The Art of Reading

Based on How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler (1940, 1972)

Who is a Reader?

A reader is a person who is accustomed to gaining a large share of their information and understanding of the world from the experiences and insights of others as recorded in books

Why Read books?

While reading to gain information and understanding of the world may appear tedious, there is as yet no substitute for the unique advantages that come with reading books. Television, newspapers, and popular magazines package intellectual positions and views, supposedly to help people “make up their minds” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is done so effectively that, instead of making up their own minds, the consumers of such media end up simply absorbing someone else’s opinion without much critical thinking of their own. While we can watch television mindlessly for hours, reading a good nonfiction book calls for attention, thoughtfulness, and serious engagement. In effect, we gain more information and understanding from an hour of serious reading than we can ever hope to gain from many hours of flipping through TV channels or the pages of a newspaper or popular magazine.

What is Active Reading?

All reading must be active to some degree. But reading that is more active is better than reading that is less active. Better reading means a more alert and attentive approach as well as better skill in the execution of the various mental operations involved in the reading process. This requires mindful engagement with the text at hand. Readers get more out of a book if they demand more of themselves and of the text. 

Reading is like catching a ball; the person who throws the ball and the one who catches are successful only to the extent that they cooperate. Successful communication occurs when what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader’s possession. However, a ball does not just fall into one’s waiting hands; one must try to get hold of it through active effort. Reading that is more active is therefore more rewarding than reading that is less active.

Three Goals of Reading
  • Reading for entertainment is the easiest type of reading, and requires no rules or special techniques. Reading popular fiction, comics, and some magazines fall in this category.
  • Reading for information is defined as reading a text that is immediately comprehensible to you, e.g., a newspaper story. Communication takes place almost instantaneously between an author and a reader because both are at the same intellectual level. Without having to think deeply, you acquire information that easily fits into your existing mental framework.
  • Reading for understanding is the hardest type of reading, because here the author is at a considerably higher intellectual level than the reader. This gap can only be bridged by attentive and disciplined effort on the part of the reader.
Reading for Understanding

This type of reading becomes necessary whenever the text before us is difficult, in the sense that it is not immediately intelligible to us. Without external help of any sort, we work on the text before us in such a way that we gradually lift ourselves from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.

Understanding takes place when, in addition to knowing exactly what an author says, we also know what the author means and why the author says it. We are thus able to overcome some of the initial inequality between the author and ourselves.

Information Vs. Enlightenment

If, in response to reading, we exercise only our memories then we succeed only in gaining new information, which we will be able to recall when prompted in the future. On the other hand, if in addition to our memories we also exercise our intellects then we succeed not only in gaining new information but also in becoming enlightened. When prompted in the future, we will be able to recall not only what an author said, but we will also be able to explain what the author meant and why the author said it, and we will do so in our own words and by using our own examples, analogies, or metaphors. Thus, when we are reading for understanding, we aim at being enlightened and not simply being informed.

Instruction Vs. Discovery

There are two main types of learning: instruction and discovery. Instruction occurs when one person teaches another through writing or speech and the learner performs mental operations on written or oral discourse. Learning by instruction is a process of enlightenment with the aid of a teacher who is present (as in a classroom) or absent (as the author of a book). On the other hand, discovery occurs when, without being taught, a person learns something by reflecting on the contents of their own observations and/or experiences. In this case, the learner performs mental operations on the data provided by the world or by nature. Put differently, learning by discovery is a process of enlightenment without the aid of a specific teacher. Whenever we read for understanding, instruction and discovery may take place simultaneously.

Levels of Reading 

Elementary Reading: This level consists of recognizing words and deciphering the simple meaning of sentences. Elementary reading, or literacy, is of concern only if we are dealing with a language with which we are not fully familiar. If we are not skilled at elementary reading, we cannot perform any of the higher levels of reading.

Inspectional Reading: The aim here is to get the most out of a book within a limited and usually a short amount of time. This kind of quick appraisal and rapid reading prepares the reader for the next levels. It also helps the reader decide whether the book deserves a full and thorough reading. Inspectional reading consists of two stages: (1) “systematic skimming” gives a rough idea of the book’s structure, and (2) “superficial reading” provides a general sense of the book’s contents.

Analytical Reading: The goal of analytical reading is to understand and evaluate a book as thoroughly and completely as possible, given an unlimited amount of time.

Syntopical Reading: At this level of reading, the reader consults many different books that are related directly or indirectly to a particular subject or issue in which the reader is interested. The goal is for the reader to tune into the conversation among different authors across time and space. This allows the reader to make up their own mind after performing a comparative analysis of a wide range of perspective, as filtered through the reader’s own understanding and viewpoint.

