Notes & Quotes: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

How To Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler seeks to answer the questions posed by it’s title.

Whether you’re a casual reader or a veteran of the classics, you will take away many useful tips and rules to aid you in your reading journey.

The first order of business; become an active reader:

What does active reading entail?

… it suffices to say that given the same thing to read, one person reads it better than another, first, by reading it more actively, and second, by performing each of the acts involved more skillfully.

Committing to becoming an active reader is only a prerequisite to learning the art of reading.

Adler goes on to describe and expound upon the Four Levels of Reading, giving suggestions and rules for each Level. He then even describes how to read various types of books.

We will focus on the Four Levels of Reading in this summary. If you are curious about specific advice for reading Fiction, History, Philosophy, or several other topics, Dr Adler covers those topics and more.

Early in the book he gives a succinct definition for whats to come:

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.


There are four levels of reading. Each level relies upon the lower level skills while also gaining in complexity.

  1. Elementary Reading: As one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to beginning literacy.
  2. Inspectional Reading: The art of Skimming Systematically.
  3. Analytical Reading: Preeminently for the sake of understanding.
  4. Syntopical Reading: A comparative reading of multiple books in which the reader places them in relation to one another and to a subject


Stages of Learning to Read:

  • Reading Readiness: Includes several different kinds of preparedness from physical and intellectual to language and personal.
  • Read very simple materials
  • Rapid progress in vocabulary building and increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context clues
  • Refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired

The child is a “mature” reader in the sense that he is now capable of reading almost anything, but still in a relatively unsophisticated manner. In the simplest terms, he is mature enough to do high school work.

However, he is not yet a “mature” reader in the sense in which we want to employ the term in this book. He has mastered the first level of reading, that is all; he can read on his own and is prepared to learn more about reading. But he does not yet know how to read beyond the elementary level.


Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly that you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension

NOTE: The Rules for Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical Reading that follow are for Works of Exposition, not for Fiction or Poetry.

Suggestions for Skimming or Pre-Reading

  • Look at the Title Page & Preface
  • Study the Table of Contents
  • Check the Index (ie look up a few crucial terms)
  • Read the Publishers blurb
  • Look to Chapters that seem to be Pivotal: If they have summary statements to open or close chapters, Read Them
  • Flip through the pages, Read a paragraph or page or two.
  • Read the last few pages of a book since authors sum up the argument or theme

Superficial Reading:

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.

Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea, it is necessary when you do not know, as is often the case, whether the book you have in mind is worth reading carefully. You will find that out by skimming it. It is generally desirable to skim even a book that you intend to read carefully, to get some idea of its form and structure.

Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. This is the most important rule of all; it is the essence of inspectional reading. Do not be afraid to be, or to seem to be, superficial. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time.


Reading a book on any level beyond the elementary is essentially an effort on your part to ask it questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability). That should never be forgotten.

How to Be a Demanding Reader:

Ask Questions while you read, questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. The Four Basic Questions you must answer:

  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?


  • Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  • State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  • Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  • Grasp the authors leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  • Know the author\’s arguments by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  • Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  • Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you say “I understand.)
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  • Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
  • Show wherein the author is uninformed.
  • Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  • Show wherein the author is illogical.
  • Show wherein the author’s analysis or account in incomplete.

… perhaps we should stress, once again, that these rules of analytical reading describe an ideal performance. Few people have ever read any book in this ideal manner, and those who have, probably read very few books in this way. The ideal remains, however, the measure of achievement. You are a good reader to the degree in which you approximate it.

When we speak of someone as “well-read,” we should have this ideal in mind.


A curious paradox is involved in any project of syntopical reading. Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it.


  1. Finding the Relevant Passages: You and your concerns primarily to be served, not the books.
  2. Bring the Author to Terms: You must establish the terms and bring authors to them rather than the other way around
  3. Getting the Questions Clear: Frame a set of questions that she light on our problem
  4. Defining the Issues: Define issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be
  5. Analyzing the Discussion: Truth more likely in conflict of opposing answers\r\n\r\nThe point is not that one more voice carries no weight in the forum of human discussion on important issues.

The point is that a different type of contribution to the pursuit of understanding can and should be made. And this contribution consists in being resolutely objective and detached throughout. The special quality that a syntopical analysis tries to achieve can, indeed, be summarized in the two words “dialectical objectivity.”

The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *