How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading


Syntopical reading最时候做background searching for the problem

Title: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
Authors: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren
Edition: 1
Finished Date:
Rating: 5
Language: English
Genres: Reading
Level: Entry
Publishers: Touchstone
Publication Date: 1972-08-15
ISBN: 978-0671212094
Format: ePub
Pages: 426
Download: ePub

Definition List

  1. readers
    People who are still accustomed to gain a large share of their information about the their understanding of the world from the written word.
  2. “learning” in this book
    understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information already posses

Goal of the Book

the art of reading for the sake of increased understanding

Part 1: The Dimensions of Reading

Ch 1: the activity of reading

Active reading


  • more or less active
  • the more active the reading the better

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

  • The mind passes from the understanding less to understanding more
  • The skills used are constitute the art of reading.

highly skilled reading: Without external help, only use mind to read materials to lift yourself from a state of understanding less to understanding more.

Given the same thing to reading, one person reads it better than another

  1. reading more actively
  2. performing each of acts involved more skillful

3 Goals of reading

  1. reading for entertainment

    • least demanding kind of reading
    • require the least amount of effort
  2. reading for information
    • newspaper
    • magazines
  3. reading for understanding

Book 3 can be read as Book 2 and 1. Book 2 can be read as Book 1. Reverse is not true.

2 possible relations between mind and the book

  1. you understand perfectly everything the author has to say

    You may have gained information, but could not increase understanding.

  2. you don’t understand

    use mind only to try to understand => elevate level of understanding

    the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader.

criteria: read better

  1. more active
  2. perform each of the acts involved more skillfully

criteria for reading for understanding taking place

  1. There is initial inequality in understanding
  2. The reader must be able to overcome the inequality in some degree, seldom fully, but always approaching equality with the writer.

2 types of learning

  • learning by instruction: aided discovery

    one person teaches another through speech or writing

  • learning by discovery: unaided discovery


    without being taught

4 levels of reading

accumulative: Higher levels include lower levels.

Level 1: Elementary Reading/Rudimentary Reading/Basic Reading/Initial Reading

ordinarily learned in elementary school

If we learn a foreign language, our first effort must be to identify the actual words.

Level 2: Inspectional Reading: Skimming/Pre-reading

The student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading.


  • get the most out of a book within a given time
  • examine the surface of the book

“What does the sentence say?” The question typically asked at this level

  • What is the book about?
    • What is the structure of the Book
    • What are its parts?

Level 3: Analytical Reading: Thorough Reading/Complete Reading/Good Reading

always intensely actively

The reader works at one book until the book becomes his own

Inspectional Reading vs Analytical Reading

  • Inspectional Reading: the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time
  • Analytical Reading: the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time

Level 4: Syntopical Reading/Comparative Reading

The reader reads many books, and places them in relation to one another and to a problem about which they all revolve.

Level 1: Elementary Reading

  1. word mastery
  2. vocabulary growth and the utilization of context
  3. read unsophisticated manner

    Level 2: Inspectional Reading: Skimming/Pre-reading

Elementary Reading is contained in Inspectional Reading


  • get the most out of a book within a given time
  • examine the surface of the book

“What does the sentence say?” The question typically asked at this level

  • What is the book about?
    • What is the structure of the Book
    • What are its parts?

2 types of Inspectional Reading

They are a single skills, but the beginning reader is advised to consider them as 2 different steps.

step 1. Systematic Skimming/Predating

suitable situation
  1. You do not know whether you want to read the book

  2. You do not know whether it deserves analytical reading

  3. a limited time to find out


discover whether the book requires a more careful reading


  1. Look at the title page and preface
    read quickly

    1. subtitles
    2. the scope of the book
    3. goal of the book
    4. author’s special angle on the subject
  2. Study the table of contents
  3. Check the index if the book has one

    • Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered
    • When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up at least some of the passages cited.
  4. If the book has a dust jacket, read the publisher’s blurb.

    summarization of the main points of the book

  5. look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument

    summary paragraphs at the beginning or at the end of the chapter. read carefully

  6. turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that

    • look for the main contention

step 2. superficial reading

a rule and essence for reading a difficult book: 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. Do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time.

  • Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soo come to things you do understand

  • 不要受footnote, comments, references的阻碍

You will have a better chance of understanding it on a second reading

even if you never go back to read for the second time, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to.

Most of us were taught to pay attention to the things we did not understand. We were told to go to a dictionary when we met an unfamiliar word. We were told to go to an encyclopedia or some other reference work when we were confronted with allusions or statements we did not comprehend. We were told to consult footnotes, scholarly commentaries, or other secondary sources to get help. But when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

reading speeds

2 steps in inspectional reading are taken rapidly.

