Type Book
Date 1972
Pages 426
Tags nonfiction

How to Read a Book, Revised and Updated Edition

The original edition of this book was published in 1940. This 1972 edition is a major update:

Among the reasons for rewriting How to Read a Book, I have stressed the things to be said about the art of reading and the points to be made about the need for acquiring higher levels of skill in this art, which were not touched on or developed in the original version of the book. Anyone who wishes to discover how much has been added can do so quickly by comparing the present Table of Contents with that of the original version. Of the four parts, only Part Two, expounding the rules of Analytical Reading, closely parallels the content of the original, and even that has been largely recast.

Chapter 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

By reading and grappling with difficult books, one can increase one's understanding. This means not merely acquiring new facts, but rather learning new ways of understanding, new paradigms--expanding the scope and depth of one's apprehension.

Not all books offer this opportunity. Books read for entertainment might do nothing else but entertain, and books read simply to acquire facts might not challenge the understanding; only by struggling with a book beyond one's understanding and overcoming it can one improve.

A single book may be read in any of these ways--for entertainment, for information, or for improved understanding--thought not all books are sufficient to challenge the experienced reader.

Learning by reading is likened to investigation of the world, as opposed to learning in a class:

If you ask a living teacher a question, he will probably answer you. If you are puzzled by what he says, you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.

Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading

Adler suggests four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and finally syntopical.

Elementary reading

This is the sort of thing you probably think of as the simple act of reading: the mechanical process of moving your eyes across the page, understanding the vocabulary and the syntax. This isn't any special way of reading a book, but it is a necessary building block for the further levels.

The first level of reading we will call Elementary Reading. Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading, or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills. We prefer the name elementary reading, however, because this level of reading is ordinarily learned in elementary school.

Inspectional reading

This is a sort of quick pass over the book. You read the table of contents, and skim through it to understand what kind of book you're holding, what its topic is, and how it's organized.

The second level of reading we will call Inspectional Reading. It is characterized by its special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading. He might be allowed fifteen minutes to read this book, for instance--or even a book twice as long.

Hence, another way to describe this level of reading is to say that its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time--usually a relatively short time, and always (by definition) too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.

Still another name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

Analytical reading

At this level, you read the book actively, asking questions of it, and trying to understand it fully.

The third level of reading we will call Analytical Reading. It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. Depending on the difficulty of the text to be read, it makes more or less heavy demands on the reader.

Syntopical reading

This level involves reading many books on a subject in order to get a view on the whole, perhaps learning things which are not written in any individual book.

The fourth and highest level of reading we will call Syntopical Reading. It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated.

Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

This sort of reading the student should be capable of by the time he or she is in high school, but, Adler laments, often even students entering college have not mastered even this elementary level. Adler suggests that high schools and colleges teach courses based on his book.

Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

Adler divides this level of reading into two steps, which are ultimately to be performed simultaneously: systematic skimming or pre-reading; and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming

This activity should give you an idea of the content of the book, as well as whether the book merits a more in-depth reading. Some options for this step:

  1. Quickly read the title page and preface, to understand the subject of the book.
  2. Read the table of contents, to understand the structure of the book, as well as more detail about its contents.
  3. Check the index, if present. This can give a sense of the overall scope of the book, as well as the importance of the various terms and ideas, based on the number of references to them.
  4. Read the blurb, if present. A well-written blurb may serve as an extrememly compressed summary of the main points of the book.
  5. Look at the chapters that seem to be most important, reading, for example, the introductory and concluding pages or paragraphs.
  6. Skim the entire book, reading small portions--not more than a few pages in a row--and particularly reading the last few pages of the book, which may summarize the whole.

These steps should have taken no more than an hour--perhaps much less.

Superficial reading

Read through the book without stopping, even if you do not understand something. Understanding half of a difficult book is better than understanding none of it because you were stumped by a difficult section early on.

What is the right approach? The answer lies in an important and helpful rule of reading that is generally overlooked. That rule is simply this: In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

Most of us were taught to pay attention to the things we did not understand. We were told to go to a dictionary when we met an unfamiliar word. We were told to go to an encyclopedia or some other reference work when we were confronted with allusions or statements we did not comprehend. We were told to consult footnotes, scholarly commentaries, or other secondary sources to get help. But when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

On speed reading

It may be possible for most readers to improve the speed at which they read--this is the promise of speed reading courses. However, a book should not be read more quickly than is efficient, nor more slowly than is needed. Some attention to reading speed may be beneficial, but the speed at which one's eyes move across the page is not the most important factor in efficient reading.

Chapter 5: How to Be a Demanding Reader

There are four main questions to ask about any book:

  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?

    This does not mean "Is the book fiction?", but "Is the author truthful and correct?". 4. What of it?

    This question is in two parts. First, whatever the book said, does it really matter to you? And, if so, what are you going to do about it? How will you continue your engagement with the subject?

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.

So, you should write in books as you read them, as the physical manifestation of this conversation. Adler suggests:

  1. Underlining of important points or statements.
  2. Vertical lines at the margin for longer passages.
  3. Stars or other symbols in the margin, used sparingly, to draw particular attention.
  4. Numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points.
  5. Page numbers in the margin as cross-references.
  6. Circling key words, much like underlining.
  7. Writing in the margin to record questions and reactions.

I have too often relied on the library for my reading material ever to be comfortable writing in books, but Adler's point is well taken.

The balance of the chapter is devoted to reminding the reader that it takes a lot of work to learn new things.

Chapter 6: Pigeonholing a Book

Adler proposes a rule for analytical reading:

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

This is part of the knowledge gained from an inspectional reading. How, precisely, should books be classified?

Adler classifies as practical books that teach how to do something, and as theoretical those that teach about something. Additionally, persuasive writing is classified as practical, inasmuch as it is exhorting one to behave or believe in a certain way.

Theoretical works Adler divides into history, science, and philosophy. History deals with events at a particular time and place. Science and philosophy both hope to be of general application, but science is concerned with empirical studies, while philosophy requires only pure reason.

Why classify books? Because different sorts of subjects must be taught and learned in different ways. Only by understanding the genre of a book can one read it to best advantage.

Chapter 7: X-raying a Book

Rule 2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

Rule 3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

To accomplish this rule, Adler suggests making an outline of the book, dividing it into sections and subsections as necessary to fully describe the organization of the book. However, he indicates that the reader is not, in fact, expected to do this in full for every book. Rather, this is an ideal that should be kept in sight as the reader analyzes the book, constructing an outline in such detail as is needed, as the book merits, and as time permits.

Rule 4. Find out what the author's problems were.

In other words, what questions was the author trying to answer, in writing the book?

Adler ends the chapter by restating the four rules together in a slightly different form:

The First Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book Is About

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

Chapter 8: Coming to Terms with an Author

For the communication to be successfully competed, therefore, it is necessary for the two parties to use the same words with the same meanings--in short, to come to terms.

Adler is defining 'term' to mean a word as used--the word and its meaning in the particular utterance in question.

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

You can be sure of one thing. Not all the words an author uses are important.

Authors may use technical vocabulary specific to their fields, or may invent new words--or adapt existing ones--to their needs in a specific work. One must pay attention to any instances where the meaning of a word does not seem to be totally clear in order to cope with the latter, while the former might pose little problem for a reader with some familiarity with the subject.

Chapter 9: Determining an Author's Message

Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.

Now we come to propositions and arguments. Propositions may be made up of multiple sentences, and a single sentence may contain several propositions. The relationship between the two is like that between words and terms.

Rule 6. Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.

Having come to terms with the author, now you may recognize the propositions constituted by those terms. Find the author's argument and follow it. The main argument of the book will be made up of the most important propositions, and those propositions will likely contain the most important terms. So we see that the process works in both directions, from terms to arguments and back again.

Rule 7. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.

Adler suggests that the reader restate each proposition in order to demonstrate (and test) understanding.

If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means.

Having found the arguments, decide whether the author has solved the problems he set out to solve.

Rule 8. Find out what the author's solutions are.

Chapter 10: Criticizing a Book Fairly

In short, you must understand a book before you can judge it, and you should judge it based on the facts of the matter. Agreeing with the author is not 'losing', and disagreeing is not 'winning'.

Rule 9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, "I understand," before you can say any one of the following things: "I agree," or "I disagree," or "I suspend judgment."

The second general maxim of critical reading is as obvious as the first, but it needs explicit statement, nevertheless, and for the same reason. It is Rule 10, and it can be expressed thus: when you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously. There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong.

An important point, when one disagrees, is that one must recognize the possibility of resolving the disagreement. Adler says of most disagreements that:

They can be resolved by the removal of misunderstanding or of ignorance. Both cures are usually possible, though often difficult. Hence 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. He should always keep before him the possibility that he misunderstands or that he is ignorant on some point. No one who looks upon disagreement as an occasion for teaching another should forget that it is also an occasion for being taught.

The trouble is that many people regard disagreement as unrelated to either teaching or being taught. They think that everything is just a matter of opinion. I have mine, and you have yours; and our right to our opinions is as inviolable as our right to private property. On such a view, communication cannot be profitable if the profit to be gained is an increase in knowledge. Conversation is hardly better than a ping-pong game of opposed opinions, a game in which no one keeps score, no one wins, and everyone is satisfied because he does not lose—that is, he ends up holding the same opinions he started with.

Rule 11 is:

Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Chapter 11: Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author

When disagreeing with an author, in order to avoid disagreements merely due to prejudice, Adler suggests that the criticism of a book should take one of four forms:

(1) "You are uninformed"; (2) "You are misinformed"; (3) "You are illogical--your reasoning is not cogent"; (4) "Your analysis is incomplete."

Since disagreements relate to matters of fact, not opinion, a reader must either agree or show why he disagrees:

Since you have said you understand, your failure to support any of these first three remarks obligates you to agree with the author as far as he has gone. You have no freedom of will about this. It is not your sacred privilege to decide whether you are going to agree or disagree.

If you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, "I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in your reasoning, but I don't agree with your conclusions." All you can possibly mean by saying something like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions or prejudices. If you have been convinced, you should admit it.

Of the final sort of criticism, Adler writes that this is a question of the distinction between information and understanding. It addresses the question "What of it?". A book is better than another insofar contains more truth, commits fewer errors, gives a more thorough accounting of its subject.


On pp. 163--164, Adler restates the rules for Analytical reading.

Chapter 12: Aids to Reading

We can be engaged in either intrinsic or extrinsic reading. The former consists of that that which has been previously discussed: reading the book itself, alone, without reference to any other materials. The latter involves reading the book in light of other books and other relevant experiences.

Adler suggests avoiding the use of extrinsic aids, until you have already exhausted your ability to understand the book on its own. It is impossible, though (and not desirable!), to bring no extrinsic knowledge to bear on a book. All of us have common experience which helps us understand the basic facts of a book, and many books can only be understood by having first familiarized ourselves with books written earlier. If literature is viewed as a great conversation spanning the centuries, it is probable that it will be easier to understand if we read the earlier parts before the later.

Commentaries and similar works should be used sparingly, first, because they may be wrong, and second, because they may be incomplete. Reading the work itself and forming your own analysis may yield a better understanding.

To use a reference work, there are four requirements:

  1. You must know what you want to know, specifically.
  2. You must know in what references work the information will be found.
  3. You must know how to use the reference work to find the information you require.
  4. You must know that this information is of the sort that the authors of the reference would have considered knowable, and therefore included in the book.


A dictionary is not merely a guide to spelling and pronunciation. It often provides etymology, notes on usage, related words, and other information. Using all this, the reader may gain a fuller sense of the meaning of words. If the reader ignores the details, a dictionary will be of little benefit.

Adler cautions against using a dictionary at all during the initial reading, even for technical terms, unless it seems to be crucial for understanding the book. He considers it a greater danger that the reader, distracted by looking up words, may lose the thread of the argument.


The alphabetical arrangement of most encyclopedias obscures the relations between topics contained within. Adler suggests first turning to the index of the encyclopedia when searching for a topic, because typically beneath each alphabetized entry will be topically organized information that may be spread throughout the volumes of the encyclopedia. This will allow the reader to get a broader view of each topic.

Remember that as dictionaries are about words, encyclopedias are about facts. An encyclopedia cannot settle a difference of opinion. Further, although facts are, in principle, things that are true, we can be mistaken, and our idea of what the facts are depends on our culture and education.

Chapter 13: How to Read Practical Books

The ends of a practical book are achieved only in action. Properly reading a practical book, therefore, implies that you apply what you have learned--should you agree with the book. Practical books do not only provide abstract information to the reader--they attempt to persuade the reader to act. It is important, therefore, when reading practical books, to identify the author's goals, and to judge them.

The best protection against propaganda of any sort is the recognition of it for what it is. Only hidden and undetected oratory is really insidious. What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business. Propaganda taken in that way is like a drug you do not know you are swallowing. The effect is mysterious; you do not know afterwards why you feel or think the way you do.

Why might a person not act upon a practical book that he agrees with? Sexism, maybe:

Suppose, for example, that you read an article about how to make a chocolate mousse. You like chocolate mousse, and so you agree with the author of the article that the end in view is good. You also accept the author's proposed means for attaining the end--his recipe. But you are a male reader who never goes into the kitchen, and so you do not make a mousse.

In the case of the reader of the article about chocolate mousse, he is probably, by his inaction, expressing his view that, although mousse is admittedly delicious, someone else--perhaps his wife--should be the one to make it.

This, of course, is not primarily a reading problem but rather a psychological one. Nevertheless, the psychological fact has bearing on how effectively we read a practical book, and so we have discussed the matter here.

Chapter 14: How to Read Imaginative Literature

Imaginative literature has a differerent goal than expository literature: to provide an experience, rather than to teach. Its essential structure is not of terms, propositions, and arguments, so we cannot use the same rules for reading imaginative as expository literature. However, it does have items analogous to these.

As expository works have some essential argument, which is the unity of all the contributing arguments, propositions, and terms, so an imaginative work has a unity of the plot, to which individual narrative elements contribute.

Characters and events are like the terms of expository writing. The connections between these, how they all fit into the fictional world, are like propositions. Finally, the course of the plot is like the argument of expository writing.

Chapter 15: Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems

Preludes to Hamlet have been written, but they are ridiculous. We should not ask what happens to Pierre and Natasha after War and Peace ends. We are satisfied with Shakespeare's and Tolstoy's creations partly because they are limited in time. We need no more.

One of the most irritating things about a bad story is that the people in it seem to be punished or rewarded with no rhyme or reason.

Here again is the suggestion to read poetry aloud: "Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss."

Name Role
Charles Van Doren Author
Mortimer J. Adler Author
Simon & Schuster, Inc. Publisher