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How to Read a Book Summary

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How to Read a Book Summary

MicroSummaryHave you read a whole book and then realized you didn’t understand anything? A lot of people have gone through this too! And most of the time, we blame the author, do not we? But the reality is that often, we do not know how to read correctly!

The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

In the age of movies and VR, reading is in danger of becoming an outdated habit. But, if you’re anything like us – and since you’re here, we suppose you are – reading is essential to you as eating.

In other words, not a day goes by without you reading a page or two. (A summary like this, perhaps?)

Interestingly enough, today we’ve digested for you a book whose topic is exactly that – reading. So, it may be best if you read this summary twice. The first time to learn how to read it, and the second time to use the acquired technique.

Trust us – you only think you know how to read.

Because, as “How to Read a Book” so eloquently shows – there’s reading and reading.

Who Should Read “How to Read a Book”? And Why?

How to Read a Book” was first published in the beginning of 1940. To the amazement and delight of its then sole author, respected American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, it quickly became a bestseller.

Thirty-two years later, Mortimer J. Adler used the help of Charles Van Doren to revise and update the original edition. This is the edition we’re summarizing here and the one we’re recommending.

The gist of the book (how to read) is the same, but, so many things are rewritten and added that you could easily treat the 1972 edition as a completely new book with the same title.

And the title says it all:

“How to Read a Book” is a book about those who would like to learn how to read a book. It is a 440-page long guidebook for personal growth. It’s much like a video game cheat code: read it, learn how to read, and read everything else better.

Anyone who wants to achieve personal excellence is advised to read “How to Read a Book”.

About Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2011) was a renowned American philosopher and educator.

A long-time professor at Columbia University, he is best known for editing Encyclopedia Britannica’s 54-volume set “Great Books of the Western World”.

Charles Van Doren

Charles Van Doren (1926) is an American academic and writer, editor of “Encyclopedia Britannica”, author of “A History of Knowledge” (1991).

He became infamous due to his involvement in the 1950s quiz show scandals.

“How to Read a Book Summary”

The original subtitle of “How to Read a Book”, “The Art of Getting a Liberal Education”, says a lot about its objective. Its basic premise is that the education system teaches students to read only at a ninth-grade level. The great books, however, must be read at a higher level.

Put two and two together and you get to the bottom of the problem:

Even though you’ve read some of these great books, you’ve never really understood them. That is to say – they did nothing for you.

They’ve just passed through you. They are not part of your character. Merely reading Tolstoy is one thing, but acting as if you’ve really read Tolstoy is another.

Increasing Your Knowledge Through Reading

When you read a book, two things can happen: either you understand everything perfectly, or you understand enough to know you have not understood at all.

Reading is an exercise to increase your knowledge. And to achieve this goal, two conditions are required.

The first is that there is an initial inequality in the understanding: the author and the reader must have different ideas and knowledge. After this, the reader must overcome this difference and understand the text.

Understanding The Different Types of Reading

If you want to read better, you need to understand the various levels of reading.

There are four levels of reading.

Levels are cumulative in the sense that each level covers all previous ones, and you will not be able to progress to a higher level without mastering previous one.

The four levels are Elementary reading, inspectional, analytical and syntopical.


To master this level, you need to know the basics of the art of reading. Our first encounter with reading is at this level; unfortunately, many never advance to later levels.

At this level of reading, the question the reader tries to answer is “What does this phrase say?”.

Although this may be considered a complex question, in this scenario it must be analyzed in its simplest sense.

Elementary reading skills tend to emerge very early for most people. Even so, we continue to face problems with this level of reading, regardless of our ability.

Most of the difficulties are mechanical are traced to early reading learning. Overcoming these challenges usually allows us to read more quickly.

For an elementary reading, there are four basic sub-stages:

  • Prompt reading (early physical development)
  • Simple text (small vocabulary, simple skills)
  • Extended reading (extensive vocabulary, diverse subjects, satisfaction)
  • Refined reading (understanding of concepts, comparing different points of view)

The read-out begins at the time of birth and continues until the child is six to seven years old. This type of reading includes the preparation for the person to learn to read.

Physical training involves the development of good vision and hearing; the intellectual preparation requires a minimum level of perception so that the child remembers whole words or letters that combine.

Language training involves the ability to speak openly and use sentences in the correct order.

In simple reading, children learn to read simple things. They start dominating around 300 to 400 words by the end of the first year.

Core competencies are introduced at this time, such as the use of contexts. At the end of this period, children are expected to read simple books independently.

Expanded reading is characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and increased the ability to understand contexts.

Children at this level learn to read for different reasons and in different content areas, such as science, arts, social studies and so on.

Finally, refined reading is the refinement and development of the skills previously acquired.

The student begins to assimilate the reading experiences, that is, carry the concepts from one reading to another, and compare different points of view on the same subject.

This stage of mature reading should be acquired by the early teenage years. It must maintain a continuous development for the rest of his life.

When it comes to reading, most of the people are beginners.

It’s much like going to the opera, even though you don’t really know what a libretto is.

You get some thrills and chills, but, ultimately, instead of leaving the concert hall with a profound fulfillment, you leave it with a nasty headache.

Why should reading be any different?

According to Adler and Van Doren, just like it is the case with classical music, education has failed you with reading as well.

It’s not your fault that you don’t know how to read. You’ve only learned how to do something they call “elementary reading”.

How’s that?

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Basically, you merely know to read and connect letters, and then words, and, finally, sentences. You can derive the meaning of a paragraph, but you don’t really know what to do with it.

Inspectional Reading

The focus of reading at this level is to get the most out of a book in a certain amount of time.

As you read at this level, your goal is to examine the surface of the book to learn everything this surface can teach you.

Techniques for an inspectional reading of a book include:

  • Systematic skimming or pre-reading. This method consists of reading the main topics quickly;
  • Read the title of the pages and the preface to understand what to expect from the book;
  • Look for crucial passages;
  • Read the editor’s notes to understand the context of the book;
  • Look for the fundamental chapters and read the opening and closing passages;
  • Scroll through the entire book, reading a few paragraphs and pages through the book; especially, in the end, looking for the central argument;

Analytical Reading

The third level of reading, the analytic reading, is a more sophisticated and systematic activity than the previous two levels.

Analytical reading is thorough, careful reading. The analytical reader must ask himself many organized questions about what he is reading.

Analytical reading is probably not necessary if your goal with reading is to search for simple information or entertainment.

Analytical reading is used, in particular, to understand the text in depth. The aim is to change your mindset from a condition of poor understanding of more knowledge.

Analytical reading is almost impossible unless you have at least some analytical reading skills.

Techniques for analytical reading include:

  • Underline important phrases;
  • Make vertical lines to mark important sections;
  • Write on the margin like asterisks or stars;
  • Highlight key words or phrases;
  • Make structural notes – about the content of the subject;
  • Make conceptual notes – about the meanings and concepts explored in the book;
  • Make dialectical notes – about the format of the argument in the big discussions about the ideas of other people;

Syntopic Reading

The fourth and last level of reading is the most sophisticated and systematic. It demands incredible attention from the reader, even if the material is relatively straightforward.

Another name for this level of reading is ‘comparative reading.’ At this stage, one is reading many books, not just one, comparing them to each other and subjects and information related to the book.

A simple comparison of the texts is not enough: the syntactic reading involves much more. With the help of the books being read, the reader can construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

Syntactic reading is the most active and demanding type of reading.

Techniques for syntopic reading include:

  • Establish standard terminologies between different books;
  • Clarify issues and problems through content on the same subject;
  • Analyze the author’s discussion and point of view to search for truth;

Learning To Criticize a Book

Reading is like dialogue. The only difference is that, here, the reader has the final word. As readers, we owe the authors a fair and considerate judgment of their work.