The competent inspectional reader will accomplish them both quickly, no matter how long or difficult the book he is trying to read.

Many books are hardly worth even skimming;

  • some should be read quickly;
  • a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.

How to be a demanding reader

the essence of active reading: the 4 basic questions a reader asks

Active reading is better reading

Inspectional reading is always active.

Ask questions while reading. Try to answer the questions by yourself during reading

The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order.

4 main questions applied mainly to expository or nonfiction works

1. What is the book about as a whole? (Inspectional Reading)

  • leading theme of the book
  • how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by sub

2. What is being said in detail and how? (Inspectional Reading)

  • the main ideas
  • assertions
  • arguments

that constitute the author’s particular message

3. Is the book true, in whole or part? (Analytical Reading)

4. What of it? (Analytical Reading)

  • What the significancsignificee of the information in the book
  • Why does the author think it is important to know these things?
  • Is it important to you to know them?
  • 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

Knowing what the four questions are is not enough. You must remember to ask them as you read. The habit of doing that is the mark of a demanding reader. More than that, you must know how to answer them precisely and accurately. The trained ability to do that is the art of reading.

How to make a book your own

merely asking questions is not enough

You have to try to answer them.

Level 3: Analytical Reading

Rule 1: Know the type of book as soon as possible, preferably before you begin to read

  • fiction
    • a novel
    • a play
  • an expository work: one that conveys knowledge primarily, “knowledge” being construed broadly.

distinction between practical books vs theoretical books

  • theoretical books: teach that something is the case
    • Any guidebook is a practical book.
  • practical books: teach how to do something or think you should do

    • include all expositions
    • all manuals of practice in any field

      • engineering
      • medicine
      • cooking

kinds of theoretical books

  • history
  • science
  • philosophy

If a theoretical book emphasizes things that lie outside the scope of your normal, routine, daily experience, it is a scientific work. If not, it is philosophical.

Rule 2: state the skeleton of the book in a few sentences

say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible

You must be able to tell yourself or anybody else what the unity is, and in a few words. (If it requires too many words, you have not seen the unity but a multiplicity.) Do not be satisfied with “feeling the unity” that you cannot express. The reader who says, “I know what it is, but I just can’t say it,” probably does not even fool himself.

Rule 3:

Level 4: Syntopical Reading

  • Requirement 1: know two or more books relevant to a particular question
  • Requirement 2: know which books should be read

2 main stages of syntopical reading

Stage 1: preparatory: surveying the field before syntopical reading

  1. create a bibliography of the problem from the resources of

    • library catalogues
    • advisors
    • bibliographies in books
  2. inspect all books on the bibliography


    1. acquire a clearer idea of the problem
    2. ascertain which are related to the problem
    3. cut down bibliography to a more manageable size

      The identification of the problem matter follow the reading, not precede it.

      example: you have to read a dozen works before you can decide which to read

    4. inspectional reading

      1. inspect all of the books on the list.

        1. classify a book
        2. achieve a superficial knowledge of its contents
        3. discover in the very shot time whether the book says something important about the problem

        should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them

        Inspectional reading will not acquaint you with all the intricacies of the topics and insights provided by authors

        2 essential effects

        1. give a clear enough idea of the problem so that the subsequent analytical reading of some books on the list is productive
        2. cut down bibliography to a more manageable size

Note: Two steps are not strictly chronological distinct. They can affect each other.

difference in goal between analytical reading and syntopical reading

analytical reading syntopical reading
goals understand books
priority the book > my priority my priority > the book

Stage 2: syntopical reading of the bibliography amassed in Stage 1

Step 1: Inspecting Reading: look for the most relevant texts to the problem

You should read the book quickly

difference of step 1.2 and step 2.1 in inspecting reading

  • step 1.2: understand the problem + decide whether the book is relevant to the problem

  • step 2.1: look contents in the book relevant to the problem

Doing two steps together at the same time, it is hard to fully understand the question fast.

general steps

  1. inspecting the 1st book
  2. inspecting the 2nd book + recognize the difference between the 1st books and 2nd book

    If you already have a fairly clear idea of the problem, then two steps can coalesce.

    But at the beginning, they should be kept rigorously separated.

Step 2: Construct a list of neutral terminology for the problem

All or most of authors can use the terminology.

For each question, arrange the opposing answers of authors


In interpretive reading (the 2nd stage of analytical reading)

the 1st rule requires you to come to terms with the author, which means identifying his key words and discovering how he uses them. But now you are faced with a number of different authors, and it is unlikely that they will have all used the same words, or even the same terms.

Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.

  • can be the most difficult step in syntopical reading; force an author to use your language, rather than using his.

