How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book is a 1940 book by Mortimer Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition. The 1972 revision, in addition to the first edition, treats genres (poetryhistorysciencefiction, et cetera), inspectional and syntopical reading.

Overview of the last edition

How to Read a Book is divided into four parts, each consisting of several chapters.

Part I: The Dimensions of Reading[edit]

Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which classes will be addressed. He also makes a brief argument favoring the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing How to Read a Book.

There are three types of knowledge: practical, informational, and comprehensive. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that practical knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience; that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding equals the author’s; that comprehension (insight) is best learned from who first achieved said understanding — an „original communication”.

The idea that communication directly from those who first discovered an idea is the best way of gaining understanding is Adler’s argument for reading the Great Books; that any book that does not represent original communication is inferior, as a source, to the original, and that any teacher, save those who discovered the subject he or she teaches, is inferior to the Great Books as a source of comprehension.

Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the art of reading well, up to and including undergraduate, university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings in formal education, it falls upon individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.

Part II: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three levels of readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings „structural”, „interpretative”, and „critical”, in that order.

Structural Stage: The first stage of analytical reading is concerned with understanding the structure and purpose of the book. It begins with determining the basic topic and type of the book being read, so as to better anticipate the contents and comprehend the book from the very beginning. Adler says that the reader must distinguish between practical and theoretical books, as well as determining the field of study that the book addresses. Further, Adler says that the reader must note any divisions in the book, and that these are not restricted to the divisions laid out in the table of contents. Lastly, the reader must find out what problems the author is trying to solve.

Interpretive Stage: The second stage of analytical reading involves constructing the author’s arguments. This first requires the reader to note and understand any special phrases and terms that the author uses. Once that is done, Adler says that the reader should find and work to understand each proposition that the author advances, as well as the author’s support for those propositions.

Critical Stage: In the third stage of analytical reading, Adler directs the reader to critique the book. He asserts that upon understanding the author’s propositions and arguments, the reader has been elevated to the author’s level of understanding and is now able (and obligated) to judge the book’s merit and accuracy. Adler advocates judging books based on the soundness of their arguments. Adler says that one may not disagree with an argument unless one can find fault in its reasoning, facts, or premises, though one is free to dislike it in any case.

The method presented is sometimes called the Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (SPE) method, though this term is not used in the book.

Part III: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter[edit]

In Part III, Adler briefly discusses the differences in approaching various kinds of literature and suggests reading several other books. He explains a method of approaching the Great Books – read the books that influenced a given author prior to reading works by that author – and gives several examples of that method.

Part IV: The Ultimate Goals of Reading[edit]

The last part of the book covers the fourth level of reading: syntopical reading. At this stage, the reader broadens and deepens his or her knowledge on a given subject—e.g., love, war, particle physics, etc.—by reading several books on that subject. In the final pages of this part, the author expounds on the philosophical benefits of reading: „growth of the mind”, fuller experience as a conscious being.

Reading list (1972 edition)[edit]

Appendix A in the 1972 edition provided the following recommended reading list:

  1. Homer – IliadOdyssey
  2. The Old Testament
  3. Aeschylus – Tragedies
  4. Sophocles – Tragedies
  5. Herodotus – Histories
  6. Euripides – Tragedies
  7. Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
  8. Hippocrates – Medical Writings
  9. Aristophanes – Comedies
  10. Plato – Dialogues
  11. Aristotle – Works
  12. Epicurus – Letter to HerodotusLetter to Menoecus
  13. Euclid – Elements
  14. Archimedes – Works
  15. Apollonius of Perga – Conic Sections
  16. Cicero – Works
  17. Lucretius – On the Nature of Things
  18. Virgil – Works
  19. Horace – Works
  20. Livy – History of Rome
  21. Ovid – Works
  22. Plutarch – Parallel LivesMoralia
  23. Tacitus – HistoriesAnnalsAgricolaGermania
  24. Nicomachus of Gerasa – Introduction to Arithmetic
  25. Epictetus – DiscoursesEncheiridion
  26. Ptolemy – Almagest
  27. Lucian – Works
  28. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
  29. Galen – On the Natural Faculties
  30. The New Testament
  31. Plotinus – The Enneads
  32. St. Augustine – On the Teacher; ConfessionsCity of GodOn Christian Doctrine
  33. The Song of Roland
  34. The Nibelungenlied
  35. The Saga of Burnt Njál
  36. St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica
  37. Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy;The New LifeOn Monarchy
  38. Geoffrey Chaucer – Troilus and CriseydeThe Canterbury Tales
  39. Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks
  40. Niccolò Machiavelli – The PrinceDiscourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
  41. Desiderius Erasmus – The Praise of Folly
  42. Nicolaus Copernicus – On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  43. Thomas More – Utopia
  44. Martin Luther – Table Talk; Three Treatises
  45. François Rabelais – Gargantua and Pantagruel
  46. John Calvin – Institutes of the Christian Religion
  47. Michel de Montaigne – Essays
  48. William Gilbert – On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
  49. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
  50. Edmund Spenser – ProthalamionThe Faerie Queene
  51. Francis Bacon – EssaysAdvancement of LearningNovum OrganumNew Atlantis
  52. William Shakespeare – Poetry and Plays
  53. Galileo Galilei – Starry MessengerDialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
  54. Johannes Kepler – Epitome of Copernican AstronomyConcerning the Harmonies of the World
  55. William Harvey – On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in AnimalsOn the Circulation of the BloodOn the Generation of Animals
  56. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan
  57. René Descartes – Rules for the Direction of the MindDiscourse on the MethodGeometryMeditations on First Philosophy
  58. John Milton – Works
  59. Molière – Comedies
  60. Blaise Pascal – The Provincial LettersPensees; Scientific Treatises
  61. Christiaan Huygens – Treatise on Light
  62. Benedict de Spinoza – Ethics
  63. John Locke – Letter Concerning TolerationOf Civil GovernmentEssay Concerning Human UnderstandingThoughts Concerning Education
  64. Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies
  65. Isaac Newton – Mathematical Principles of Natural PhilosophyOptics
  66. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Discourse on MetaphysicsNew Essays Concerning Human UnderstandingMonadology
  67. Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe
  68. Jonathan Swift – A Tale of a TubJournal to StellaGulliver’s TravelsA Modest Proposal
  69. William Congreve – The Way of the World
  70. George Berkeley – Principles of Human Knowledge
  71. Alexander Pope – Essay on CriticismRape of the LockEssay on Man
  72. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu – Persian LettersSpirit of Laws
  73. Voltaire – Letters on the EnglishCandidePhilosophical Dictionary
  74. Henry Fielding – Joseph AndrewsTom Jones
  75. Samuel Johnson – The Vanity of Human WishesDictionaryRasselasThe Lives of the Poets
  76. David Hume – Treatise on Human NatureEssays Moral and PoliticalAn Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  77. Jean-Jacques Rousseau – On the Origin of Inequality; On the Political Economy; Emile – or, On EducationThe Social Contract
  78. Laurence Sterne – Tristram ShandyA Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
  79. Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral SentimentsThe Wealth of Nations
  80. Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure ReasonFundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of MoralsCritique of Practical ReasonThe Science of RightCritique of JudgmentPerpetual Peace
  81. Edward Gibbon – The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireAutobiography
  82. James Boswell – Journal; Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D.
  83. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier – Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
  84. Alexander HamiltonJohn Jay, and James Madison – Federalist Papers
  85. Jeremy Bentham – Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
  86. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – FaustPoetry and Truth
  87. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier – Analytical Theory of Heat
  88. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – Phenomenology of SpiritPhilosophy of RightLectures on the Philosophy of History
  89. William Wordsworth – Poems
  90. Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems; Biographia Literaria
  91. Jane Austen – Pride and PrejudiceEmma
  92. Carl von Clausewitz – On War
  93. Stendhal – The Red and the BlackThe Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
  94. Lord Byron – Don Juan
  95. Arthur Schopenhauer – Studies in Pessimism
  96. Michael Faraday – Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
  97. Charles Lyell – Principles of Geology
  98. Auguste Comte – The Positive Philosophy
  99. Honoré de Balzac – Père GoriotEugenie Grandet
  100. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Representative Men; Essays; Journal
  101. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
  102. Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
  103. John Stuart Mill – A System of LogicOn Liberty; Representative Government; UtilitarianismThe Subjection of Women; Autobiography
  104. Charles Darwin – The Origin of SpeciesThe Descent of ManAutobiography
  105. Charles Dickens – Pickwick PapersDavid CopperfieldHard Times
  106. Claude Bernard – Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
  107. Henry David Thoreau – Civil DisobedienceWalden
  108. Karl Marx – CapitalCommunist Manifesto
  109. George Eliot – Adam BedeMiddlemarch
  110. Herman Melville – Moby-DickBilly Budd
  111. Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and PunishmentThe IdiotThe Brothers Karamazov
  112. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary; Three Stories
  113. Henrik Ibsen – Plays
  114. Leo Tolstoy – War and PeaceAnna KareninaWhat is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
  115. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Mysterious Stranger
  116. William James – The Principles of PsychologyThe Varieties of Religious ExperiencePragmatismEssays in Radical Empiricism
  117. Henry James – The AmericanThe Ambassadors
  118. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – Thus Spoke ZarathustraBeyond Good and EvilThe Genealogy of MoralsThe Will to Power
  119. Jules Henri Poincaré – Science and HypothesisScience and Method
  120. Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
  121. George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces
  122. Max Planck – Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
  123. Henri Bergson – Time and Free WillMatter and MemoryCreative EvolutionThe Two Sources of Morality and Religion
  124. John Dewey – How We ThinkDemocracy and EducationExperience and NatureLogic: the Theory of Inquiry
  125. Alfred North Whitehead – An Introduction to MathematicsScience and the Modern WorldThe Aims of Education and Other EssaysAdventures of Ideas
  126. George Santayana – The Life of ReasonSkepticism and Animal Faith; Persons and Places
  127. Vladimir Lenin – The State and Revolution
  128. Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past
  129. Bertrand Russell – The Problems of Philosophy; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
  130. Thomas Mann – The Magic MountainJoseph and His Brothers
  131. Albert Einstein – The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
  132. James Joyce – ‘The Dead’ in DublinersA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManUlysses
  133. Jacques Maritain – Art and ScholasticismThe Degrees of KnowledgeThe Rights of Man and Natural LawTrue Humanism
  134. Franz Kafka – The TrialThe Castle
  135. Arnold J. Toynbee – A Study of HistoryCivilization on Trial
  136. Jean-Paul Sartre – NauseaNo ExitBeing and Nothingness
  137. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The First CircleThe Cancer Ward