Book Reviews

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler -Book Notes, Summary, and Review

15. How To Read A Book - Mortimer Adler

Get it on Amazon

Rating: 8/10

Date of reading: 30th of March – 16th of April, 2018

Description: No, I’m not crazy. Yes, we have no idea how to read in general. No, reading isn’t just “reading.” All of that and many more is found in a 400+ page How To Read A Book. There are four levels of reading: elementary (deciphering the black ink into words), inspectional (skimming and superficial reading), analytical (asking the author questions, making marginalia, notes, comments, analyzing arguments, etc.), and syntopic (reading different authors and different angles on the same topic to create your own wordings, phrases, and informed opinion on the matter). 


My notes:




“Do pupils in school learn to read their mother tongue effec­tively? Yes and no. Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level.” ( :8)

“A great many pupils do poorly in high school because of sheer ineptitude in getting meaning from the printed page. They can improve; they need to improve; but they don’t.” ( :9)

“It has been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college.” ( :9)


The Dimensions of Reading


“We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understand­ ing as too few.” ( :18)

“But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed ac­ceptably without having had to think.” ( :18)

“The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgment from the court. On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball.” ( :19)

“Let us take our second alternative. You do not understand the book perfectly. Let us even assume-what unhappily is not always true-that you understand enough to know that you do not understand it all.” ( :21)

“gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more.” ( :22)

“There are two. First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack.” ( :24)

“Second, the reader must be able to over­ come this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer. To the extent that equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.” ( :24)

“It is true, of course, that you should be able to remember what the author said as well as know what he meant. Being informed is prerequisite being enlightened. to” ( :25)

“Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that pre-” ( :25)

“cedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”” ( :26)

“They are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, bookful blockheads, ignorantly read.” ( :26)

“The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all sophomores.” ( :26)

“Knowledge must grow in his mind if learning is to take place.” ( :27)

“The difference between learning by instruction and learn­ ing by discovery-or, as we would prefer to say, between aided and unaided discovery-is primarily a difference in the ma­terials on which the learner works.” ( :27)

“If we use the word “reading” loosely, we can say that discovery-strictly, unaided discovery-is the art of reading nature or the world, as instruc­tion (being taught, or aided discovery) is the art of reading books or, to include listening, of learning from discourse.” ( :27)

“We must think in the course of reading and listening, just as we must think in the course of research. Naturally, the kinds of thinking are different-as different as the two ways of learning are.” ( :27)

“If you ask a living teacher a question, he will probably answer you. If you are puzzled by what he says, you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.” ( :29)

“Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systemati­cally.” ( :32)

“They start a book on page one and plow steadily through it, without even reading the table of contents. They are thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it. That compounds the difficulty.” ( :33)

“Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it.” ( :33)

“Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.” ( :33)

“Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.” ( :34)

“A wholly different approach, analytical rather than syn­ thetic, originated in Germany and was advocated by Horace Mann and other educators after about 1840. This involved teaching the visual recognition of whole words before giving any attention to letter-names or letter-sounds.” ( :36)

“But he does not yet know how to read beyond the elementary level.” ( :41)

“A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers. A college degree ought to represent general com­petence in reading such that a graduate could read any kind of material for general readers and be able to undertake inde­ pendent research on almost any subject” ( :43)

“( for that is what syntopical reading, among other things, enables you to do).” ( :43)

“But, as we noted in Chapter 2, the levels of reading are cumulative. Thus, elementary reading is contained in inspectional reading, as, indeed, inspectional reading is con­tained in analytical reading, and analytical reading in syntopi­ cal reading.” ( :45)

“lnspectional Reading I : Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading” ( :46)

“1 . LOOK AT TITLE PAGE AND, BOOK ONE, AT THE IF THE HAS PREFACE. Read each quickly.” ( :46)

“2. STUDY TABLE OF CONTENTS to obtain a general sense THE of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip.” ( :47)

“3. CHECK if the book has one-most expository THE INDEX works do.” ( :48)

“5. From your general and still rather vague knowledge of the book’s contents, LOK NOW AT THAT SEEM THE CHAPTERS TO BE PIVOTAL ITS ARGUMENT. If these chapters have SUm­ TO mary statements in their opening or closing pages, as they often do, read these statements carefully.” ( :49)


“How many times have you daydreamed through several pages of a good book only to wake up to the realization that you have no idea of the ground you have gone over?” ( :49)

“You will be surprised to find out how much time you will save, pleased to see how much more you will grasp, and relieved to discover how much easier it all can be than you supposed.” ( :50)

“l n s p e c ti o n a l Reading II : Superficial Reading” ( :50)

“That rule is simply this: 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.” ( :50)

“By the time they reached the end, they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole. Instead of being forced to take this pedantic approach, they should have been en­ couraged to read the play at one sitting and discuss what they got out of that first quick reading. Only then would they have been ready to study the play carefully and closely because then they would have understood enough of it to learn more.” ( :51)

“No matter how quickly he reads, he will be no better off if, as is too often true, he does not know what he is looking for and does not know when he has found it.” ( :53)

“The mind, that astounding instrument, can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a “glance” -if only the eyes will provide it with the information it needs.” ( :54)

“A better formula is this: Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and more quickly than you no can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.” ( :57)

“Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea; it is necessary when you do not know, as is often the case, whether the book you have in hand is worth reading carefully.” ( :57)

“Whether you manage to keep awake or not depends in large part on your goal in reading. If your aim in reading is to profit from it-to grow somehow in mind or spirit-you have to keep awake.” ( :59)

“Ask questions while you read-questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.” ( :60)

“There are four main questions you must ask about any book. 0” ( :60)

“1. W HAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author” ( :60)

“develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.” ( :61)



“When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.” ( :61)

“4. WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance.” ( :61)

“Reading a book on any level beyond the elementary is es­ sentially an effort on your part to ask it questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability).” ( :61)

“The last question-What of it?-is probably the most important one in syntopical reading. Naturally, you will have to answer the first three questions before attempting the final one.” ( :62)

“More than that, you must know how to answer them precisely and accurately. The trained ability to do that is the art of reading.” ( :62)

“It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively.” ( :62)

“Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake-not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.” ( :63)

“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.” ( :63)

“to reduce a complicated discus­ sion to a simple statement;” ( :64)

“Th e Three Kinds of Note-making” ( :65)

“The point to recognize is that these notes primarily con­ cern the structure of the book, and not its substance-at least not in detail. We therefore call this kind of note-making struc­ tural.” ( :65)

“Then, during an analytical read­ ing, you will need to give answers to questions about the truth and significance of the book. The notes you make at this level of reading are, therefore, not structural but conceptual.” ( :66)

“That is to make notes about the shape of the dis­ cussion-the discussion that is engaged in by all of the authors, even if unbeknownst to them.” ( :66)

“call such notes dialectical.” ( :66)

“The difference between your activity before and after you have formed a habit is a difference in facility and readiness.” ( :67)

“You do some­ thing as if you were born to it, as if the activity were as natural to you as walking or eating. That is what it means to say that habit is second nature.” ( :67)

“When we speak of a man as skilled in any way, we do not mean that he knows the rules of making or doing some­ thing, but that he possesses the habit of making or doing it.” ( :67)

“Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious ac­ tivities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frus­ trating, and slow.” ( :68)

“But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to leam them first as separate acts.” ( :69)

“After you have practiced the parts separately, you can not only do each with greater facility and less attention but can also gradually put them together into a smoothly running whole.” ( :69)


The Third Level of Reading:
Analytical Reading



“knowledge and is an expository work.” ( :75)

“As we have already suggested, you do so by first inspect­ ing the book-giving it an inspectional reading. You read the title, the subtitle, the table of contents, and you at least glance at the preface or introduction by the author and at the index. If the book has a dust jacket, you look at the publisher’s blurb. These are the signal flags the author waves to let you know which way the wind is blowing. It is not his fault if you will not stop, look, and listen.” ( :75)

“In 1859, Darwin published a very famous book. A century later the entire English-speaking world celebrated the publication of the book. It was discussed endlessly, and its influence was assessed by learned and not-so-learned com­ mentators. The book was about the theory of evolution, and the word “species” was in the title. What was the title? Probably you said The Origin of Species,” ( :76)

“The Origin of the Species. Re­ cently, we asked some twenty-five reasonably well-read per­ sons what the title of Darwin’s book was and more than haH said The Origin of the Species. The reason for the mistake is obvious; they supposed, never having read the book, that it had something to do with the development of the human species. In fact, it has little or nothing to do with that subject, which Darwin covered in a later book, The Descent of Man. The Origin of Species is about what its title says it is about­ namely the proliferation in the natural world of a vast number of species of plants and animals from an originally much smaller number of species, owing mainly to the principle of natural selection. We mention this common error because many think they know the title of the book, although few have actually ever read the title carefully and thought about what means. it” ( :76)

“You will not know the sense in which Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and William James’ Principles of Psychology are books of the same sort if you do not know that psychology and geometry are both sciences-and, incidentally, if you do not know that “elements” and “principles” mean much the same thing in these two titles (though not in general), nor will you further be able to distinguish them as different unless you know there are different kinds of science.” ( :78)

“Augustine’s The City of God, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Rousseau’s Social Contract are political treatises,” ( :78)

“Practi cal vs. Theoretical Books” ( :79)

“The practical has to do with what works in some way, at once or in the long The theoretical concerns something to be seen or under­ run. stood.” ( :79)

“We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get some­ where.” ( :80)

“We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get some­ where. This can be summarized in the distinction between knowing that and knowing how.” ( :80)

“We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get some­ where. This can be summarized in the distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.” ( :80)

“( Some modem sociological studies merely report the actual behavior of men, without judging it. These are neither ethical nor practical books. They are theoretical works-works of science. )” ( :81)

“Immanuel Kant wrote two famous philosophical works, one called The Critique of Pure Reason, the other, The Critique of Practical Reason. The first is about what is and how we know it-not how to know it, but how we in fact do know it-as well as about what can and cannot be known. It is a theoretical book par excellence. The Critique of Prac­ tical Reason is about how men should conduct themselves and about what constitutes virtuous or right conduct. This book places great emphasis on duty as the basis of all right action, and that emphasis may seem repellent to many modem readers.” ( :81)

“Sometimes you can detect that a book is practical by its title. If the title contains such phrases as “the art of’ or “how to,” you can spot it at once. If the title names fields that you know are practical, such as ethics or politics, engineering or business, and in many cases economics, law, or medicine, you can classify the book fairly readily.” ( :82)

“Questions about the validity of something are theoreti­ cal, whereas to raise questions about the end of anything, the purpose it serves, is practical.” ( :83)

“He wants to find out how things happen for the most part or in every case, not, as the historian does, how some particular things happened at a given time and place in the past.” ( :85)

“Aristotle called his book on Physics a scientific treatise, although according to current usage we should regard it as philosophical; and Newton titled his great work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, though for us it is one of the masterpieces of science.” ( :85)

“If a theoretical book emphasizes things that lie outside the scope of your normal, routine, daily experience, it is a scientific work. If not, it is philosophical.” ( :85)

“Thus James’ Principles of Psychology is both a scientific and a philo­ sophical work, although it is primarily scientific.” ( :86)

“There are other problems that no amount of the best armchair thinking can solve. What is needed to solve them is investiga­ tion of some sort-experiments in the laboratory or research in the field-extending experience beyond the normal, everyday routine. Special experience is required.” ( :87)

“In short, the methods of teaching different kinds of subject matter are different. Any teacher knows this. Because of the difference in method and subject matter, the philosopher usu­ ally finds it easier to teach students who have not been previ­ iously taught by his colleagues, whereas the scientist prefers the student whom his colleagues have already prepared. And so forth and so on.” ( :88)



“To find out what a book is about in this sense is to discover its theme or main point.” ( :90)

“The reader who says, “I know what it is, but I just can’t say it,” probably does not even fool himself.” ( :90)


“There is a difference between a heap of bricks, on the one hand, and the single house they can constitute, on the other.” ( :91)

“A book is like a single house. It is a mansion having many rooms, rooms on different levels, of different sizes and shapes, with different outlooks, with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part. Each has its own structure and in­ terior decoration. But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected by doors and arches, by corridors and stairways, by what architects call a “traffic pattern.” Be­ cause they are connected, the partial function that each per­ forms contributes its share to the usefulness of the whole house. Otherwise the house would not be livable.” ( :91)

“The plot of Tom Jones, for instance, can be reduced to the familiar formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That, indeed, is the plot of every ro­ mance. To recognize this is to learn what it means to say that there are only a small number of plots in the world.” ( :93)

