of Reading Social Science
    Difficulties of Reading Social Science
    Reading Social Science Literature

20. The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading
    The Role of Inspection in Syntopical Reading
    The Five Steps in Syntopical Reading
    The Need for Objectivity
    An Example of an Exercise in Syntopical Reading: The Idea of Progress
    The Syntopicon and How to Use It
    On the Principles That Underlie Syntopical Reading
    Summary of Syntopical Reading
21. Reading and the Growth of the Mind
    What Good Books Can Do for Us
    The Pyramid of Books
    The Life and Growth of the Mind

Appendix A. A Recommended Reading List
Appendix B. Exercises and Tests at the Four Levels of Reading

An alternative outline

Broadly, how this book reads from my perspective.

1. Levels of reading (ch2)
2. Inspectional reading (ch4)
    1. Systematic skimming
        or "How to decide when to stop reading" (s4.1)
    2. Superficial reading
        or "Giving a book a once-over" (s4.2)
3. Annotation and note-taking
    1. Annotation (s5.2)
    2. A note taxonomy: structural, conceptual, dialectical (s5.3)
4. Analytical reading
    1. Four basic questions (s5.1)
    2. The process in detail (part two)
5. Advice for books that aren't Aristotle's "Politics" (part three)
6. Syntopic reading (ch20)
    1. The process in detail (ss 20.2, 20.7)
    2. "Dialectical objectivity" (s20.3)
7. Books that Mortimer Adler thinks are good (Appendix A)
    (see also the "Great Books of the Western World" collection by Encarta Inc.
        and accompanying Syntopicon, compiled by the same author)
8. The levels of reading illustrated by concrete questions (Appendix B)


The good, the bad, and the extremely revealing. Direct quotations in no particular order. Some of these ideas may not be discussed at length, but it still seemed worthwile to put them here.

Levels of reading

Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.

When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. […] the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.



The steps of skimming are:

  1. quickly read the title and preface of the book
  2. study structure of the book through the table of contents
  3. study the main arguments of the book through its index entries
  4. quickly read the publisher's blurb
  5. try to identify key chapters and carefully read their summary statement, if they have one
  6. quickly read some random paragraphs
  7. quickly read the last few pages


Superficial reading

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look-up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. […] You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once.

Most of us were taught to pay attention to the things we did not understand. We were told to go to a dictionary when we met an unfamiliar word. We were told to go to an encyclopedia or some other reference work when we were confronted with allusions or statements we did not comprehend. We were told to consult footnotes, scholarly commentaries, or other secondary sources to get help. But when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

If you insist on understanding everything on every page before you go on to the next, you will not get very far. In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points […]. You will miss the forest for the trees. You will not be reading well on any level.


Rules of analytical reading

First stage, finding the structure:

  1. "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." (ch6)
  2. "State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph)." (ch7)
  3. "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." (ch7)
  4. "Find out what the author’s problems were." (ch7)

Second stage, interpreting meaning:

  1. "Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author." (ch8)
  2. "Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain." (ch9)
  3. "Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences." (ch9)
  4. "Find out what the author's solutions are." (ch9)

Third stage:

  1. "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.'" (ch10)
  2. "When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously." (ch10)
  3. "Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make." (ch10)

12-15 are the "four valid criticisms"

see full enumeration at the end of ch11

Rules of syntopic reading

  1. Surveying the field
    1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
    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.
      • These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.
  2. Syntopical reading of the bibliography
    1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
    2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
    3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
    4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions 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 may not have been their primary concern.
    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.
      • Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.


Unintelligibility as a heuristic

From your point of view as a reader, the sentences important for you are those that require an effort of interpretation because, at first sight, they are not perfectly intelligible. […] These may not be the sentences that are most important for the author, but they are likely to be, because you are likely to have the greatest difficulty with the most important things the author has to say.


I.e.: if you don't understand it, it's likely important.

General commentary

Adler describes four levels of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical (or Comparative). Research, understood as the study of one topic through many works, is almost exactly syntopic reading. However, the advice on inspectional reading is the highest value-density in the book.

Adler focuses on what I would call the core reading skills.

  • Adler doesn't go into any detail about procuring material. He assumes you can get what you need, and then explains how to assemble a bibliography from there.
  • Adler provides explicit steps for reading at all levels3 (see highlights).
  • Adler talks about note-taking and annotation, and provides a brief taxonomy of notes according to what type of reading gave rise to them. However, he doesn't really explain how to use them, or give any examples.
  • Adler doesn't discuss organization of material.
  • Adler doesn't discuss writing, except as a matching pair of reading. That is: he talks about how the reader and writer both have to put in the effort for communication to happen; but he doesn't discuss how to create a written work in general, and based off of a syntopic reading in particular.

Adler uses unintelligibility as a heuristic for importance. He also put in six of Kant's books on the recommended readings list. Did I mention he is an academic philosopher? I haven't read Kant, so I'm not going to outright call his judgment into question. But at the very least we are doing something very differently.

A lot of Adler's advice is rather abstract. The appendixes go a long way to making it concrete. For example: I wasn't quite sure what kind of information Adler wanted me to extract from a skimming session. However, reading the skimming tests, it became obvious that some questions were plainly answered by the table of contents ("Dante is guided through Hell by…?"), some questions were about patterns ("The main division of Purgatory seems to be into…?"), and others were about sizes ("The number of subdivisions in each of the major parts is…?").

  1. Burja, Samo. Eight Books To Read. Medium (blog), May 14, 2019. Post at Medium. Snapshot at

  2. Burja, Samo. Great Founder Theory. Manuscript, 2020. PDF at

  3. Adler claims in chapter 14 that his rules of analytical reading apply to serious non-fiction only, and that this was established early on. I'm not sure if I just missed it or if it isn't there.