Book of the Week 4: How to Read a Book

I’ve been seeing this book mentioned quite a bit online. A 3.98/5 on Goodreads and 4.5/5 on Amazon, at only $10 there wasn’t much to lose. The rationale was pretty simple: the better I can read, the more I can get out of each book. Let’s see how it goes.

Rating: 3/5

Verdict: Worth the purchase, but pick and choose your sections. For non-fiction books only.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Alder and Charles van Doren is a worthwhile book for everyone that took no more than their basic English 100 course in college. Otherwise, you’ll probably have read enough, both inside and outside of class, to be naturally practicing the methods mentioned in this book.

Some takeaways from this book include:

  1. Completely passive reading is impossible. The more active the reading, the better. This is why we don’t gain much out of short articles, or reading on the go. From my experience, reading works best if treated like any other activity that requires the utmost focus, as if you were at work. The Pomodoro technique is of particular interest here. Sure we may be able to get more pages in while we read during a five-minute bus ride, or even on a trip to the restroom. But how much we can understand – not retain – makes those efforts futile.
  2. “You may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding.” The book reminds us that we should be reading to understand. When we read, we should think about how the context relates or can relate to your own experiences, perhaps with other books you’ve read. Even if you learn a new fact, it will be difficult to retain weeks, months, years from now if you don’t truly understand the fact and instead simply memorize.
  3. Four levels of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, Syntopical. Understanding these levels will help in our understanding as we become exposed to our potential. Elementary is, well, elementary, being able to understand letters, words, grammar, etc. Inspectional allows one to scan and skim through, understand the book’s structure, recognize the argument. Analytical reading is reading a book for the sake of understanding, which is what the bulk of this book is about. The book tells us what questions to ask before, during, and after we read, and why and how. Syntopical reading, is being able to jump around between reading multiple books, recognizing similarities and differences between them, regardless of topic. Naturally with the effort required for this level, syntopical reading is not discussed much and is mainly for those who spend their lives inside and outside of work reading.
  4. State your assumptions. State the author’s assumptions. Arguments are always based on assumptions, so before we can understand what the author is trying to present, we have to recognize what these assumptions are. This helps with understanding as well, recognizing the logic behind his or her claims.
  5. Learn to agree. Learn to disagree. Either way, learn to understand. You don’t have to agree with the author to get more out of your reading. In fact, it may be even better, now that you’re exposed to a different way of thinking for a particular topic, while still having your own argument backing you up as to why you disagree in the first place. Don’t force yourself to agree just because the author has a credible background. Go back to the assumptions and think about it before you understand and choose a stance.
  6. Be demanding. Question everything the author says. Have a conversation with the author. Mark up the books. Give the author his or her respect. You will be rewarded with anything and everything you put in to the book. Going back to the first bullet, be as active of a reader as you can.

These points take up half the book, and that half is fantastic. I’ve been referring to my notes I’ve taken from reading this book before tackling a new read, making sure I do what it says to make the most of my time. Realizing that you understand, especially by comparing to another book you’ve read, perhaps even the latest book that’s completely unrelated – that’s the best feeling you can get after finishing a worthwhile book.

A quick example from my experience when I realized that How to Read a Book helped me in the long run: comparing Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance to Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two extremely successful men. But one’s life is made of physics, rockets, cars, and technology, while the other is in health, fitness, acting, and politics. Pretty much polar opposites. At the same time, they’d both left their home country as early as they could, without knowing anybody at all in the United States. Both socially inept in the US, with Musk’s extreme introversion and Schwarzenegger’s lack of English. Regards they had already jump started onto being successes: Musk with a startup in Zip2 and Schwarzenegger immediately entering the biggest competitions. How they approached problems also differed: Musk with breaking it down to the most basics of physics for everything, versus Schwarzenegger’s repetition in becoming more familiar with the unknown. Both have never had a single thought of failure.

These kinds of connections, no matter how simple they may be, have helped me so much in understanding their approaches and thought processes. I’ve been more likely to implement similar actions in my everyday life, such as always having the attitude to create the next biggest thing while out here on my own in California from Hawaii. The relations between the books makes the life lessons much more memorable. As the number of books we read increase, this network of books will exponentially grow, and my understanding of basically how life works won’t nearly be as intimidating as it seems now.

The latter half of the book I thought was not worthwhile. Alder and Van Doren talk specifically about how to tackle particular books, such as poetry, mathematics, and philosophy. The advice provided seemed rather stretched yet obvious. For example, when reading history, don’t rate the book based on the actual historical events, and don’t read only to learn about what has happened but also to learn the way men and women have acted in their times. Don’t read science and math (just) for the sake of learning how to solve those scientific equations (and when you do, take it slow), but to understand the history and philosophy of science. I would safely say not to bother with any of those sections, unless if you want to read a particular section right before tackling that kind of book immediately after. Even then, a quick skim should suffice.

The last section of the book “The Ultimate Goals of Reading” is definitely worthwhile though, covering the basics of syntopical reading and “Reading and the Growth of the Mind.” The former talks about making the connections between books as we read them at the same time, figuring out what questions to ask and in what order. The latter gives us the motivation to read, what to expect out of reading, decision making processes on what books to read, and thoughts of making reading a lifestyle. Short yet dense wealth of information in this concluding chapter.

Throughout my read I received the implication that the authors were heavily repeating certain passages, mostly to ensure that we get the message. This made several parts of the book longer than necessary, losing its momentum until each chapter reached its conclusion; perhaps this was the style in the 1940’s when the book was released, however. I definitely need to read more books from that time period to find out. We fortunately have the power to skim through those given sections however, so don’t let that stop you.

In all, I’ll be giving this book 3 out of 5 stars for the sake of the book itself. What I’ve gotten from it, however, is priceless. The stretched out sections and the specifics on how to read particular books bring down the rating of How to Read. However, we are not required to read books a certain way, if at all! Just skim and skip through those sections respectively and you will finish with no regrets.


Author: Kevin Who

Developer. Designer. Smasher. Reader. Creator.

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