“This is an inquiry into the source of national wealth in any economy that is built on a division of labor, considering the relation of the wages paid labor, the profits returned to capital, and the rent owed the landowner, as the prime factors in the price of com­ modities. It discusses the various ways in which capital can be more or less gainfully employed, and relates the origin and use of money to the accumulation and employment of capital. Examining the development of opulence in different nations and under different conditions, it compares the several systems of political economy, and argues for the beneficence of free trade.” ( :95)

“There is another reason for the separa­ tion. The major parts of a book may be seen at the moment when you grasp its unity. But these parts are themselves usu­ ally complex and have an interior structure you must see.” ( :98)

“Similarly, you might be right in your guess about a book’s main theme or point, but you still need to go through the exercise of showing how and why you stated it as you did.” ( :104)

“This fourth rule can be stated thus: RuLE 4. FIND OUT AurHOR’s The author of a book WHAT THE PROBLEMS WERE. starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers.” ( :106)

“The First Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book Is About 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. 2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. 3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. 4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.” ( :109)


“Let us take three of these senses: By the word “reading” we may mean ( 1) reading to be entertained, ( 2) reading to get information, and ( 3 ) reading to achieve understanding.” ( :114)

“The answer is that you have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand.” ( :121)

“You will seek light on what is called “the emotive use of words,” that is, the use of words to arouse emotions, to move men to action or change their minds, as distinct from the communication of knowledge.” ( :126)

“The movement at this stage of analytical reading-when interpretation is our goal-seems to be in the opposite direc­ tion from the movement in the first stage-when the goal was a structural outline.” ( :130)

“Thus, the two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments.” ( :130)

“Thus, the two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments. You work down to propositions and arguments by dividing the book into its parts. You work up to arguments by seeing how they are com­ posed of propositions and ultimately of terms. When you have completed the two processes, you can really say that you know the contents of a book.” ( :130)

“There is no other way of discovering the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments. The movement at this stage of analytical reading-when interpretation is our goal-seems to be in the opposite direc­ tion from the movement in the first stage-when the goal was a structural outline. There we went from the book as a whole to its major parts, and then to their subordinate divisions. As you might suspect, the two movements meet somewhere. The major parts of a book and their principal divisions contain many propositions and usually several arguments. But if you keep on dividing the book into its parts, at last you have to say: “In this part, the following points are made.” Now each of these points is likely to be a proposition, and some of them taken together probably form an argument. Thus, the two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments. You work down to propositions and arguments by dividing the book into its parts. You work up to arguments by seeing how they are com­ posed of propositions and ultimately of terms. When you have completed the two processes, you can really say that you know the contents of a book.” ( :130)

“”Reading is learning” is a simple sentence; but if at one place we mean by “learning” the acquisition of information, and at another we mean the development of understanding, the proposition is not the same, because the terms are different. Yet the sentence is the same.” ( :132)

“Differ­ ent authors frequently say the same thing in different words, or different things using almost the same words.” ( :141)

“Let us consider one example of this. A basic proposition in metaphysics is expressed by the following words: “Nothing acts except what is actual.”” ( :141)

“eldom could they say, for instance, that if some­ ting does not exist, it cannot do anything.” ( :142)

“exemplification of the proposition. If any one of them told us that grass is not made to grow by merely possible showers­ that one’s bank account does not increase on account of a merely possible raise-we would know that the proposition had been grasped.” ( :142)

“There is one further difficulty. There are many paragraphs in any book that do not express an argument at all-perhaps not even part of one.” ( :143)



“The statement is axiomatic or self-evident in the sense that its opposite is immediately seen to be false.” ( :148)


“Up to this point, you have been follow­ ing the author. From this point on, you are going to have a chance to argue with the author and express yourself.” ( :149)

“You will recall that that second question is What is being said in detail, and how?” ( :150)

“The Second Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book Says (Interpreting Its Contents) 5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. 6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. 7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or con­ structing them out of, sequences of sentences. 8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.” ( :150)

“Remember Bacon’s recommendation to the reader: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”” ( :153)

“Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable.” ( :154)

“The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical.” ( :154)

“But the expert no less than the beginner must wait until he understands before he starts to criticize.” ( :156)



“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.” ( :157)

“The same is true of other writers, such as Plato and Kant, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, who have not been able to say everything they knew or thought in a single work. Those who judge Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason without reading his Critique of Practical Reason, or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations without reading his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, or The Communist Manifesto without Marx’s Capital, are more likely than not to be agreeing or disagreeing with some­ thing they do not fully understand.” ( :159)


“assume I cannot refute you, Socrates, said Agathon: Let that us what you say is true. Say rather, Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted.” ( :160)

“Most people think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth.” ( :160)

“Where the second maxim urged you not to disagree disputatiously, this one warns you against disagreeing hope­ lessly. One is hopeless about the fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can agree. Note that we said “can agree.” We did not say all rational men do agree. Even when they do not agree, they can. The point we are trying to make is that disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolu­ tion of an issue.” ( :161)

“opm10ns, a game in which no one keeps sc01e, no one wins, and everyone is satisfied because he does not lose-that is, he ends up holding the same opinions he started with.” ( :163)


“The first thing a reader say is that he understands or that can he does not. In fact, he must say he understands, in order to say more. If he does not understand, he should keep his peace and go back to work on the book.” ( :166)

“If you say, for instance, that “all men are equa1,” we may take you to mean that all men are equally endowed at birth with intelligence, strength, and other abilities. In the light of the facts as we know them, we disagree with you. We thiJlk you are wrong. But suppose we have misunderstood you. Sup­ pose you meant by these words that all men should have equal political rights. Because we misapprehended your meaning, our disagreement was irrelevant. Now suppose the mistake corrected. Two alternatives still remain, We can agree or dis­ agree, but now if we disagree, there is a real issue between us. We understand your political position, but hold a contrary one.” ( :168)

“Second, you must make your own assumptions explicit. You must know what your prejudices-that is, your prejudg­ ments-are.” ( :169)

“”I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks to the author: ( 1) ” You are uninformea’; ( 2) ” You are misinformea’; ( 3) ” You are illogical-your rea­ soning is not cogent”; ( 4) ” Your analysis is incomplete.”” ( :170)

“For example, in one of his political treatises, Spinoza ap­ pears to say that democracy is a more primitive type of govern­ ment than monarchy.” ( :172)

“To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning. In general, fallacies are of two sorts. There is the non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. And there is the occurrence of inconsistency, which means that two things the author has tried to say are incom­ patible.” ( :172)

“You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.”” ( :174)

“If you have not been able to show that the author is un­ informed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.”” ( :174)

“To a Christian who believes in personal im­ mortality, the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius are an incomplete account of human happiness.” ( :176)

“I . The First Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Finding What a Book Is About 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. 2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. 3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. 4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.” ( :177)

“I I . The Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents 5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. 6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. 7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or con­ structing them out of, sequences of sentences. 8. 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.” ( :177)

“I l l . The Third Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette 9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your out­ line and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand.”) 10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. 11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. B. Special Crit’eria for Points of Criticism 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed. 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed. 14. Show wherein the author is illogical. 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incom­ plete.” ( :178)

“When we speak of someone as “well-read,” we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A per­ son who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. As Thomas Hobbes said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”” ( :180)

“The extrinsic aids to reading fall into four categories. In the order in which we will discuss them in this chapter, they are: first, relevant experiences; second, other books; third, commentaries and abstracts; fourth, reference books.” ( :183)

“Common experience is available to all men” ( :183)

“and women just because they are alive. Special experience must be actively sought and is available only to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it.” ( :184)

“An anthropologist may acquire special experience by traveling to the Amazon basin, for example, to study the aboriginal inhabitants of a region that has not yet been explored. He thereby gains experience that is not ordi­ narily available to others, and that will never be available to many; for if large numbers of scientists invade the region, it will cease to be unique.” ( :184)

“Take Aristotle’s discussion of virtue in the Ethics, for example. He says over and over that virtue is a mean between the extremes of defect and excess.” ( :186)

“But if you depend wholly on the handbook, and never read the original book, you may be in bad trouble.” ( :189)

“Such works canr.ot hurt you if you have already read the book and know where the handbook is wrong, if it is. But if you depend wholly on the handbook, and never read the original book, you may be in bad trouble.” ( :189)


Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter


“The most imporant thing to remember about any practical book is that it can never solve the practical problems with which it is concerned. A theoretical book can solve its own problems. But a practical problem can only be solved by action itself.” ( :207)

“That is what it means to say that nothing but action solves practical problems, and action occurs only in the world, not in books.” ( :207)

“Practical books thus fall into two main groups. Some, like this one, or a cookbook, or a driver’s manual, are primarily presentations of rules. Whatever other discussion they contain is for the sake of the rules. There are few great books of this sort. The other kind of practical book is primarily concerned with the principles that generate rules. Most of the great books in economics, politics, and morals are of this sort.” ( :208)

“Your main judgment will always be in terms of the ends, not the means. We have no practical inter­ est in even the soundest means to reach ends we disapprove of or do not care about.” ( :211)

“is. But in order to understand and judge a moral treatise, a political tract, or an economic discussion, you should know something about the character of the writer, something about his life and times. In reading: Aristotle’s Politics, for example, it is highly relevant to know that Greek society was based on slavery. Similarly, much light is thrown on The Prince by knowing the Italian political situa­ tion at the time of Machiavelli, and his relation to the Medicis; or, in the case of Hobbes’ Leviathan, that Hobbes lived during the English civil wars and was almost pathologically distressed by social violence and disorder.” ( :213)

“Finally, one last negative rule. Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge.” ( :221)

“don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.” ( :227)

“We say “strictly speaking,” because it is obvious that imaginative works have often led readers to act in various ways. Sometimes a story is a better way of getting a point across-be it a political, economic, or moral point-than an ex­ pository work making the same point. George Orwell’s Animal” ( :230)

“Farm and his 1984 are both powerful attacks on totalitarianism. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is an eloquent diatribe against the tyranny of technological progress. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle tells us more about the petty cruelty and inhumanity of the Soviet bureaucracy than a hundred factual studies and reports. Such works have been banned and censored many times in the history of mankind, and the reason for that is clear. As E. B. White once remarked, “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom­ he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.”” ( :231)

“When they found themselves in situations that even faintly approximated that of the tragically divided Greek city-states, they compared their own position to that of Athens or Sparta.” ( :254)

“Thus we read Thucydides not be­ cause he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after.” ( :254)

“The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now.” ( :255)

“In fact, much of what anyone writes on any subject is auto­ biographical. There is a great deal of Plato in the Republic, of Milton in Paradise Lost, of Goethe in Faust-though we may not be able to put our finger on it exactly. If we are interested in humanity, we will tend, within reasonable limits, to read any book partly with an eye to discovering the character of its author.” ( :261)

“A serious communication on a scientific subject assumes so much specialized knowledge on the part of the reader that it usually cannot be read at all by anyone not learned in the field. There are obvious advantages to this approach, not least that it serves to advance science more quickly. Experts talking to each other about their expertise can arrive very quickly at the frontiers of it-they can see the problems at once and begin to try to solve them.” ( :270)

“were thought of as men who studied the history of a subject because they were not capable of expanding its frontiers. The attitude of scientists to historians of science could be summed up in that famous remark of George Bernard Shaw’s: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”” ( :271)

“Or was Hamlet right when, echoing Montaigne, he said: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”” ( :288)

“Second-order questions are, almost by definition, ones of narrow appeal; and professional philosophers, like scientists, are not interested in the views of anyone but other experts. This makes modem philosophy very hard to read for non­ philosophers-as difficult, indeed, as science for non-scientists. We cannot in this book give you any advice about how to read modem philosophy as long as it is concerned exclusively with second-order questions. However, there are philosophical books that you can read, and that we believe you should read. These books ask the kinds of questions that we have called first-order ones. It is not accidental that they were also written primarily for a lay audience rather than exclusively for other philoso­ phers.” ( :290)

“A sign of this is that when reading Spinoza you can skip a great deal, in exactly the same way that you can skip in Newton. You cannot skip anything in Kant or Aristotle, because the line of reasoning is continuous; and you cannot skip anything in Plato, any more than you would skip a part of a play or poem.” ( :298)

“This is the insight that happiness is the whole of the good, not the highest good, for in that case it would be only one good among others.” ( :301)

“Happiness, as Aristotle says, is the quality of a whole life, and he means “whole” not only in a temporal sense but also in terms of all the aspects from which a life can be viewed. The happy man is one, as we might say nowadays, who puts it all together-and keeps it there through­ out his life.” ( :301)

