How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler


One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different―appropriate―speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed. When we read too fast or too slowly, we understanding nothing.

Knowledge is prerequisite to understanding. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few.

The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day.

One read is better than another in proportion as he is capable of a greater range of activity in reading and exerts more effort. He is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him.

The art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.

We can roughly define what we mean by art of reading as follows: the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading. 

A person tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand. Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader. The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader's understanding. Such communication between unequals must by possible, or else one person could never learn from another, either through speech or writing. Here by "learning" is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

He has indeed elevated himself by his activity, though indirectly, of course, the elevation was made possible by the writer who had something to teach him. 

We can learn only from our "betters." We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The person who has this sort of knowledge possesses the art of reading in the sense with which we are especially concerned.

Getting more information is learning, and so is coming to understand what you did not understand before. To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with the other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it. 

Being informed is prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed. 

In the history of education, men have often distinguished between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. Instruction occurs when one person teaches another through speech or writing. We can, however, gain knowledge without being taught. Hence, there must be discovery―the process of learning something by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.

Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one.

Knowledge must grow in his mind if learning is to take place.

The difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery―or, as we would prefer to say, between aided and unaided discovery―is primarily a difference in the materials on which the learner works. When he is being instructed―discovering with the help of a teacher―the learner acts on something communicated to him. He performs operations on discourse, written or oral. he learns by acts of reading or listening. Note here the close relation between reading and listening. If we ignore the minor differences between these two ways of receiving communication, we can say that reading and listening are the same art―the art of being taught. When, however, the learner proceeds without the help of any sort of teacher, the operations of learning are performed on nature or the world rather than on discourse.

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.

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. 

If we are disposed to go on learning and discovering, we must know how to make books teach us well.

Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically. When reading at this level, your aim is to examine the surface of the book, to learn everything that the surface alone can each you. That is often a good deal. 

The question typically asked at this level is "What is the book about?" That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are "What is the structure of the book?" or "What are its parts?" Upon completing an inspectional reading of a book, no matter how short the time you had to do it in, you should also be able to answer the question, "What kind of book is it―a novel, a history, a scientific treatise?"

Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading―the best reading you can do. 

The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book―the metaphor is apt―and works at it until the book becomes his own. Francis Bacon once remarked that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.

When reading synoptically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and place them in relation to one another to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough.

When reading synoptically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and place them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Synoptical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the synoptical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that synoptical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

Near-universal literacy was obtained in the United States earlier than anywhere else, and this in turn has helped us to become the highly developed industrial society that we are at the present day. 

The child who is not yet ready to read is frustrated if attempts are made to teach him, and he may carry over his dislike for the experience into his later school career and even into adult life. Delaying the beginning of reading instruction beyond the reading readiness stage is not nearly so serious, despite the feelings of parents who may fear that their child is "backward" or not "keeping up" with his peers. 

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. 

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

Do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time.

If your aim in reading is to profit from it―to grow somehow in mind or spirit―you have to keep awake. That means reading as actively as possible. It means making an effort―an effort for which you expect to be repaid.

Ask questions while you read―questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order. There are four main questions you must ask about any book.

  1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics. 
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author's particular message.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author's mind is not enough.
  4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.


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).

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it―which comes to the same thing―is by writing in it.

The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.

Understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher.

Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules.

Now there is no other way of forming a habit of operation than by operating. That is what it means to say one learns to do by doing. 

An expository book is one that conveys knowledge primarily, "knowledge" being construed broadly. Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in this meaning of knowledge and is an expository work. 

Intelligent action depends on knowledge. Knowledge can be used in many ways, not only for controlling nature and inventing useful machines or instruments by also for directing human conduct and regulating man's operations in various fields of skill.

To make knowledge practical we must convert it into rules of operation. We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get somewhere. This can be summarized in the distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

A book is a work of art. If a work of art were absolutely simple, it would, of course, have no parts. But that is never the case. None of the sensible, physical things man knows is simple in this absolute way, nor is any human production. They are all complex unities. You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many that consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many. If the parts were not organically related, the whole that they composed would not be one. Strictly speaking, there would be no whole at all but merely a collection.

The most readable book is an architectural achievement on the part of the author. The best books are those that have the most intelligible structure. Though they are usually more complex than poorer books, their greater complexity is also a greater simplicity, because their parts are better organized, more unified. 

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That, indeed, is the plot of every romance. To recognize this is to learn what it means to say that there are only a small number of plots in the world. The difference between good and bad stories having the same essential plot lies in what the author does with it, how he dresses up the bare bones.

The best-laid plans of authors, like those of mice and other men, often go awry.

A good rule always describes the ideal performance. But a person can be skilled in an art without being the ideal artist. He can be a good practitioner if he merely approximates the rule.

The flesh of a book is as much a part of it as the skeleton. This is as true of books as it is of animals and human beings. The flesh―the outline spelled out, "read out," as we sometimes say―adds an essential dimension. It adds life, in the case of the animal. Just so, actually writing the book from an outline, no matter how detailed, gives the work a kind of life that it would not otherwise have had. We can summarize all of this by recalling the old-fashioned maxim that a piece of writing should have unity, clarity, and coherence. That is, indeed, a basic maxim of good writing. If the writing has unity, we must find it. If the writing has clarity and coherence, we must appreciate it by finding the distinction and the order of the parts.

