Friday, January 8, 2010

Big Book Read #1

How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

426 pages

Adler and Van Doren’s book How to Read a Book has been on our bookshelf for ages. My husband bought it at least a year and a half ago and promptly read it, whereas I rolled my eyes in its general direction. I thought it was silly. It’s a relatively large book, over 400 pages, and it’s titled How to Read a Book. It made me giggle. What I didn’t know at the time, however, is that this book has been around for 40 years and is considered by many as a must-have for every dedicated reader.

The book is separated into four parts: The Dimensions of Reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter and The Ultimate Goals of Reading. Each part builds upon the previous so that the reader becomes an active reader and comes to understand how to get the most out of whatever it is that they are reading.

Although I was intrigued with the book in the beginning and enjoyed some of the advice (such as reading the index before beginning the book), I found myself yawning through a good portion of the middle where they discussed mathematical, scientific and philosophical reading. I have no interest in these subjects (well, perhaps a bit in the science category) and didn’t get much out of that particular part although that is my own personal problem and says nothing about the usefulness of that section.

I found what Adler and Van Doren had to say about fiction obvious. I’m fairly certain that anyone reading a novel would know not to critique it as they would, say, a book on economics. The same rules do not apply. They do make an excellent point, however, that the reader should find unity in a work of fiction. Keep your mind on the plot and how it develops. More often than not I’ve read a book, have seemingly enjoyed it, and have then been unable to explain the plot!

What this book did accomplish well, in my opinion, was give excellent instruction in how to fully and actively read non-fiction. It never occurred to me to pick up a pencil while reading non-fiction (outside of college, that is) in order to make notes on the page. They covered the series of questions the reader should ask while reading in order to not just accept or reject what the author has to say, but to understand and be able to effectively explain why.

This book is about learning to make a book your own and about how to challenge yourself. They explain that reading is not a passive experience but something that you should do with energy, inquisitiveness and patience. Adler and Van Doren put it best when they said, “The more active reading is, the better it is.” And I think they’re right.


  1. I don't think I ever would have considered needing to read a book about how to read a book, but this sounds really interesting. And maybe it will help you through the rest of the year, too ... a double benefit! :)

  2. I started with this one for that very reason. Actually my second review is another how to read book. I'll be super prepared by the time I actually get to a novel! Haha

  3. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos, lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more: