In 1940, Mortimer Adler, an educator, philosopher, and professor at Columbia University, published How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. The book became an instant best-seller and was translated into many languages. Thirty years later, Adler, collaborated with Charles Van Doren, a fellow professor, to update the book for a new generation.
Adler notes that in the realm of education, there is a distinction between learning by instruction (aided discovery with a teacher) and learning by discovery (unaided discovery without a teacher). Reading is a combination of both: you are learning by instruction (although the teacher is not present), and you are learning by discovery. “The art of reading,” observes Adler, “includes all 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.”
Adler’s focus, then, is not the students who read difficult book with the guidance of teachers, but rather those who wish to continue their education by reading books on their own, without a teacher’s help. Adler writes: “[If] we are disposed to go on learning and discovering, we must know how to make books teach us well.” According to Adler and Doren, this means asking the questions that you must answer yourself; moreover it means asking the right questions in the right order. These are the four basic questions an active reader should ask a book (fiction or nonfiction):
1. What is the book about as a whole? Discover the theme of the book and how the author develops it.
2. What is being said in detail and how? Discover the author’s main ideas, assertions, and arguments.
3. Is the book true, in whole or part? This question cannot be answered until you have answered the first two. Discern what is being said before deciding whether or not it is true. As a reader, it is not enough to know the author’s mind — it is your obligation to make up your own mind.
4. What is the significance of this book? Ascertain why the book was written, why it is important to know this, and why it is relevant to your life or the world. Does the book inspire you to take action or to learn more?
Adler adds: “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). That should never be forgotten. And that is why there is all the difference in the world between the demanding and the undemanding reader. The latter asks no questions—and gets no answers… And [good] books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively. To keep on reading actively, you must have not only the will to do so, but also the skill—the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first sight seems to be beyond you.”
For further reading: The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
Why is the Western Canon Important?
What to Read Next
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Most Assigned Books in College Classrooms