The first stage of analytical reading, or the rules for finding what a book is about are:

  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.
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  6. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  7. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  8. 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.
  9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgement, until you can say "I understand.")
  10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make.
  12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
  13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  14. Show wherein the author is illogical.
  15. Show wherein the author's analysis or account is incomplete.


If language is used without thought, nothing is being communicated. And thought or knowledge cannot be communicated without language. 

The main point is that one word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words.

You have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand.

His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. 

Propositions are the answers to questions. They are declarations of knowledge or opinion. 

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.

The eye will not see if it is not kept open, and the mind will not follow an argument if it is not awake.

They pause over the sentences that interest them rather than the ones that puzzle them. 

If you cannot get away at all from the author's words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words. 

Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought and knowledge.

The vice of "verbalism" can be defined as the bad habit of using words without regard for the thoughts they should convey and without awareness of the experiences to which they should refer. "Verbalism" is the besetting sin of those who fail to read analytically. Such readers never get beyond the words. 

The nature of the human mind is such that if it works at all during the process of reading, if it comes to terms with the author and reaches his propositions, it will see his arguments as well.

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgement. He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical. He is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed.

On the part of the speaker or writer, rhetorical skill is knowing how to convince or persuade.

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 judgement." To agree is just as much an exercise of critical judgement on your part as to disagree. You can be just as wrong in agreeing as in disagreeing. To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent. Though it may not be so obvious at first, suspending judgement is also an act of criticism. It is taking the position that something has not been shown. You are saying that you are not convinced or persuaded one way or the other. 

There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent. 

Where understanding is not present, affirmations and denials are equally meaningless and unintelligible. Nor is a position of doubt or detachment any more intelligent in a reader who does not know what he is suspending judgement about. 

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. 

Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.

Most people think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth.

He who regards conversation as a battle can win only by being an antagonist, only by disagreeing successfully, whether he is right or wrong. The only profit in conversation, with living or dead teachers, is what one can learn from them if he realizes that you win only by gaining knowledge, not by knocking the other fellow down, he may see the futility of mere contentiousness. 

Men are rational animals. Their rationality is the source of their power to agree. Their animality, and the imperfections of their reason that it entails, is the cause of most of the disagreements that occur. Men are creatures of passion and prejudice. The language they must use to communicate is an imperfect medium, clouded by emotion and colored by interest, as well as inadequately transparent for thought. Yet to the extent that men are rational, these obstacles to their understanding can be overcome. The sort of disagreement that is only apparent, the sort that results from misunderstanding, is certainly curable. The relatively ignorant often wrongly disagree with the relatively learned about matters exceeding their knowledge. The more learned, however, have a right to be critical of errors made by those who lack relevant knowledge. Disagreement of this sort can also be corrected. Inequality of knowledge is always curable by instruction. 

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. 

We hold that knowledge can be communicated and that discussion can result in learning. If genuine knowledge, not mere personal opinion, is at stake, then, for the most part, either disagreements are apparent only to be removed by coming to terms and a meeting of minds; or they are real, and the genuine issues can be resolved―by appeals to fact and reason. The maxim of rationality concerning disagreements is to be patient for the long run. We are saying, in short, that disagreements are arguable matters. And argument is empty unless it is undertaken on the supposition that there is attainable  an understanding that, when attained by reason in light of all the relevant evidence, resolves the original issues.

The reader who does not distinguish between the reasoned statement of knowledge and the flat expression of opinion is not reading to learn. 

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

Knowledge, if you please, consists in those opinions that can be defended, opinions for which there is evidence of one kind or another. If we really know something, in this sense, we must believe that we can convince others of what we know. Opinions, in the sense in which we have been employing the word, is unsupported judgement. We can do no more than opine that something is true when we have no evidence or reason for the statement other than our personal feelings or prejudice. We can say that it is true and that we know it when we have objective evidence that other reasonable men are likely to accept.

The first thing a reader can say is that he understands or that he does not. In fact, he must say he understands, in order to say more. If he does not understand, he should keep his peace and go back to work on the book. 

Not simply by following an author's arguments, but only by meeting them as well, can the reader ultimately reach significant agreement or disagreement with his author.

Since men are animals as well as rational, it is necessary to acknowledge the emotions you bring to a dispute, or those that arise in the course of it. Otherwise you are likely to be giving vent to feelings, not stating reasons. You may even think you have reasons, when all you have are strong feelings. 

Good controversy should not be a quarrel about assumptions.

An attempt at impartiality is a good antidote for the blindness that is almost inevitable in partisanship. 

You cannot read for information intelligently without determining what significance is, or should be, attached to the facts presented.

"If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are."

On the whole, it is best to do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help; for if you act consistently on this principle, you will find that you need less and less outside help.

Common experience is available to all men and women just because they are alive. Special experience must be actively sought and is available only to those who go to the trouble of acquiring it. 

The man who knew an encyclopedia by heart would be in grave danger of incurring the title idiot savant"learned fool."

The best protection against propaganda of any sort is the recognition of it for what it is. What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business. Propoganda taken in that way is like a drug you do not know you are swallowing. 

People can be good readers of fiction without being good critics. A critical reading of anything depends upon the fullness of one's apprehension. 

Beauty is harder to analyze than truth.

Reading for information does not stretch your mind any more than reading for amusement. 

The mind can atrophy if it is not used.