How to Read a Book

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The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading 

0914 How To Read A Book

Don’t be fooled by its absurd-sounding title. Trust me; you are not too educated or literary to find this book transformative.

The title could just as easily be, ‘How to Think’ or ‘How to Form an Opinion’ because that’s what this book is really teaching us — and that’s why it should be required reading for anyone who can, well, read.

First published in the 1940’s, Adler wants his readers to learn how to be educated by books, rather than indoctrinated.

In very broad terms, Adler says there are two types of reading — reading that makes you smarter, and reading that merely makes you sound smarter.

Passive reading is about looking at the words, absorbing ideas on the surface so you can check that book off your list and tell others you’ve read it.

Active reading requires keen discernment. Before embarking on this more advanced type of reading, a book and its author must be vetted, he says. Consider: What do I want to get out of this book? What other books will I read in conjunction with this that will help me form a point of view on this subject? If you’re going to spend time with a book, make it count.

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you,” writes Adler.

Not all books were created equal; some only require reading at an elementary level, while others (think: Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Ayn Rand or the Bible) require a great deal of time and effort, but are well worth it. These books ‘point’ to deeper truths, which, if we take the time to follow their direction, we may actually find.

Reading can be just another chore — or it can be revolutionary. When was the last time you approached a book fresh, wide-eyed and clear of preconceived ideas and opinions?

To summarize, here are the four levels of reading outlined by Adler:

  • Elementary reading — targeted to a Grade 8 or 9 level, this includes newspapers, most magazines or anything that’s a quick read.

  • Inspectional reading — flipping through a book, reading the Table of Contents and author’s bio, checking out some reviews on the book.

  • Analytical reading — involves digging into the book’s content and understanding it well enough to write a book report.

  • Syntopical reading —involves reading several books on one topic to learn about the various ideas and the­ories on an issue before forming your own opinion. This is not reading, as much as truth-seeking.

After you’ve read a book at any level, Adler says you should be able to describe what it was about in the time it takes for a quick elevator ride.

Before forming an opinion on a subject, Adler says you must read enough books and other material until you feel you’ve exhausted your research. Only then should you begin to form an opinion, because then will it be your opinion and not that of some author or expert you thought sounded good at the time.

In the end, I think what Adler (who was Chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica), with his cheeky title, is saying that, as a society, we are not very good readers or thinkers — especially if both actions are undertaken as attempts to get closer to the truth. (Note: Adler made this assessment long before the Internet, which has damaged attention spans even further.)

“The person who, at any stage of a conversation, disagrees, should at least hope to reach agreement in the end. He should be as much prepared to have his own mind changed as seek to change the mind of another… No one who looks upon dis­agreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.”

One reviewer got Adler’s point immediately, and he summed it up well:

“Alder’s book taught me that everyone could be confi­dently, convincingly and completely wrong,” wrote Amer­ican spiritual teacher Jed McKenna about How to Read. “Suddenly I looked at everything I had learned in a harsher light. It was an epiphany to find out what I thought was sol­id, upon deeper examination, could be reduced to vapour.”

After all, concludes McKenna, “Man is a self-fertilizing animal. We rise up out of our own shit, or not at all.”

About the Author
Tracy Tjaden

Tjaden is a Canadian journalist who has spent the majority of her career writing and editing for magazines, primarily business-related titles.

She grew up on a farm near Winnipeg, worked at several newspapers in Canada before specializing in magazines, with a focus on business, finance and agriculture.

Tjaden was Editor of BCBusiness Magazine in Vancouver and Managing Editor of a financial magazine in New York City before returning to Winnipeg. She is currently editor of the AgAdvance Journal and agadvance online, and can be reached at


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