How to Read a Book - Adler and van Doren

The second edition, with van Doren, was published in {1972}.

Ch 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

Q. The authors explain that reading is active through what baseball analogy?
A. The author is the pitcher; the reader is the catcher; the book is the ball. Catching is still quite active!

The authors make the very interesting argument that one of two things is true when reading a book. Either:

  1. you understand everything the author has to say, in which case the book may have communicated information, but it hasn’t increased your understanding; you and the author are two minds in the same mold, and the book just expresses a common understanding you had before you met; or
  2. you didn’t understand everything, and you go to work on the book to gradually increase your understanding

“We can roughly define what we mean by the art of reading as follows: {the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations}.”

Q. How do the authors define the difference between reading for information and reading for understanding?
A. The former is like reading a newspaper or popular book—something immediately understandable, which may provide new information but which doesn’t perplex us; the latter occurs when we read something “higher” than us, which can help us understand more if we wrestle through the puzzlement.

Q. What (two) conditions are necessary in reading for understanding?
A. There’s an initial inequality in understanding, but the reader is able to overcome it (at least partially).

“You have gained nothing but information if you have only exercised your memory. … Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing {what an author says}, you know {what he means and why he says it}.”

Q. This book’s focus is on reading for ???, in contrast to reading for ??? or ???.
A. …reading for understanding, in contrast to reading for information or entertainment

The authors set up an interesting analogy to discovery learning, which they refer to as “unaided discovery”, in contrast to instruction (“aided discovery”). They say one way to think about the difference is the material of discovery:

{Unaided discovery} is the art of {“reading” nature or the world}, as {aided discovery} (instruction, or being taught) is the art of {reading books, or learning from discourse}.

The authors claim that because {reading for understanding is aided discovery} it requires {the same skills involved in research, i.e. “unaided” discovery: observation, memory, imagination, analysis, reflection}.

“Many people assume that though a poet {must use his imagination in writing a poem}, they {do not have to use their imagination in reading it}.”

Q. What key contrast do the authors draw between reading and listening?
A. Reading is learning from a teacher who is absent—so you can’t ask them questions; you must answer the question yourself.

Q. In what sense is learning from a book like unaided discovery from nature?
A. “When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.”

Ch 2: The Levels of Reading

Q. What are the four levels of reading?
A. elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical

Q. Why do the authors call the levels of reading “levels” rather than “kinds”?
A. They’re cumulative, where as “kinds” are usually disjoint.

Q. What’s “elementary reading”?
A. Basic literacy: being able to recognize the individual words on the page.

Q. What characterizes the aim of inspectional reading?
A. Getting the most out of a book within a (usually short) time, less than is necessary to fully absorb the book.

Q. What kinds of questions characterize inspectional reading?
A. What is the book about? What is its structure? What are its parts?

Q. How does the aim of analytical reading differ from that of inspectional reading?
A. “If inspectional reading is the best…reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best…reading that is possible given unlimited time.”

Q. When is analytical reading unnecessary?
A. When your goal is simply information or entertainment; analytical reading is for the sake of understanding.

Ch 4: Inspectional Reading

Q. Prerequisites for inspectional reading?
A. You must be able to read the text without constantly looking up words or stumbling over syntax; you should be able to make some sense of the majority of sentences.

Q. Two sublevels of inspectional reading?
A. “Systematic skimming” and “superficial reading”

Systematic skimming

Q. The main aim of systematic skimming?
A. To determine if the book deserves more careful reading, in limited time.

Q. After systematic skimming, besides knowing whether you want to read the book further, what should you aim to know?
A. What the author’s main contention is, and “what kind of book he has written” (I notice that I’m not sure what that means).

Q. How to begin with systematic skimming?
A. Read the title page and preface, looking for indications of scope, aim, angle. Can you place it in a category?

Q. When systematically skimming, what to do after reading the title page and preface?
A. Study the table of contents to get a sense of the book’s structure.

Q. When systematically skimming, what to do after studying the table of contents?
A. Check the index for the range of topics covered and works cited; look up a few passages that seem crucial, aiming for the crux.

Q. When systematically skimming, what to do after checking the index?
A. Read the publisher’s blurb on the dust jacket: they often contain good summaries.

Q. When systematically skimming, what to do after reading the dust jacket blurb?
A. Look at pivotal chapters, particularly at their opening and closing statements.

Q. When systematically skimming, what to do after looking at pivotal chapters?
A. Thumb through, reading paragraphs and pages here and there, looking for signs of the main contention. Read the las thetwo or three pages.

Six steps of systematic skimming: {read title page and preface}; {study ToC}; {scan index}; {read blurb}; {look at pivotal chapters}; {thumb through}

When systematically skimming, “think of yourself as a {detective looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea}”.

Superficial reading

Q. What do the authors mean by “superficial reading” (i.e. inspectional reading part 2)?
A. Reading the whole book through without stopping to look anything up or ponder anything, to get a sense of the whole.

Q. What primary rule should one follow when “superficially reading” a difficult book?
A. Read it through without stopping to look up or ponder things you don’t understand.

Q. Why should one first read a difficult book without stopping to ponder what you don’t understand?
A. If you try to puzzle out those details on your first pass, you’ll often fail, and lose track of the whole. You’ll have an easier time on your second reading.

Speed reading

Q. How do the authors reframe the aims of “speed reading”?
A. The goal isn’t just to read faster, but to be able to read at different speeds, and to know when they’re appropriate.

A “better formula” for speed reading: “every book should be read {no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension}”.

Q. Why can’t speed reading courses help you understand a difficult book?
A. They’re mostly focused on issues of elementary reading and physiology (e.g. stop sub-vocalizing); the problems with reading a difficult book are instead about knowing what to do with a difficult book, intellectually.

Ch 5: How to be a demanding reader

Q. What keeps “candlelight readers” awake?
A. It makes a difference to them whether or not they read the book they had in hand.

Q. Their central prescription for active reading?
A. Ask questions while you read, then try to answer them while reading.

Q. Four main questions to ask about any book?
A. What is it about as a whole? What are the main ideas, assertions, arguments? Is the book true (in whole or part)? What of it?

Q. If a book has given you information, you must ask about…?
A. Its significance. Why does the author think it’s important to know these things?

Q. If a book has not only informed but enlightened you, what must you ask?
A. What else follows, is further implied or suggested. Seek further enlightenment.

Q. What characterizes an undemanding reader?
A. The latter asks no questions—and gets no answers.

Q. Why is merely knowing “the four questions” not enough?
A. You must develop a habit of asking them while you read, and how to answer them precisely and accurately.

Q. People go to sleep over good books not because they ???, but because they ???.
A. …not because they are unwilling to make the effort but because they don’t know how to make it.

Q. How do they suggest that readers mark up a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument?
A. Numbers in the margin

Q. What do the authors mean by “conceptual note-making”?
A. Answers to questions about the truth and significance of the author’s conceptual claims, and descriptions of how they’ve changed your own conceptions.

Q. What do the authors mean by “structural note-making”?
A. Answers to questions like: what kind of book is this? what is it about as a whole? how is the work structured? You’re not really getting to its substance.

Q. What do the authors mean by “dialectical note-making”?
A. Observations about “the shape of the discussion”—i.e. the one engaged in by all authors, even if they don’t know it.

Q. What do the authors call the kind of note made during inspectional reading?
A. Structural note-making.

Q. What do the authors call the kind of note-making performed during analytical reading?
A. Conceptual note-making.

Q. An artist or craftsman in any field differs from a layperson in what critical way?
A. They have a habit of operating according to that field’s rules. (i.e. they don’t just know them)

Ch 6: Pigeonholing a book

Q. What’s the first rule of analytical reading?
A. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

Q. Contrasting definition of theoretical and practical books?
A. “Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do”

Q. How do the authors define the difference between historical, scientific, and philosophical books?
A. Historical books are narrative accounts of a time and place; the others concern general laws. Scientific books emphasize observations and ideas outside the scope of normal human experience; philosophical books refer the reader to their own experience for support of the argument.

Ch 7: X-Raying a Book

Q. What’s the second rule of analytical reading?
A. State the unity of the whole book—the main theme or point—as briefly as possible.

Q. What’s the third rule of analytical reading?
A. Outline its parts and their relationships to the whole.

Q. (Justifying the second and third rules of analytical reading) “You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is ????. You must also know ???”
A. how it is one; how it is many (an organized many!)

Q. What is the fourth rule of analytical reading?
A. Define the question(s) the author is trying to answer.

Q. Give some examples of theoretical questions an author might ask.
A. e.g. Does X exist? What sort of thing is X? What caused it? What is its purpose? What are its consequences? What are its traits?

Q. Give some examples of practical questions an author might ask.
A. e.g. What should one do? How should one do it? Is it better to do X or Y? Under what circumstances?

Q. What is the purpose of the first stage of analytical reading?
A. To tell what a book is about and how it’s structured.

Ch 8: Coming to terms with an author

Q. What’s meant by “coming to terms” with an author?
A. To use the same words with the same meanings

“a {term} is {a word used unambiguously}”

Q. Distinction between ‘term’ and ‘word’?
A. Words can have many meanings; ‘term’ denotes the symbol coupled with the unambiguous meaning intended by the author.

Q. What is fifth rule of analytical reading?
A. 1) Find the important words; and 2) come to terms.

Q. What is the purpose of the second stage of analytical reading?
A. To interpret its contents or message (through analytical reading rules 5-8).

Q. Analytical reading rules 5-8 all have two parts. What are they?
A. A step dealing with the language on the page, and a step beyond to the thought that lies beneath the language.

Q. Why do the authors argue that it’s impossible to come to terms with an author if one is not reading actively?
A. You will often not notice which words are especially important—words he’s using in a special way.

Q. Suggested note-taking procedure for “coming to terms”?
A. Make a glossary—a two-column list of important words/phrases and their meanings (i.e. the terms). The mapping may be many-to-many!

Ch 9: Determining an author’s message

Q. In business, one normally makes a proposition, then comes to terms; in reading, why is the reverse usually true?
A. A reader often can’t tell exactly what the author’s proposing without first coming to terms.

Q. Where do the two stages of analytical reading meet?
A. At the level of propositions and arguments (in the first stage, you work down to that level by dividing the book into parts; in the second, you work up to that level by seeing how arguments are composed of propositions and terms).

Q. What is the sixth rule of analytical reading?
A. 1) Mark the most important sentences; 2) discover the propositions they contain.

Q. What is the seventh rule of analytical reading?
A. Locate/construct the basic argument of the book, by connecting sentences.

Q. How to find the most important sentences?
A. Look for sentences which require the most effort; those which express the main claims his argument rests upon; those which ground important terms.

Q. “Best test” for determining if you’ve understood a proposition in a sentence?
A. State it in your own words—ideally totally different words (“make a translation”).

Q. “One other test” (not the “best test”) offered for determining if you’ve understood a proposition in a sentence?
A. Give an illustrative example or implication, ideally from personal experience.

“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.

“{verbalism}”: author’s term for {using words without awareness of what they mean; “playing with words”}

Q. What is the eighth rule of analytical reading?
A. Find out the author’s solutions.

Ch 10: Criticizing a book fairly

Francis Bacon’s recommendation for readers: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to {weigh and consider}.”

Q. What do the authors mean by “teachability”?
A. Engaged, critical, acting like peers.

Q. What do the authors mean when they say that readers must be not only responsive but responsible?
A. You have a responsibility to take a position about the author’s ideas, not just to follow their points responsively.

Q. What does it mean for a reader to have “rhetorical skill”?
A. Knowing how to react to anyone who tries to convince/persuade him.

Q. What is the ninth rule of analytical reading?
A. Understand before you judge.

Q. What is the tenth rule of analytical reading?
A. When you disagree, do so without disputation or contention.

Q. Disagreement is “futile agitation” unless…
A. You hold some earnest hope for resolution.

Q. How does one distinguish between a statement of knowledge and an expression of opinion?
A. “Knowledge consists of those opinions that can be defended” (i.e. with evidence, reasons); we believe we can convince others.

Q. What is the eleventh rule of analytical reading?
A. Think of disagreements as remediable; give reasons.

Ch 11: Agreeing or disagreeing with an author

Q. In what sense can “I don’t understand” be a critical remark?
A. If accompanied by evidence that the book is disorderly, inconsistent in its terminology, etc, it makes the argument unevaluable.

Q. “Three conditions” for conducting a disagreement?
A. 1) acknowledge your emotions; 2) state your assumptions; 3) attempt impartiality

Q. Four categories of criticism?
A. 1) uninformed; 2) misinformed; 3) illogical; 4) incomplete

Last updated 2023-11-21.