“whether causation is an endless process, whether everything is caused, you may find yourself, if you answer in the affirmative, involved in an infinite regress. Therefore you may have to posit some originating cause that is not itself caused. Aristotle called this uncaused cause an unmoved mover.” ( :306)

“Dogmatic theology differs from philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the com­ municants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them.” ( :306)

“But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faith­ ful Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain assume. form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion.” ( :306)

“The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning that they support, and the con­ clusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way.” ( :306)

“A prime example is the Holy Bible, when it is read not as literature but instead as the revealed Word of God. For ortho­ dox Marxists, however, the works of Marx must be read in much the same way as the Bible must be read by orthodox Jews or Christians. And Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book has an equally canonical character for a “faithful” Chinese Com­munist.” ( :307)


The Ultimate Goals of Reading


“War provides the context or background of both stories-as it does for much of human life-but it is the stories on which the authors rivet our attention.” ( :323)

“In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works be­ fore you could decide what you were reading about. And when you had done that, you might have to conclude that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.” ( :327)

“But to read a hundred books analytically might well take you ten years.” ( :328)

“The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books your list. You on should not read any of them analytically before inspecting aU of them.” ( :328)

“Either the book is one to which he must return for light, or it is one that, no matter how enjoyable or informative, contains no enlightenment and therefore does not have to be read again.” ( :329)

“He also discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says some­ thing important about his subfect or not. He may not yet know what that something is precisely-that discovery will probably have to wait for another reading. But he has learned one of two things. Either the book is one to which he must return for light, or it is one that, no matter how enjoyable or informative, contains no enlightenment and therefore does not have to be read again.” ( :329)


“In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, the books that you read. not” ( :330)

“find ou! how it can be useful to you in a connection” ( :331)

“3 1 8 H O W TO READ A BOOK that may be very far from the authors own purpose in writing it.” ( :332)

“The author can help you to solve your own problem without having intended to.” ( :332)


“Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.” ( :332)

“What it really comes down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his.” ( :332)

“In syntopical reading, however, we will very quickly be lost if we accept any one author’s terminology. We may understand his book, but we will fail to understand the others, and we will find that not much light is shed on the subject in which we are inter­ ested.” ( :332)

“Often, indeed, such coincidence will be inconvenient; for if we use one term or set of terms of an author, we may be tempted to use others among his terms, and these may get in the way rather than help.” ( :333)


“We should not expect that all of our authors will answer our questions in the same way. If they did, we would once again have no problem to solve; it would have been solved by consensus. Since the authors will differ, we are faced with hav­ ing to take the next step in syntopical reading.” ( :334)


“It is the issue between the authors who answer the question in one way, and those who answer it in one or another opposing way.” ( :335)

“An issue is truly joined when two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in contrary or contradic­ tory ways.” ( :335)

“dif­ ferent conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject.” ( :335)


“Some opinion as yet unexpressed may be the truth or nearer to it.” ( :338)

“This is another way of saying that the aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it, or the final solution of the problem with which the project began.” ( :338)

“But it is easier to take no sides than to look at all sides.” ( :338)

“But it is easier to take no sides than to look at all sides. In this latter respect, the syntopical reader will un­ doubtedly fail. All possible sides of an issue cannot be ex­ haustively enumerated. Nevertheless, he must try.” ( :338)

“The point is that when discussing the views of the minority faction, we could not employ the word “progress,” even though the authors involved had used it themselves.” ( :341)

“Basically, there are three different answers to this question put forth in the literature of the subject: ( 1) Yes, (2) No, and (3) We cannot know.” ( :341)

“writers deny its occurrence in one or more of these areas­ although never in all (since they are by definition authors who assert the occurrence of some kind of progress). The six are: ( 1) progress in knowledge, ( 2) technological progress, ( 3) economic progress, ( 4) political progress, ( 5) moral progress, and ( 6) progress in the fine arts.” ( :342)

“We identified six areas in which progress is said by some authors to occur, although other writers deny its occurrence in one or more of these areas­ although never in all (since they are by definition authors who assert the occurrence of some kind of progress). The six are: ( 1) progress in knowledge, ( 2) technological progress, ( 3) economic progress, ( 4) political progress, ( 5) moral progress, and ( 6) progress in the fine arts” ( :342)

