How to Read a Book

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How to Read a Book was first written in 1940 by Mortimer Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition. The 1972 revision, in addition to the first edition, treats genres (poetry, history, science, fiction, et cetera), inspectional and syntopical reading.

Overview of the last edition[edit]

How to Read a Book is divided into four parts, each consisting of several chapters.

Part I: The Dimensions of Reading[edit]

Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which classes will be addressed. He also makes a brief argument favoring the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing How to Read a Book.

There are three types of knowledge: practical, informational, and comprehensive. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that practical knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience; that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding equals the author's; that comprehension (insight) is best learned from who first achieved said understanding — an "original communication".

The idea that communication directly from those who first discovered an idea is the best way of gaining understanding is Adler's argument for reading the Great Books; that any book that does not represent original communication is inferior, as a source, to the original, and that any teacher, save those who discovered the subject he or she teaches, is inferior to the Great Books as a source of comprehension.

Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the arts of reading well, up to and including undergraduate university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings in formal education, it falls upon the individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.

Part II: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading[edit]

Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three levels of readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings, "structural", "interpretative", and "critical", in that order.

The first stage of the third level of reading is concerned with understanding the structure and purpose of the book. It begins with determining the basic topic and type of the book being read, so as to better anticipate the contents and comprehend the book from the very beginning. Adler says that the reader must distinguish between practical and theoretical books, as well as determining the field of study that the book addresses. Further, Adler says that the reader must note any divisions in the book, and that these are not restricted to the divisions laid out in the table of contents. Lastly, the reader must find out what problems the author is trying to solve.

The second stage of the third level of reading involves constructing the author's arguments. This first requires the reader to note and understand any special phrases and terms that the author uses. Once that is done, Adler says that the reader should find and work to understand each proposition that the author advances, as well as the author's support for those propositions.

In the third stage of the third level of reading, Adler directs the reader to criticize the book. He asserts that now that the reader understands the author's propositions and arguments, the reader has been elevated to the level of understanding of the book's author, and is now able (and obligated) to judge the book's merit and accuracy. Adler advocates judging books based on the soundness of their arguments. Adler says that one may not disagree with an argument unless one can find fault in its reasoning, facts, or premises, though one is free to dislike it in any case.

The method presented is sometimes called the Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (SPE) method, though this term is not used in the book.

Part III: Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter[edit]

He briefly discusses the differences in approaching various kinds of literature, and suggests reading several other books. He explains a method of approaching the Great Books – read the books that influenced a given author prior to reading works by that author – and gives several examples of that method.

Part IV: The Ultimate Goals of Reading[edit]

The last part of the book covers the fourth level of reading; syntopical reading. At this stage the reader uses several books to inform himself about a subject such as love, war, particle physics, etc. In the final pages of this part the authors expound on the philosophical benefits of reading; "growth of the mind", fuller experience as a conscious being.

How to Read a Book Video[edit]

Three years after writing the expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren did a series of thirteen 14-minute videos called How to Read a Book Video. The videos were produced and published by Encyclopædia Britannica. For unknown reasons sometime after their original publication, these videos had been lost for many years.

Reading list (1972 edition)[edit]