And that means suspending our assumptions, understanding their points of view, and searching for arguments to agree or disagree with their narrative.

You should be able to confidently say, “I understand,” before saying phrases such as “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I have no opinion. ”

Most people think that winning a discussion is more important than learning the truth. But the only way to win a discussion is by acquiring knowledge.

Disagreement is useless unless it is considered as a way to solve a problem, or as a fair approximation of the truth.

The first thing we need to do is understand the author, and from there make a critical remark to the sequence and logic of the author’s arguments.

Critical reading is a matter of discipline. We must avoid any prejudice and bias.

Remember that we are rational, but also emotional. Recognize your feelings and judge the book with grounded and contextualized arguments.

Be aware that you and the author have his/her preconceptions and assumptions. Try to be impartial and avoid prejudiced judgments.

The author needs to give reasons to say what he says, and you also need to have reasons to disagree with him.

Make comments like: “I do not know what you meant, but I think you’re wrong,” do not help at all. It makes no sense to respond to such criticisms.

Finally, it may seem obvious, but no judgment or criticism is also a way of criticizing. This means that you are not convinced and that you have not been persuaded in any way by the work.

Is every argument important? How should you remember a fact or a quote and use it in your next discussion? Why did Shakespeare write the way he did? Do you know why would anyone write a book such as “Ulysses”?


It’s because you’re an elementary reader.

We know the feeling: we thought they were calling us stupid as well. But, it’s not that. It’s just that we don’t know any better. Nobody expects you to play the piano like a virtuoso if you’ve never taken any musical classes, right?

Time to introduce you to a new type of reading.

Analytical reading.

how to read a book pdfAnalytical reading is essentially the answer to the question of the book’s title. It’s a process which makes a reader an active participant in the reading process. It’s a way to be alert at all times while reading.

How can you get to there?

The basic idea is that an active reader is different from a passive because he asks questions. The right questions. In the right order. Adler and Van Doren specify four:

  1. “What is the book about as a whole?”

At this stage, you need to discover the main topic of a book.

  1. “What is being said in detail, and how?”

Now you need to detect the main ideas and arguments which help the author make his case.

  1. “Is the Book True, in Whole or Part?”

Self-explanatory: after you’ve answered the first two questions, think back and find out whether the author told you something true or not.

  1. “What of It?”

If true, how does it affect you? Why is it important for you to know it? Will the knowledge change you?

Reading Practical Books

What is a practical book? It is any book that contains rules or prescriptions, or any practical guidance.

There are two kinds of practical books: books with current rules, where any discussion of the book revolves around these rules; and books with principles that give rise to the rules.

As you read any practical book, you should ask yourself questions. Some examples are:

  • What is the subject of the book?
  • What does the author want me to do?
  • How does the author suggest that I do this?
  • Are the aims of the author, along with the means proposed, consistent with his conception of what is right?

Reading Short Stories, Parts, Poets, And Biographies

To read stories and to understand the work as a whole, it must be read at once, or at least in the shortest possible time.

We must also be careful to distinguish books that satisfy our individual unconscious needs, before saying that a story is good.

When the work is a play, it is only understood when performed on a stage.

Therefore, the reader needs to imagine this dimension as he reads as if the piece is being played.

This reading is best understood when you read aloud, slowly and with expression, through words that are arranged in order and rhythm.

Read everything without interruption, read aloud and read more than once. Any good lyric poem has unity.

Finally, biographies and autobiographies are narratives about one’s life, that is, a history of a person or a group of individuals. Memoirs reveal a lot about the author’s soul.

Biographies are mostly written after the person has died. In them, the author gathers all the material that he/she has about the subject.

Take into account that authorized biographies are often skewed so that the person is seen from a better point of view.

Reading Science And Mathematics Books

In the old days, when there was no institutionalized specialization, all scientific and mathematical books were written by laymen, for anyone who could read.

Currently, the most modern books on these topics are written only for people in the same field of study as the author.

For an efficient reading of scientific texts, if you want to understand science, you need to closely follow the experiment the scientist did.

In this way, you can understand the inductive part that is very characteristic of science.

It’s even better if you can redo the experiments or if you can visit a lab or someplace where the experiments are undertaken.

Try to observe the evidence that led the author to the conclusion.

As for the reading of mathematical texts, the author reminds us that mathematics is a language, and that language is less influenced by feelings.

He talks a lot about the beauty and satisfaction of mathematics, thanks to his abstraction and symbols.

Reading Philosophy Books

Philosophy tries to answer questions such as the existence of being, changes, necessity, and contingency, human knowledge, free will, good and evil, right and wrong, virtues and vices, happiness, justice, individuals and society and the purposes of life.

The philosophical problem is to try to explain, not describe, the nature of things.

The primary goal when reading philosophy is to think about what the author is saying. All philosophical questions, in the end, need to be answered by the person who is reading about them.

To maximize your understanding, the best you can do is to read more than one philosopher on a particular topic.

The author explains that we have more or less the same experiences, but what sets us apart from the great philosophers is the fact that they thought deeply about their experiences.

There are different ways in which these philosophers have impressed their thoughts forever.

Reading Social Science Books

It is tough to define what social sciences are, and it is also challenging to explain what kind of book you are reading in this area.

In the social sciences, it is important to read a particular question or a problem rather than a particular author or a book because it is a rapidly changing science.

The author also recommends reading authors who have influenced the book you are trying to read, or at least know a little more about who wrote those books.

Books in this area need to be syntactically read.

Seek Reading Aids

Some books are more complicated, and it may be harder to understand what the authors write. We can get help for this type of reading. There are two types of aid: extrinsic reading and intrinsic reading.

When we talk about extrinsic reading, we are talking about reading a book in the light of other books.

And reading intrinsically implies reading a book unrelated to other books.

You can separate extrinsic reading into four main categories:

  • Relevant experiences: You can get help from two types of relevant experiences to understand complicated books. Common experiences and special experiences. Unique experiences should be actively sought out and only available to the people who are looking. An example of special experience is an anthropologist who travels to the Amazon to study the inhabitants of an unexplored region. Common experiences are available to all but do not need to be shared by everyone to be common. The experience of being a father, for example, is common but not shared by all human beings.
  • Other books: reading other related books can help you understand the complicated books. Sometimes authors are influenced by other writers, so when you read these books, you can better understand contexts and other important details.
  • Comments and Summaries: Summaries can be used if you want to know the contents of the book before reading to see if the reading will be relevant to you. As for comments, it is important that you only read comments after you have read the book so that you are not influenced by them.
  • Reference books: the dictionaries and encyclopedias. To use these books, you need to have at least a vague idea of what you want to know, and you need to know where to find the answers.

Intrinsic reading is separated into the following parts:

  • Summary (it can’t replace reading the book, but it helps you understand);
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • Author’s Notes

Seeking Help In Other Books

Most of the millions of books written in the Western world – over 99% of the books – will not help you improve your reading ability. You should not expect to learn anything important about these books. In fact, you do not need to read them analytically.

Reading using techniques like skimming is often more than enough. A book that does a good job of entertaining you can be a lot of fun for an hour, but you should not expect to learn anything from it.

However, there is a second class of books from which you learn – how to read and how to live.

These books account for less than a percent of books, and they demand a lot from the reader.

Finally, the third class of books is even smaller: The books that not even the best reader can get all the information.

You should look for these few books as they will be of great value to you. They are books that teach you a lot, both about reading and about life.

Also, they will make you want to repeat the reading over and over again and help you grow.

Reading And Evolving The Mind

Active reading is the act of asking questions and looking for answers. Good books exercise our minds, improve our reading skills, and teach us about the world and ourselves. They demand a lot from us.

But there is a world beyond good books – that of excellent books.

Good books need not have more than one meaning or require no more than one reading.

On the other hand, excellent books have many meanings and need to be read many times.

Take the following quiz to find out if a book is great:

  • If you were going to a deserted island, what ten books would you take with you?
  • Does the book help you grow?
  • Do you see new nuances every time you reread the book?

You will only be able to improve as a reader if you read challenging books which are beyond your ability.

These books will work your mind and help you evolve, and this way you will be able to learn.

Finally, our minds can atrophy if not used, similar to our muscles. Atrophy of our mental muscles is our punishment for not performing mental exercises.

Great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean they have read all the books listed as indispensable.

In many cases, they read a few books, but they read very well. They have mastered these books, they have become part of the author’s world. In this way, they became authorities.

The natural course of events is that a good student becomes a teacher, and in the same way, a good reader becomes an author.

These tips especially help readers of non-fiction books. But, when adapted, they may help as many readers of imaginative literature as well.

Key Lessons from “How to Read a Book”

1.      Three Levels of Reading
2.      Level Up: Syntopical Reading
3.      Why Should You Read Better?

Three Levels of Reading

Adler and Van Doren talk about three levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, and analytical reading. Elementary reading is an ability most people have nowadays. The skills that go with analytical reading is what you should learn by reading this book.

Interestingly enough, the second level, inspectional reading, is what you may be currently doing – if you ever find the time and interest to read “How to Read a Book” from cover to cover. Inspectional reading is a preparatory phase for analytical reading. It’s superficial, but it’s necessary.

It basically means that before finding out if a book is worth reading, it’s always good to inspect it a bit. To skim through it. To see if it tastes good. It helps you save both time and energy.

That’s right: book after book, we’ve been doing this for you.

You don’t need to thank us. We love helping you.

Level Up: Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading wasn’t even mentioned in the original book. The 1972 edition adds syntopical reading as the highest and most complex form of reading books.

As the authors say, syntopical reading involves more. It means reading more than one book on a given subject. But it also means understanding the relations between these books. Finally, it leads to reaching a conclusion which may not be in any of the books.

It is, for all intents and purposes, an art form.

Even though it’s hard and exhausting, it’s also the most rewarding reading experience.

The Ultimate Goals of Reading?

OK, I get it, you say. I need to make an effort to read better. But, why should I? I can always watch the movie.

Well, you can. But, it’s not the same. It’s a different medium, so the mind grows in a different manner. The emphasis here is on grows: you read because you’re human and you develop. Because you always want to go beyond.

It’s simple, really:

If you want a better body, you go to the gym. If you want a better mind, you crack a book.

Or a summary.

Like this summary? We’d Like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.

“How to Read a Book” Quotes

Most of our educational ingenuity, money, and effort is spent on reading instruction in the first six grades. Beyond that, little formal training is provided to carry students to higher and quite distinct levels of skill. Click To Tweet This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers. Particularly, it is for readers of books. Even more particularly, it is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding. Click To Tweet There is no single right speed at which you should read; the ability to read at various speeds and to know when each speed is appropriate is the ideal. Click To Tweet The good reader reads actively, with concentration. Click To Tweet Ask questions while you read – questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. Click To Tweet If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. Click To Tweet We are not against amusement in its own right, but we do want to stress that improvement in reading skill does not accompany it. Click To Tweet The books that you will want to practice your reading on, particularly your analytical reading, must also make demands on you. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

“How to Read a Book” poses a difficult question. Understandably, it’s unable to answer it neither in a precise manner nor in few pages. But one gets the feeling that it takes few victory laps more than necessary and that it sometimes runs the race too leisurely.

Be that as it may, “How to Read a Book” is all but a classic of the genre. Its style is enjoyable even though analytical; its conclusions are enlightening, even though obvious.

The original book came with a quote from a New York Time review by Clifton Fadiman. It’s a short one: “From ‘How to Read a Book’ I have actually learned to read a book.”

‘Nuff said.

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