“paradox of syntopical reading. That paradox can be stated thus: Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read” ( :343)

“The Syntopicon is an example of such a work. Produced in the 1940’s, it is a topical index to the set of books titled Great Books of the Western World.” ( :344)

“His own terminology must be treated as sacrosanct, because books should never be read “out of context,” and besides, translation from one set of terms to another is always dangerous because words are not controll­ able like mathematical symbols.” ( :347)

“But there is something else, too, in human communication. If you ask someone how to reach the exit, and he tells you to follow Corridor B, it does not matter what tone of voice he employs. He is either right or wrong, lying or telling the truth, but the point is that you will soon find that out by following Corridor B.” ( :349)

“Summary of Syntopical Reading” ( :349)

“Having a method without materials to which it can be applied is as useless as having the materials with no method to apply to them.” ( :352)

“But in fact, the method, at least as it is exemplified in our discussion of ana-” ( :352)

“The reason is that some books do not require it.” ( :353)

“Readi n g and the Growth of the Mind 339 lytical and syntopical reading, does not apply to every book. The reason is that some books do not require it.” ( :353)

“If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article.” ( :353)

“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.” ( :353)

“We are not against amusement in its own right, but we do want to stress that improvement in reading skill does not accompany it. The same goes for a book that merely informs you of facts that you did not know without adding to your understanding of those facts. Reading for in­ formation does not stretch your mind any more than reading for amusement.” ( :353)

“Homer, for example, is in many ways harder to read than Newton, despite the fact that you may get more out of Homer the first time through. The reason is that Homer deals with subjects that are harder to write well about.” ( :354)

“A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second-and this in the long run is much more important -a good book can teach you about the world and about your-” ( :354)

“self. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledge­ able-books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life” ( :355)

“The greatest books can help you to think better about them, because they were written by men and women who thought better than other people about them.” ( :355)

“There is a second class of books from which you can learn” ( :355)

“-both how to read and how to live. Less than one out of every hundred books belongs in this class-probably it is more like one in a thousand, or even one in ten thousand.” ( :356)

“You know it by your own mental reaction to the experience of reading them. Such a book stretches your mind and increases your understanding. But as your mind stretches and your understanding increases, you realize, by a process that is more or less mysterious, that you are not going to be changed any more in the future by this book.” ( :356)

“You are grateful to it for what it has given you, but you know it has no more to give.” ( :356)

“Of the few thousand such books there is a much smaller number-here the number is probably less than a hundred­ that cannot be exhausted by even the very best reading you can manage. How do you recognize this? Again it is rather mysterious, but when you have closed the book after reading it analytically to the best of your ability, and place it back on the shelf, you have a sneaking suspicion that there is more there than you got.” ( :356)

“You find that you cannot forget the book, that you keep thinking about it and your reaction to it. Finally, you return to it. And then a very remarkable thing happens.” ( :357)

“Your previous understanding of the book is not invalidated ( assum­ ing that you read it well the first time); it is just as true as it ever was, and in the same ways that it was true before. But now it is true in still other ways, too.” ( :357)

“There are obviously not many books that can do this for any of us. Our estimate was that the number is considerably less than a hundred” ( :357)

“Our point, instead, is that you should seek out the few books that have this value for you. can” ( :358)

“Suppose, the test went, that you know in advance that you will be marooned on a desert island for the rest of your life, or at least for a long period. Suppose, too, that you have time to prepare for the experience. There are certain practical and useful articles that you would be sure to take with you. You will also be allowed ten books. Which ones would you select?” ( :358)

“cut off from all the sources of amusement, information, and understanding that ordinarily surround you. Remember, there would be no radio or television on the island, and no lending library. There would be just you and ten books. This imagined situation seems bizarre and unreal when you begin to think about it. But is it actually so unreal? We do think not so. We are all to some extent persons marooned on a desert island. We all face the same challenge that we would face if we really were there-the challenge of finding the re­ sources within ourselves to live a good human .life.” ( :359)

“By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will ever be; in fact, many persons’ bodies have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is limit to the amount of growth and development no that the mind can sustain.” ( :359)

Check out more book notes at How I Read 90 Books In The Past 2 Years By Reading 20 Pages A Day

Interested in more book notes like these? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

Share life-long habits over:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *