5 Things I Learned From Mortimer Adler's Book: How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler in 1940 wrote the book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
In 1972 he updated it with the help of Charles Van Doren. I have heard a lot about this book. John Piper put this in his top 25 books that changed his life.   

He said, 
While Hirsch gave me the philosophical foundation for the task and hope of reading for understanding, Adler provided for me the methodological superstructure for carrying out the task. It is a beautifully written book and is eminently reasonable and full of common sense wisdom. Perhaps the most stimulating thing about it was the challenge it gave to stretch my mind by reading books which are harder than I can presently handle. Doesn't it make sense that, if we are to grow in our understanding and in our ability to reason clearly and deeply, then we must try to read those "great books" which go beyond our present ability to fully comprehend? So Adler gave me great encouragement to get on with the business of enlarging my understanding and my appreciation of things that great men have thought and written.
I would agree that one of the things I learned from this book is to read to push myself.

Adler writes, "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" p. 3.

Adler says the goal of reading is learning or entertainment. His focus is on learning. He says there are four levels of reading:
  1. Elementary Reading - Answering, "What does this sentence say?"
  2. Inspectional Reading - Answering, "What is this book about?" This is a fast read, like skimming.
  3. Analytical Reading - Is a thorough read. It is reading to understand. 
  4. Syntopical Reading - This is a comparative reading. 
This book is broken down into four parts: 
  1. The Dimensions of Reading
  2. The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading
  3. Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter
  4. The Ultimate Goals of Reading

5 Things I Learned From Mortimer Adler

1. Comprehension 

You don't need to read everything on the page or understand everything on the page. Adler promoted an inspectional reading that x-rayed the content of the book to get a big idea. Read the tile, the table contents, and the flyleaf. Get the big picture. When you read the chapter, don't get bogged down in the footnotes. Read the material.  

2. A Need for Speed

In the pursuit of learning, you only have so much time. Adler challenged me to read faster. He saw time as a limited resource. He pushed to read through the book. He is okay with reading a book multiple times, but to get the big picture, he advised a fast read. 

3. Read With Your Finger

Adler encouraged reading with a note card or finger to push that speed. A notecard can help focus the eye on the sentence at hand. How easy it is for my mind to wander or doze. Like a military commander, Adler pushes the reader to attention. Focus. Don't let your gaze or mind drift. 

4. Push Yourself

Why read any old book? Find books that will grow your mind. Read things that will help you, motivate you, inspire you, and educate you. Read books that are a stretch and will challenge. I think I do this to some extent, but some older "classics" are hard to read. Adler pushes me to think twice about passing up a "classic" because I am going to have to work to understand it.  

5. Good to Great

I love what he says on page 333. You can read the quote below. What I took away was this, there are a whole lot of bad books that waste your time to read in the world. Then there are a few good books. You read them, and they are wonderful. However, you pick them up years later, and you have changed. You have grown. The books have not. They are static. And you have grown beyond them. However, there are great books. They have treasure troves of truth and insight left to mine. You read it at 20 and at 30 or 50 or 70 you still are gleaning from their field of wisdom. Those are the great books. That is so true. The Bible is the example par excellence. 


  • 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. p. 9
  • Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it. p. 11
  • Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension. p. 45
  • Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. This is the most important rule of all; it is the essence of inspectional reading. 45
  • 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. That means reading as actively as possible. It means making an effort—an effort for which you expect to be repaid. Good books, fiction or nonfiction, deserve such reading. To use a good book as a sedative is conspicuous waste. To fall asleep or, what is the same, to let your mind wander during the hours you planned to devote to reading for profit—that is, primarily for understanding—is clearly to defeat your own ends. 45
  • Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers. Your job as an analytical reader is to find it. p. 75
  • ...the best books are also the most readable. p. 77
  • if the novel is any good at all, the idea is in the whole and cannot be found short of reading the whole. p. 91
  • Philosophers are notorious for having private vocabularies. p. 104
  • One of the most familiar tricks of the orator or propagandist is to leave certain things unsaid, things that are highly relevant to the argument, but that might be challenged if they were made explicit. p. 129
  • The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. p.137
  • A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. p. 164
  • ...you should not read a commentary by someone else until after you have read the book. p. 172
  • But fiction is important, too, because it also touches the unconscious. p. 215
  • 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 yourself. p. 331
  • They are books that you read once and then put away on your shelf. You know that you will never have to read them again, although you may return to them to check certain points or to refresh your memory of certain ideas or episodes. 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. 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? p. 333