  1. HomerIliad, Odyssey
  2. The Old Testament
  3. Aeschylus – Tragedies
  4. Sophocles – Tragedies
  5. HerodotusHistories
  6. Euripides – Tragedies
  7. ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War
  8. Hippocrates – Medical Writings
  9. Aristophanes – Comedies
  10. Plato – Dialogues
  11. Aristotle – Works
  12. EpicurusLetter to Herodotus; Letter to Menoecus
  13. EuclidElements
  14. Archimedes – Works
  15. Apollonius of PergaConic Sections
  16. Cicero – Works
  17. LucretiusOn the Nature of Things
  18. Virgil – Works
  19. Horace – Works
  20. LivyHistory of Rome
  21. Ovid – Works
  22. PlutarchParallel Lives; Moralia
  23. TacitusHistories; Annals; Agricola Germania
  24. Nicomachus of GerasaIntroduction to Arithmetic
  25. EpictetusDiscourses; Encheiridion
  26. PtolemyAlmagest
  27. Lucian – Works
  28. Marcus AureliusMeditations
  29. GalenOn the Natural Faculties
  30. The New Testament
  31. PlotinusThe Enneads
  32. St. Augustine – On the Teacher; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
  33. The Song of Roland
  34. The Nibelungenlied
  35. The Saga of Burnt Njál
  36. St. Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica
  37. Dante AlighieriThe Divine Comedy;The New Life; On Monarchy
  38. Geoffrey ChaucerTroilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
  39. Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks
  40. Niccolò MachiavelliThe Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
  41. Desiderius ErasmusThe Praise of Folly
  42. Nicolaus CopernicusOn the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  43. Thomas MoreUtopia
  44. Martin Luther – Table Talk; Three Treatises
  45. François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel
  46. John CalvinInstitutes of the Christian Religion
  47. Michel de MontaigneEssays
  48. William GilbertOn the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
  49. Miguel de CervantesDon Quixote
  50. Edmund SpenserProthalamion; The Faerie Queene
  51. Francis BaconEssays; Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum, New Atlantis
  52. William ShakespearePoetry and Plays
  53. Galileo GalileiStarry Messenger; Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
  54. Johannes KeplerEpitome of Copernican Astronomy; Concerning the Harmonies of the World
  55. William HarveyOn the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals
  56. Thomas HobbesLeviathan
  57. René DescartesRules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on the Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy
  58. John Milton – Works
  59. Molière – Comedies
  60. Blaise PascalThe Provincial Letters; Pensees; Scientific Treatises
  61. Christiaan HuygensTreatise on Light
  62. Benedict de SpinozaEthics
  63. John LockeLetter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Thoughts Concerning Education
  64. Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies
  65. Isaac NewtonMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Optics
  66. Gottfried Wilhelm LeibnizDiscourse on Metaphysics; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding; Monadology
  67. Daniel DefoeRobinson Crusoe
  68. Jonathan SwiftA Tale of a Tub; Journal to Stella; Gulliver's Travels; A Modest Proposal
  69. William CongreveThe Way of the World
  70. George BerkeleyPrinciples of Human Knowledge
  71. Alexander PopeEssay on Criticism; Rape of the Lock; Essay on Man
  72. Charles de Secondat, baron de MontesquieuPersian Letters; Spirit of Laws
  73. VoltaireLetters on the English; Candide; Philosophical Dictionary
  74. Henry FieldingJoseph Andrews; Tom Jones
  75. Samuel JohnsonThe Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; The Lives of the Poets
  76. David HumeTreatise on Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  77. Jean-Jacques RousseauOn the Origin of Inequality; On the Political Economy; Emile – or, On Education, The Social Contract
  78. Laurence SterneTristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
  79. Adam SmithThe Theory of Moral Sentiments; The Wealth of Nations
  80. Immanuel KantCritique of Pure Reason; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
  81. Edward GibbonThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
  82. James Boswell – Journal; Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D.
  83. Antoine Laurent LavoisierTraité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
  84. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James MadisonFederalist Papers
  85. Jeremy Bentham – Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
  86. Johann Wolfgang von GoetheFaust; Poetry and Truth
  87. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier – Analytical Theory of Heat
  88. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelPhenomenology of Spirit; Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
  89. William Wordsworth – Poems
  90. Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems; Biographia Literaria
  91. Jane AustenPride and Prejudice; Emma
  92. Carl von ClausewitzOn War
  93. StendhalThe Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
  94. Lord ByronDon Juan
  95. Arthur Schopenhauer – Studies in Pessimism
  96. Michael Faraday – Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
  97. Charles LyellPrinciples of Geology
  98. Auguste Comte – The Positive Philosophy
  99. Honoré de BalzacPère Goriot; Eugenie Grandet
  100. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Representative Men; Essays; Journal
  101. Nathaniel HawthorneThe Scarlet Letter
  102. Alexis de TocquevilleDemocracy in America
  103. John Stuart MillA System of Logic; On Liberty; Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
  104. Charles DarwinThe Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
  105. Charles DickensPickwick Papers; David Copperfield; Hard Times
  106. Claude BernardIntroduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
  107. Henry David ThoreauCivil Disobedience; Walden
  108. Karl MarxCapital; Communist Manifesto
  109. George EliotAdam Bede; Middlemarch
  110. Herman MelvilleMoby-Dick; Billy Budd
  111. Fyodor DostoevskyCrime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
  112. Gustave FlaubertMadame Bovary; Three Stories
  113. Henrik Ibsen – Plays
  114. Leo TolstoyWar and Peace; Anna Karenina; What is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
  115. Mark TwainThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Mysterious Stranger
  116. William JamesThe Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; Essays in Radical Empiricism
  117. Henry JamesThe American; The Ambassadors
  118. Friedrich Wilhelm NietzscheThus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; The Genealogy of Morals; The Will to Power
  119. Jules Henri PoincaréScience and Hypothesis; Science and Method
  120. Sigmund FreudThe Interpretation of Dreams; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
  121. George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces
  122. Max Planck – Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
  123. Henri BergsonTime and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
  124. John Dewey – How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; Logic; the Theory of Inquiry
  125. Alfred North WhiteheadAn Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
  126. George SantayanaThe Life of Reason; Skepticism and Animal Faith; Persons and Places
  127. Vladimir LeninThe State and Revolution
  128. Marcel ProustRemembrance of Things Past
  129. Bertrand RussellThe Problems of Philosophy; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
  130. Thomas MannThe Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
  131. Albert Einstein – The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
  132. James Joyce – 'The Dead' in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
  133. Jacques MaritainArt and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
  134. Franz KafkaThe Trial; The Castle
  135. Arnold J. ToynbeeA Study of History; Civilization on Trial
  136. Jean-Paul SartreNausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
  137. Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe First Circle; The Cancer Ward

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