Inspectional Reading I (Systematic Skimming)

1. Look at the title page, preface, and introduction to get a rough idea about the book.

 2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure. 

3. Check the index and the bibliography to gain a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and the kind of books and authors used as sources.  When you see terms listed in the index that seem crucial, e.g., when they are referred an unusually large number of times, look up few of the passages cited.  

4. Read the publisher’s blurb that may summarize the book’s contents and introduce the author as well as his/her credentials. 

5. Based on the general and vague knowledge you have gained, look now at the chapters that seems to be pivotal to its arguments, paying close attention to the summary statements in the opening or closing pages of such chapters. 

6. Finally, turn the pages at random, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence; read also the last few pages of the book which the author might have used to summarize the basic contention.

Inspectional Reading II (Superficial Reading)

The purpose of superficial reading is to get a general idea of a book’s contents. At this stage, it is not at all important that you understand everything you read; the only thing that matters is that you actually read the whole book. Do not be deterred or discouraged by difficult passages or concepts. Go right on reading past the point where you have trouble comprehending the text, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Focus your attention on what does make sense, and don’t worry about the parts that are confusing or unclear. The point of superficial reading is to develop enough familiarity with a text so you can read it more deeply later, which is why there is no need for you to interrupt your reading in order to look up or ponder the things that you do not immediately grasp; simply postpone that work for later.

Analytical Reading I (Outlining the Structure)

The first stage of analytical reading is an attempt to answer the question: “What is this about as a whole?”

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

It is critical to know what kind of book you are reading, and to know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. This is because the style and arguments of different kinds of books are so different that readers must adjust their reading strategies according to the kind of text they are dealing with.

Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, is intended to convey knowledge (in the broad sense of the word) and is classified as an expository work. Such books can be primarily practical or primarily theoretical. The former has to do with what works in some way and the latter has to do with something to be seen or understood. In other words, practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do, whereas theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Theoretical books can be roughly divided into books on history, science, and philosophy. Practical books are of two types: those that give you general rules and those that give you the principles on the basis of which rules are, or should be, derived. Most books on economics, politics, or ethics are of the latter kind. Note that interdisciplinary books may not neatly fall into any one of these main categories.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.  

After reading the book, you must be able to state, as briefly as possible, the theme or main point of the book. Insofar as it is good, a book has a more or less perfectly definable and pervasive unity, and the reader must be able to apprehend this unity and state it in a few sentences. In finding the unity, you should be guided by any help that the author may provide in the title, the subtitle, or the preface, but remember that the duty of finding the unity belongs ultimately to the reader and can be fulfilled only after reading the whole book.

3. Enumerate the book’s major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

 A good book is an orderly arrangement of parts, each of which has a certain amount of independence but must also be organically connected with the other parts in order to contribute its particular share to the intelligibility of the whole. You would not know the complex unity of a book unless you can describe how this unity is manifested in the book’s organized multiplicity, i.e., how the various parts of the book are related to each other.

4. Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve.  

An author typically starts with a question or a set of questions and the book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. Whether or not the author tells you the questions that he/she has set out to answer, it is your obligation as a reader to formulate these questions as precisely as possible. After reading the book, you should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, as well as any subordinate questions if the main question is complex.

Analytical Reading II (Interpreting the Contents)

The second stage of analytical reading is an attempt to answer the question: “What does this book say in detail?”

5. Find the most important words, and through them come to terms with the author. 

While most words are likely to cause no trouble for the reader, some will. From the reader’s viewpoint, the most important words are those that don’t make perfect sense when they are first seen. Such words cause trouble because they are either unfamiliar (the reader has never seen or heard them before) or confusing (the reader is unsure what they mean in a particular context). A useful strategy is to underline the word and make a question mark in the margin next to it; the reader then makes a tentative guess about the meaning of the word and continues reading. In many cases, the subsequent text will confirm or contradict the reader’s guess. Afterwards, when the reader looks up the unfamiliar or confusing word in a dictionary, the reader’s mind will be particularly receptive to learning its definition.

But keep in mind that this is only a temporary fix; in the long run, the best strategy is for the reader to work on developing a larger and more sophisticated vocabulary.

The value of words ultimately lies in the fact that they can point toward specific thoughts and ideas. Think of words as the vehicles designed to carry a variety of meanings from one person’s mind to that of another. Meanings reside inside the minds of persons who write or speak particular words for the purpose of making other persons aware of these meanings. Language, however, is ambiguous by nature, since most words can carry several meanings and the same meaning can be associated with many different words. Put differently, a single word can serve as a vehicle for a variety of ideas just as a single idea can be conveyed by a variety of words.

The goal of reading is to grasp an author’s intended meaning. What the reader should aim at catching is not the particular configuration of words that an author has produced, but the specific meanings that the author wants to transmit to the reader’s mind through those words.

In order to accomplish this, the reader must pay special attention to another category of words, i.e., words that are most important from the author’s viewpoint. An author uses most words just as people ordinarily do in conversation, with a range of meanings, and trusting the context to indicate the shifts. At the same time, every author uses certain keywords to indicate very specific meanings, thereby turning these words into terms. A term is a word used unambiguously. While word is a grammatical component, term is a component of thought—an important and precise idea for which a keyword serves as the vehicle.

When a writer and a reader somehow manage for a time to use a given word with one and only one meaning, then, during that time of unambiguous use, successful communication can be said to have taken place. Ideally, this means that a particular keyword generates exactly the same thought or meaning in the reader’s mind as it does in the author’s mind.

The first step is to find the keywords. An author would usually indicate their keywords by putting explicit stress on them, such as by using quotation marks or italics, by discussing their different meanings in detail, or by clearly describing the sense in which they want such words to be understood by the readers. When an author explains how a particular word has been used by others, and why they have chosen to use it otherwise, that word clearly is important to the author. After locating the keywords, the second step is to interpret them. The meanings of keywords are to be understood primarily with the help of the context; that is, the reader has to discover the meaning of a keyword by using the meanings of all the other words in the same context that the reader does understand.

6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with the most important sentences. 

Propositions are declarations, judgments, affirmations, denials, or assertions of knowledge. After coming to terms with an author, the reader must locate the key propositions put forward by the author as found in the book’s most important sentences. A sentence can contain a number of different propositions, each of which may be evaluated separately. Moreover, the same proposition can be expressed by means of several different sentences.

There are two ways of demonstrating that the reader has understood an author’s key propositions: first, by being able to express the same thought or idea in totally different words; and second, by pointing to an experience or example (either real or fictional) that illustrates the thought or idea in question. Inability to do so means that only words and sentences have passed from the author to the reader, and not the underlying terms and propositions.

7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

An author’s propositions are mere personal opinion unless supported by reasons or evidences, otherwise known as arguments. An argument may be expressed in a single complex sentence, or it may be expressed in a number of sentences that form part of a paragraph, coincide with a paragraph, or runs through several paragraphs. Reasons may be given before the conclusion; or the conclusion may precede the supporting reasons. Sometimes, steps in an argument may be omitted because the author feels that if they makes them explicit they may be challenged; or such steps are undeniable or self-evident and do not need to be clearly stated; or they are assumed to be agreed upon between the author and the reader.

Generally speaking, an argument consists of three components, each of which can be stated as a proposition. These are: (1) claim, (2) ground, and (3) warrant. The claim is also known as thesis or conclusion; it is the statement that the author wants you to accept as true. The ground consists of the data or evidence being used to prove the validity of the claim, while the warrant is a general statement that connects, or bridges, the claim and the ground.

When trying to reconstruct an author’s argument, begin by identifying the claim. If the author has not clearly stated his/her claim, you will have to interpret the text in order to make the claim explicit. Next, determine the ground by examining the reasoning that the author has provided in support of his/her claim. Finally, you must find the warrant. If the author has explicitly stated the warrant, you can identify it as such; otherwise you will have to make an educated guess about the most probable way of connecting the ground with the claim.

8. Determine which of the problems the author has solved, and which they have not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew they had failed to solve.

Now that you have come to terms with the author, grasped the author’s main propositions, and understood the author’s central arguments, you should check what you have found by answering these questions: (1) Which of the problems that the author tried to solve did they succeed in solving? (2) In the course of solving these, did the author raise any new ones? (3) Of the problems that the author failed to solve, whether old or new, which ones did the author know they had failed to address adequately?

Analytical Reading III (Criticizing a Book)

The third stage of analytical reading attempts to answer the question: “Is the book true, in whole or in part?” This stage is not required if the reader agrees with the whole book.

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

9. Do not criticize until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.

The first two stages of analytical reading (outlining the structure and interpreting the contents)  can be combined in a single reading, depending on the reader’s skill. Moreover, some of the groundwork for analytical reading can be done during inspectional reading. However, it is impossible to fairly and effectively evaluate a book without completing the first two stages of analytical reading. A reader must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before they can say any one of the following: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.” To agree without understanding is absurd; to disagree without understanding is impudent. Not deciding one way or another (i.e., suspending judgment) is also a critical stance, for it implies that the reader is not convinced either way.

Sometimes a book is related to other writings by the same author, and depends upon them for its full significance; in addition, a person may read only part of a book for some reason. In both of these cases, it is difficult for the reader to feel certain that they have fully understood, and hence they must be careful or hesitant in evaluating the book. However, a tentative evaluation is still possible, provided the reader adds the necessary caveats.

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

This means to disagree by making personal attacks on the author, to disagree solely on account of one’s feelings, prior beliefs, or pride. If the reader realizes that the aim of analytical reading and of critiquing a book is not winning or losing an argument but to gain understanding and insight, then they will see the futility of mere contentiousness. Approaching a book with an open mind means that the reader is just as prepared to agree as to disagree. The reader’s judgment should be motivated by a single consideration—the facts or evidence of the case—and nothing else.

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Knowledge consists in those opinions that can be defended, i.e., for which there is evidence of one kind or another.  ere personal opinion, on the other hand, is unsupported judgment. The reader must give reasons for their disagreements with the author, so that issues are not merely stated but also defined, in order that further discussion remains possible.

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

Criticisms should be informed by several points: First, readers bring not only their reason but also their emotions to the book they are working on, and new emotions might arise during the course of their reading the book; these emotions must not go unacknowledged. Second, readers too have unstated assumptions that influence their evaluation of a book. While reading or evaluating a book, it is important that the readers remain aware of their own subjectivity.  Third, an attempt at impartiality is a good antidote for the blindness that comes with partisanship, and such an attempt can be made by reading the book as sympathetically as possible.

12. Show where the author is uninformed.  

To say that an author is uninformed is to say that the author lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem being addressed in the book. The reader must also show how the particular lack of knowledge is relevant to the author’s conclusion.

13. Show where the author is misinformed.

To say that an author is misinformed is to say that the author asserts what is not the case. The error may be due to lack of knowledge, or a deliberate attempt to conceal relevant facts, or a misunderstanding of available data. Irrespective of the cause, the reader should point out the defect in the author’s presentation of facts, and show how it is relevant to the conclusion.

14. Show where the author is illogical.

To say that an author is illogical is to say that that the author has committed a fallacy that makes the book’s reasoning unsound; for example, the author’s conclusion does not follow from the premises, or there is inconsistency in the arguments. When such defects of logic and reasoning occur in an otherwise good book, they tend to be subtle or elaborately concealed, which is why it requires a sharp and skilled reader to notice such flaws.

15. Show where the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

To say that an author’s analysis is incomplete is to say that the author has not solved all the problems with which they started the book, or that the author has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to the book’s project. There is no point in saying that a book is incomplete (since all human undertakings are necessarily incomplete), unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely. In general, a book is to be judged on the basis of its own claims and standards. If an author says that the book will accomplish certain specific goals but fails to deliver what is promised, then it is legitimate to find the book incomplete insofar as the stated goals were not accomplished. A reader who agrees with the book in part, because they find no reason to make any of the other adverse criticisms, may  nevertheless suspend judgment on the book as a whole in light of its incompleteness. Note that rule 15 is closely linked with rules 4 and 8.

After Criticism: So What?

If the reader agrees with the book, in part or as a whole, the reader must face another question: “So what?” If the book has informed the reader, they must seek to understand as to why this information may be important. If the book has enlightened the reader, they must seek further enlightenment by asking what consequences may follow from such enlightenment.

One cannot read for information intelligently without determining what significance is, or should be, attached to the facts presented. This is because facts do not come to us on their own, i.e., without any interpretation, either explicit or implied. Instead, they are almost always selected for some definite purpose and presented to us in a way that is intended to serves that purpose. This becomes even more important if one is reading for enlightenment, for there is no end to the inquiry that, at every stage of learning, is renewed by the question: “So what?”

Agreement with a theoretical book usually requires a change or adjustment in the reader’s viewpoint or intellectual orientation, whereas an agreement with a practical book involves the additional requirement of appropriate action or change in behavior. If a reader claims to understand a book as well as to agree with its conclusions, yet there is no change in the reader’s habits of thought and/or actions, then it is doubtful as to whether the phenomenon called “reading” has actually taken place.

Syntopical Reading

This advanced level involves the reading of a large number of books that directly or indirectly relate to a single subject or issue that is of interest to the reader. The goal is to develop original ideas, i.e., ideas that are not found in any of the books that the reader has selected for this purpose. The reader acquires a large quantity of information and insights, only to subject them to analysis, comparison, and interpretation, with the aim of formulating a position that is not only different from, but hopefully also more useful than, all of the previous positions.

1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject.  

This can be done by recourse to library catalogues, online databases, other bibliographies, and expert advisors.

2. Inspect all of the books in your tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to the subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.

Inspectional reading at this stage will give the reader a clear enough idea of the subject or issue under investigation, so that the reader’s subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is maximally productive. Inspectional reading will also allow the reader to cut down the tentative bibliography to a more manageable size, for it will help the reader decide whether or not a particular book has something useful or relevant  to say about the topic.

3. Inspect the books to find the most relevant passages.  

Instead of reading analytically, give each book another inspectional reading in order to discover passages that are relevant to the topic at hand. In syntopical reading, it is the reader and the reader’s concerns that are primarily to be served, not the concerns of the books’ authors. One is now reading for an ulterior purpose, namely, for the light that a particular book may shine on the specific problem that the reader has chosen to investigate. This second inspectional reading is different from the first one: initially one was reading with a very vague and general idea of one’s subject of interest or concern, whereas now one is reading with the purpose of finding passages relevant to a particular subject or issue that is much more clearly defined in the reader’s mind.

The syntopical reader’s task is not to achieve an overall understanding of any particular book, but to find out how each of these books can be useful in illuminating the topic that is of interest to the reader. Very often, the way in which a book turns out to be useful to such a reader may be far from the author’s purpose in writing it.

4. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology.

 Since now one is faced with a number of different authors, each with their own terminology, it is the syntopical reader who must establish the terms and bring these different authors to them, rather than the other way around. Instead of accepting any particular author’s terminology, the reader must force all of these authors to accept the reader’s preferred terminology.

This is an exercise in conceptual translation. The syntopical reader imposes a common terminology on a number of different authors, some of whom may not have been concerned with the problem that the reader is trying to solve and therefore may not have even devised any terminology relevant to the reader’s purpose.

5. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.

The best way to develop a set of neutral propositions is by framing a set of question that about the problem at hand, to which each of the various authors can be made to respond. Even when an author does not seem to have anything to say explicitly about one of these questions, such an answer can still be indirectly inferred from that author’s other ideas or general approach. For instance, even though Plato never said anything about the Internet, a syntopical reader who has thoroughly grasped Plato’s other ideas and general approach can make a good guess as to what Plato would say if he were able to address this topic. Of course, one must exercise extra caution when approaching an author in this manner, for a shallow understanding of the author is likely to produce a misguided or unconvincing interpretation.

7. Define the issues by arranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another.  

On the basis of one’s syntopical research, it is very likely that more than two answers will be found for any particular question. Now the opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another and the corresponding authors classified according to their views. In doing so, it may be necessary to introduce various nuances or qualifications in order to avoid simplistic generalizations. Keep in mind that differences in answers can be due to the authors’ different viewpoints, different conceptual frameworks, or different conceptions of the question itself.

7. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.  

More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly identified. Truth may be found, if at all, in recognizing and interpreting the conflict of opposing answers, many of which will have convincing arguments to support them. In order to present this truth, the syntopical reader must ask the questions in a certain order and be able to defend that order. The reader must show how the questions are answered differently and try to identify the reasons why this is so, as well as cite the relevant passages from the books the reader has examined. This analysis may provide the groundwork for further research on the topic by clarifying the matter and thereby allowing an original solution to break through.

How to Own a Book

Buying a book establishes your property rights over it, but full ownership comes only when you have made the book a part of yourself and have made yourself a part of the book. The best way to achieve this is by expressing your thoughts and responses by writing them out in the book.  This activity not only keeps you awake and alert while you read but also helps you remember the thoughts of the author. Marking a book is an expression of your differences or agreements with the author. Here are some useful techniques:

1. Underline whenever you come across what appear to be major points or forceful statements.

2. Make vertical lines at the margin to emphasize a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underlined.

3. Draw little stars at the margin to emphasize 10-12 most important statements or passages in the book.

4. Draw smiley faces to indicate agreement; sad faces to indicate disagreement; question marks to indicate you do not understand something; exclamation marks to indicate your surprise.

5. Write numbers in the margins to indicate a sequence of points made by the author as he/she develops an argument over several paragraphs or pages.

6. Write page numbers in the margins to indicate where else in the book the author makes the same point, or point relevant to or in contradiction with those here marked.

7. Circle keywords or important phrases, particularly those that the author emphasizes by repeatedly using, by italicizing, or by providing his/her own definitions. 

8. Write in the margin or at the top or bottom of the page to record your questions (or perhaps tentative answers), to reduce a complicated discussion to a simple statement, and to record the sequence of major points as they develop through the book.

9. Use the endpapers at the back of the book to make a personal index of the author’s main points in the order of their appearance.