How to read a book

Lessons from Mortimer J. Adler

Recently, a medical scare pushed me back to working from home for a while. When you don’t travel to and from an office, you suddenly have a couple of extra hours daily. So, like any (in)sane people with(out) a life, I spent the time reflecting on how to do my job — “research” — better.

To my surprise, I realised that I needed to learn how to read.

You might be scratching your head right now, asking: “what do you mean by learning how to read? You are not illiterate. Are you?”

To clear up any confusion and hopefully convince you to learn to read as well, let me explain with the help of the eminent educator Mortimer J. Adler (emphasis is mine):

With nothing but the power of your own mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more. Such elevation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is highly skilled reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves.

So, how does one learn to read a book? Ironically, you can start by reading a book called How to Read a Book. I highly recommend you to have a go at the book (Non-affiliated Amazon link). “How to read a book” is a well-written classic that is as relevant today as it was at the last revision in 1972.

How to Read a Book

Instead of boring you with yet another summary of this classic, I want to share some key lessons that resonate with me the most.

Lesson 1: Not every book deserves to be read deeply

According to Adler, we can organise books into the following pyramids:

  • At the bottom layer is more than 99 per cent of books that we can read only for amusement or information. They are unlikely to provide you with an opportunity to learn anything meaningful. Thus, you do not have to read them analytically (in-depth). Skimming is enough.
  • The middle layer contains good books from which you can learn how to read and live. They are worth one in-depth reading. If you are skilful, you should be able to extract everything from them and thus wouldn’t be able to “lift yourself” any further should you re-read them.
  • The top layer contains great books that cannot be exhausted by even the best reading you can manage. These are the books that grow with you. I think of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation when I think of the books in this category.

This lesson surprised me the most because I have always been taught to respect books and read them carefully, page-by-page, cover-to-cover. It also surprised me because it made me realise how hollow many modern books are, given how they regurgitate a few key points paragraphs after paragraphs.

So, how should we read?

I’m glad you ask. Adler suggested that you should do systematic skimming to discover whether a book is worth more careful reading and learn whatever you can from a surface level. The process is as follows:

  1. Skim the title page and preface to form a good idea about the subject and category of the book.
  2. Study the table of content to form a general sense of the book’s structure.
  3. Check the index to quickly estimate the range and type of topics covered by the book. I found this step very useful, yet I have never done it before.
  4. Look at the chapters that seem pivotal. Read summary statements of these chapters if possible.
  5. Flip through the book quickly, reading a paragraph or two here and there. Keep your eyes open for ideas and information relevant to you. You should be like a detective hunting for clues about a book’s general idea and anything that clarifies that idea.

Should you find the book worthwhile, it’s time to do a superficial reading. It means you read the book “without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away”. The key idea is that it is better to understand half of a really tough book than not understanding it at all, which would happen if you stop.

Lesson 2: How not to fall asleep: take notes and answer questions

I have a confession to make. I always fall asleep when I try to read books in a comfortable chair or on the bed. Even if my eyes were open, my brain would shut down after half a page. That’s not good if I want to lift myself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more.

Let’s assume that you also have a similar problem. How should you fix it?

According to Adler, the best way to stay awake is to make an effort. He means we need to ask questions and take notes while we read to answer those questions.

There are four main questions that you should ask (and answer by yourself) about any book:

  1. What is the book about as a whole? What is the leading theme or key message of the book? How do the authors structure the key message into sub-topics or themes?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? What main ideas, assertions, and arguments constitute the authors’ message?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You have to know what is being said (by answering the previous questions) before deciding whether it is true. After understanding, it is your responsibility to make up your mind. I often found junior PhD students to criticise any work coming their way without an in-depth understanding as if agreeing with or praising others are signs of weakness. Alternative, some are too timid about criticising anything. That is not being polite or diplomatic. That’s the lack of critical thinking.
  4. So what? How significant is the key message of the book? What can you do about it? As a researcher, this is the question I am most often asked.

You answer the first two questions after skimming and superficial reading. I like highlighting interesting nuggets of information, definitions, and critical arguments when I flip through a book and then write a short paragraph describing the book.

Answering the remaining two questions requires you to dig into and dissect the book’s core concepts and arguments to identify logical inconsistency and other problems. In this analytical reading phase, you need to identify the main issues the authors try to solve and systematically reconstruct authors’ arguments and solutions to those problems. Analytical reading is time-consuming and thus reserved for very few books (and research articles). I do not often engage with reading materials at this level due to time constraints.

Lesson 3: How to read multiple books at once

No, I’m not talking about reading multiple books simultaneously like a supercomputer or a cyborg. I’m talking about what Adler defines as Syntopical reading, essentially reading various books on the same subject to construct a higher-level synthesis.

For example, suppose you want to learn how to live “better.” After reading a couple of books on the topic (say Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Secret), you see some common ideas and some points of conflict. By extracting and putting ideas from these books together, you form a synthesis or a larger argument across time and space about how to live a better life. This form of reading is syntopical reading.

I’m interested in syntopical reading for a simple reason: it is essentially the “literature review” activity I often do as a researcher. Adler suggests the following process:

  1. Create a preliminary bibliography of your subject (i.e., build a list of potentially relevant books and articles)
  2. Skim all the books to assess their relevance and adjust your idea of the subject. The idea adjustment is critical yet often missed by junior PhD students. Most PhD students I know start their literature review with a generic research question (idea) and never refine it into anything in-depth or thoughtful. Such effort generally results in an inadequate literature review after half a year of intense work.
  3. Extract the most relevant passages from the relevant books.
  4. Build or define a neutral terminology of the subject to harmonise the concepts used by all the relevant books.
  5. Use the neutral terminology to rephrase the propositions of each book.
  6. Analyse the propositions, identify where they agree and disagree. This analysis helps you to construct a synthesis of the study subject.

Lesson 4: Build a reading habit

Photo by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash

Almost every Internet article talking about the virtue of reading contains advice to build a reading habit, such as scheduling time daily to read, creating a suitable environment for reading, reading at least a page a day, keeping a chain.

Adler’s “build a reading habit” is nothing like those pieces of advice.

Here is the thing. Reading seriously to “lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more” is a complex mental skill that consists of multiple activities and rules to master. From our discussions above, I think you have seen the number of activities and rules involved in “good reading.”

The goal of learning how to read is to practice those activities and rules until you can perform them automatically whenever you pick up a book without thinking or hesitation. That, my friend, is the “reading skill” or “reading habit” we should strive to achieve.



Ingkarni Wardli, The University of Adelaide
Adelaide, SA 5005