This is an outline of part of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s excellent book, “How To Read A Book.”


There are 4 levels of reading:

1. Elementary reading
2. Inspectional reading
3. Analytical reading
4. Syntopical reading.

The outline takes one up to the third level of reading – analytical reading. There is a fourth level, syntopical reading, but most of the intended readers of this outline, and your every day reader, does not read syntopically. Furthermore, mastering levels 1-3 will improve what you get out of your reading 10 fold. It is sufficient to make you a very proficient reader. Also, syntopical reading is for many books, analytical reading is for one book. So, technically, the title of this post implies an an analytic outline. A syntopical outline would be titled, “How To Read Books.” For these reasons I have only focused on levels 1-3. I hope the below outline will provide you with some practical knowledge of how to read well, not necessarily be well read. I also would obviously recommend purchasing Adler and Van Doren’s book, “How To Read A Book,” for your own library.

I. Be a demanding reader. Reading, if you’re going to learn anything or gain enlightenment, must be active. The more active the reader is, the better.

– You can be active by paying attention and focusing.
– By taking notes, highlighting key points and arguments, asking questions of the author, etc.
– Following rules for reading and making the following of these rules habitual.
– The demanding reader should be asking these 4 questions of the book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? This should be stated succinctly
2. What is being said in detail and how? You should know the main assertions and arguments which constitute the author’s message
3. Is the book true in whole or in part? Once you have understood the book you are obligated to make a judgment regarding it. Make up your own mind.
4. What of it? (4) is asking things like:

(a) How should I then live in light of what I’ve learned?
(b) What should I do with this knowledge?

II. The first level of reading is the reading at the basic, or elementary school level.

III. The second level of reading is called “inspectional reading.” This comes in two parts:

A. Systematic skimming or pre-reading.

1. This is achieved by: reading the title, table of contents, preface, editors note, introduction, back flap, etc.
2. Reading the index to see the major themes, topics, ideas, and terms the author will be discussing.
3. Reading through the book by reading the first couple of pages or so, the last couple of pages or so, and then flipping through the book, dipping in here and there.

B. Superficial reading is the second part of inspectional reading.

To achieve this you must read through the entire book at a fast pace and without stopping to think about terms you’re unfamiliar with, ideas you don’t immediately grasp, and points which are footnoted for further inspection. Doing both (A) and (B) will prepare you to read the book through for the second time; the analytical stage.

IV. The third stage of reading is called “analytical reading.” There are three stages, made up of various rules, of analytical reading.

A. Stage one: Rules for finding out what the book is about.

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. This is also referred to as pigeonholing a book.

(a) Is it a poem, play, epic, work of philosophy or theology, history, science, etc.

(b) Is it theoretical or practical.

(i) A theoretical book reports facts, offers detached arguments, or offers insight or understanding of a position. These books teach you that something is the case.

(ii) A practical book tells you how to live, or how to do something. These books teach you how to do something.

(iii) As an aside, these two cannot be sharply separated. As John Frame points out in The Doctrine of God, facts and application of the facts go hand in hand. When I learn the 6th commandment I know how to apply it. But as I apply it to more diverse areas of life, I learn more about the 6th commandment.

2. Succinctly state what the book is about. That is, find the main theme or point of the book. You should be able to state this in a sentence, paragraph at most. This is different than (IV.A.1) in that here we are asking what the book is about, not what kind of book it is.

3. Outline the book. See this outline for an instantiation of this rule. Basically, you want to get at the bones of the book. The basic structure. The construction of the major themes and arguments. How the book proceeds. The skeleton.

4. Define the problem(s) the author has tried to solve. To see the unity of a book you need to know why it has the unity it has (supposing it’s a good book and it has a unity!). To know why it has the unity it has you should know the authors main problem(s) he’s trying to answer; as well as subordinate questions and answers.

B. Stage two: Rules for interpreting the book’s content.

5. Coming to terms with the author.

(a) A term is not a word. A term is the meaning of a word. Water and agua are two different words, they mean the same thing though.
(b) To know the authors terms, then, is to understand the meaning of his argument or explanation, etc.
(c) Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.
(d) The words he uses in an important way, or the ones you have trouble understanding, are probably the important terms you need to know.
(e) Read all the words in context to find the meaning of the terms; how the author means them, that is.

6. Grasp the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

(a) Propositions are the meanings of sentences.
(b) You find the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.
(c) You find the key sentences myriad ways:

(i) The author marks them out for you in some way.
(ii) These are the sentences that give you the most trouble.
(iii) The sentences express judgments, I.e., they are not questions or exclamations!
(iv) These are his reasons for affirming or denying the main problem(s) he has set out to answer.

7. Find the author’s argument by finding them in the key sequences of sentences.

(a) Sting together the important propositions into an ordered structure.
(b) An argument must involve more than one statement.
(c) An argument might be an inductive or deductive one.
(d) Observe what the author says he must prove and what he must assume.

8. Find which problem(s) the author solved and which one’s he did not. If he did not, find out if he knows that he did not.

(a) Did the author solve the problem(s) he set out to solve?
(b) Did he raise new ones in the process?
(c) Did the author admit or know that he failed to solve some of the problem(s)?
(d) If you know the solutions to the problem/s you can be confident that you understand the book.

C. Stage three: Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge.

You are required to criticize the book you read. You owe the author that. Criticize, or offering a judgment, does not necessarily mean that you disagree with the author. You can offer the judgment that you agree with him, you have learned something, and he has answered what he set out to. If you disagree, which is your right, be sure you have completed the above steps. You cannot critique that which you do not understand.

9. General maxims for intellectual etiquette.

(a) Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book.
(b) Do not agree disputatiously or contentiously.
(c) Demonstrate you understand the difference between knowledge and mere opinion by giving reasons for your judgments (criticisms).

10. Special criteria for points of criticism.

(a) Show where the author is uninformed. This is where he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem(s) he was trying to solve.
(b) Show where the author is misinformed. This is when the author asserts what is not the case.
(c) Show where the author is illogical. Here the author’s reasoning is faulty. He has either made a non sequitur or was inconsistent.
(d) Show where the author’s analysis, argument, or solution to problem(s) is incomplete. This is to say the author did not solve all the problems he started out to solve or did not make good use of the material at his disposal, that he failed to take into account all the ramifications, or made distinctions relevant to his undertaking.

The above outline provides the rules and strategies required for reading well. Many folks are well read, not many read well. Thomas Hobbes once said,

“If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”

Source : Goodreads


book discussion

Book discussion conducted by Brother Dzarrin on “How to Read A Book.” hosted by Pustaka Darul Hikmah. More to come insyaAllah.

“Achieve the Highest, Improve Others.”

Academic Resource Centre,
Academic Bureau,
PERUBATAN Alexandria Chapter.

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