How To Read A Book: Review and Summary Notes

How To Read A Book

How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler

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How To Read A Book


Recommended book for how to get more out of the books you read. The main thing I started doing after this book is to always read the table of contents/chapter summaries of a book first, before reading the book.


When reading a difficult book, be ok with only picking up the superficial meanings the first time through.

Why passive information consumption is just parroting back opinions of others:

The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

Reading beyond your level:

The first sense is the one in which we speak of ourselves as reading newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth—that is, if we were both alert and honest.

The second sense is the one in which 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 be 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.

There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading.

Recently, we asked some twenty-five reasonably well-read persons what the title of Darwin’s book was and more than half said The Origin of the Species. The reason for the mistake is obvious; they supposed, never having read the book, that it had something to do with the development of the human species. In fact, it has little or nothing to do with that subject, which Darwin covered in a later book, The Descent of Man. The Origin of Species is about what its title says it is about—namely the proliferation in the natural world of a vast number of species of plants and animals from an originally much smaller number of species, owing mainly to the principle of natural selection. We mention this common error because many think they know the title of the book, although few have actually ever read the title carefully and thought about what it means.

Here is another example. In this case we will not ask you to remember the title, but to think about what it means. Gibbon wrote a famous, and famously long, book about the Roman Empire. He called it The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Almost everybody who takes up the book recognizes that title; and most people, even without the book in their hand, know the title. Indeed, the phrase “decline and fall” has become proverbial. Nevertheless, when we asked the same twenty-five well-read people why the first chapter is called “The Extent and Military Force of the Empire in the Age of the Antonines,” they had no idea. They did not see that if the book as a whole was titled Decline and Fall, then it might be assumed that the narrative would begin with the high point of the Roman Empire, and continue through to the end. Unconsciously, they had translated “decline and fall” into “rise and fall.” They were puzzled because there was no discussion of the Roman Republic, which ended a century and a half before the Age of the Antonines. If they had read the title carefully they could have assumed that the Age of the Antonines was the high point of the Empire, even if they had not known it before. Reading the title, in other words, could have given them essential information about the book before they started to read it; but they had failed to do that, as most people fail to do even with an unfamiliar book.

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