    All of our normal reading habits are opposed to this. As we have pointed out several times, we assume that the author of a book we want to read analytically is our better, and this is particularly true if the book is a great one. Our tendency is to accept the author “terms and his organization of the problem matter, no matter how active we may be in trying to understand him.
    In syntopical reading, however, we will very quickly be lost if we accept any one author’s terminology. We may understand his book, but we will fail to understand the others, and we will find that not much light is shed on the problem in which we are interested.

  • face the possibility that no author’s terminology will be useful to us

  • coincidence of terminology between us and any of the authors on the list is merely accidental.

    Often, indeed, such coincidence will be inconvenient; for if we use one term or set of terms of an author, we may be tempted to use others among his terms, and these may get in the way rather than help.

Step 3: Create a set of neutral questions that shed light on the problem and each author gives answers

It is difficult, too.

  • order questions to solve the problem
  • all or most of our authors can be interpreted as giving answers to them.

The difficulty is that the questions we want answered may not have been seen as questions by the authors. Their view of the subject may have been quite different from ours.

The order depends on the subject but some general directions can be suggested.

  1. The 1st questions usually have to do with the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating.

  2. If the phenomenon exists or that the idea has a certain character, then we may ask further questions of his book.

    • how the phenomenon is known or how the idea manifests itself.
  3. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers to the previous questions.

Step 4: For each book, look for answers to questions

possible outcomes when authors answer questions

  • no answer to one or more of questions
    => record as silent or indeterminate on the question.
  • give the same answer
  • give different answers

  • We also cannot depend entirely on their explicit statements about the problem.

    If we could depend on any one of them in that way, we probably would have no problem to solve.

Step 5: order answers

It is the issue between the authors who answer the question in one way, and those who answer it in one or another opposing way.

  • Only two answers are given by all of the authors examined: the issue is a relatively simple one.
  • More than two alternative answers are given to a question.

    • order the opposing answers
      • the authors who adopt them classified according to their views.
  • two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in contrary or contradictory ways.

    But this does not happen as often as one might wish.

    Usually, differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject.

    • define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be. Sometimes this forces him to frame the question in a way that is not explicitly employed by any author.

A number of issues revolving around a closely connected set of questions may be termed the controversy about that aspect of the subject. Such a controversy may be very complicated, and it is the task of the syntopical reader to sort it out and arrange it in an orderly and perspicuous fashion, even if no author has managed to do that.

Step 6: Analyze the discussion by the following method

  • ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the problem.

    • More general issues should precede less general ones
    • relations among issues should be clearly indicated.

      Note: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained: quote author’s text

      The first 5 steps correspond to the first two groups of rules for analytical reading.

  • contents include

    1. ask and answer questions in a certain order, and be able to defend that order
    2. show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why;
    3. be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers.

      Only when we have done all of this can we claim to have analyzed the discussion of our problem. And only then can we claim to have understood it

  • discuss the answers given by authors are true or false

    the possible outcome of the answers

    • All authors’ answer are true.
    • All authors’ answer are false.
    • Some answers are true.

      This is another way of saying that the aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it.

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

    • he must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over

    • in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language.

      When summaries of an author’s argument are presented, they must be presented in that language and not the author’s. But the author’s own words, carefully quoted so as not to wrench them out of context, must accompany the summary, so that the reader can judge for himself whether the interpretation of the author is correct.

An example of Syntopical Reading “progress”

Step 1: amass a bibliography of more than 450 items

Step 2: Inspecting Reading to find relevant books

different definitions of “progress” by different authors

  • minority of the authors: a certain kind of movement forward in history that is not an improvement

    define “non-meliorative as authors who assert “non-meliorative advance” in history

  • majority of the authors denote a historical change in the human condition that is for the better

Step 3: create a list of questions

  • Does progress occur in history?
  • Is it a fact that the general course of historical change is in the direction of improvement in man’s condition?

    there are three different answers to this question put forth in the literature of the subject:

    1. Yes
    2. No
    3. We cannot know


    • There are a number of different ways of saying Yes
    • several different ways of saying No,
    • at least three different ways of saying that we cannot know whether human progress occurs or not.

The multifarious and interrelated answers to this primary question constitute what we decided to call the general controversy about progress.


  1. Is progress necessary, or is it contingent on other occurrences?
  2. Will progress continue indefinitely, or will it eventually come to an end or “plateau out”?
  3. Is there progress in human nature as well as in human institutions-in the human animal itself, or merely in the external conditions of human life?
  4. If progress exists, 6 areas

    1. progress in knowledge
    2. technological
    3. economic progress
    4. political progress
    5. moral progress
    6. progress in the fine arts