Book Notes: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

I read this book in March 2020 and left a review on the reading experience here

This entry is to document what I have found to be useful from the book, extracted with my reading habits in mind, therefore one might find that it dwells on certain areas more than others. I hope for it to be as simplified as possible while not leaving out anything of importance.


The Levels of Reading

  1. Elementary reading What does the sentence say?

  2. Inspectional reading What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? Examine the book first prior to reading it to gain understanding.

  3. Analytical reading To gain understanding.

  4. Synoptical reading Comparing books with other things and making connections.

Inspectional Reading

  • Discover whether the book requires analytical reading

  • Inspect the cover, preface, table of contents, index

  • Inspect chapters central to its argument, summary statements in opening and closing

  • Inspect the end of the book (summaries)

4 Questions to ask when reading (in preparation for analytical reading?)

  1. What is the book about as a whole?

  2. What is being said in detail, and how?

  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?

  4. What of it? Why does the author think it is important to know these things?

Analytical Reading

  1. Know what kind of book you are reading through inspectional reading. Is it a practical book or a theoretical book? (for non-fic) Practical books: knowing how; instructional; ethics, politics, engineering, business, law, economics, medicine Theoretical books: knowing that; informative; history, science, philosophy

  2. State the unity of the whole book in one or very few sentences.

  3. Outline the book's major parts in order and relation.

  4. Define the problem(s) that the author is trying to solve. Summarize the main point(s) of the book - what the author is trying to prove.

  5. Find out how the author interprets and uses certain keywords and terms.

  6. Mark the most important sentences (statements) in a book and discover the propositions contained.

  7. Locate/construct the basic arguments in the book by connecting the key sentences.

  8. Determinie which problems the author solved, and which were not - and if the author knew he had failed to do so or not. Is the author uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or is the analysis just incomplete?

  9. You must understand before agreeing or disagreeing, otherwise you suspend judgment.

  10. Disagree reasonably, not disputatiously or contentiously.

  11. Know the difference between knowledge and personal opinion; give reasons for any critical judgment made.

Extrinsic Aids to Reading

  1. Relevant experiences (common experience and special experience)

  2. Other books (relations and influences)

  3. Commentaries and abstracts (do not read until after you have read the book)

  4. Reference books (dictionaries, encyclopedias)

How to Read Different Kinds of Matter

  1. Practical Books Ask the 4 questions, but with the last 2 altered: 1 - What is the book about? What does the author want me to do? 2 - How does the author want me to do it? 3 - Do you agree with the author's objectives and proposed methods to reach those objectives? 4 - If you agree, act accordingly. If you disagree, understand why.

  2. Imaginative literature Do not resist the effect the book has on you; do not look for terms; do not criticize it based on what you think is truth; do not criticize it until you fully appreciate what the author is trying to make you experience. Do recognize what kind of fiction it is; summarize the plot in a little narration (not argument or proposition); discover how the parts construct the whole.

  3. Stories, plays, poems Read stories at one sitting. Good stories remain liked by most overtime as it says a timeless truth. Read plays as if you are seeing it acted on stage, aloud, slowly, and with expression. Read poems multiple times to reach its unity.

  4. History What is the subject of this history account? How is the story told? How is the book organized? Judge only after what is said is understood

  5. Science and math Science: follow the experiments, re-do them if possible. Math: understand that math is a language that is less biased from feeling.

  6. Philosophy Think on what the authors say with the aid of our own minds. Following are the categories: Philosophical Dialogue: Socrates Philosophical treatise or essay: Aristotle and Kant The meeting of objections: Aquinas The systemization of philosophy: Descartes and Spinoza The aphoristic style: Nietzsche, Pascal.

  7. Social Science Read multiple authors syntopically, especially the ones that influence each other.

Syntopical Reading

  1. Find the relevant passages for your subject of study.

  2. Bring the authors to terms using your language.

  3. Get the questions clear to use as guidelines to learn what each author has to say.

  4. Define the issues through the different ways the authors are seeing and solving the questions.

  5. Analyze the discussion, opposing answers, gaps, etc. Keep in mind that all solutions presented could be untrue.

Source: the book itself.

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