How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler – Book Notes, Summary, Review

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler – Book Notes, Summary, Review - Cover Image

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You might think you know how to read a book but you’re probably not remembering much of what you’re reading. That’s where this book comes in. It describes the different levels of reading and how you can get much more out of the books you read.

While the book may be challenging to read, it’s important to read books that challenge you, so where better to start than with this book.

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Who Should Read This Book?

There is a lot of value in reading this book for anyone that wants to get the most out of what they read.

It’s one thing to say you’ve read 100 books this year but can you remember what you have learned from those 100 books?

It’s important to mention that this book was written quite a number of years ago so the language can seem overly complicated.

With that said, the author challenges readers to read books that are beyond us so why not start with this book?

There may be some aspects of the book that can be skimmed over; for me, I don’t think I’ve read poetry since I was in school so I didn’t really look at that section in detail.

What I’m saying is you don’t need to be intimidated by the length of the book as some parts will be more relevant to you than others.

I would consider this book and How To Take Smart Notes to be the go-to resources for anyone looking to actively read more effectively and build a repository of knowledge.


How This Book Changed Me

  • This book was certainly dense and a challenging read for me. As this is a considerably older book than one I’ve read before, I found the use of needlessly complicated language to be tough to get through. With that said, I was still able to take away some great information from reading this book.
  • Since reading this book and How To Take Smart Notes, I’ve re-examined my process for reading books in an effort to get more out of them. Unfortunately, everything I’ve read before now needs to be re-read following my new process.
  • The idea of syntopical reading stood out to me as being the key goal or idea from this book. By being able to understand the material of multiple books and make connections between them, you’re able to build a bigger perhaps clearer picture of a topic. I realize I am starting to do this whenever I’m writing out my Literature and Evergreen notes in Obsidian.

My Top 3 Quotes That Resonated With Me

“To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about”

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler p13

“Too often, we use that phrase [well read] to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.”

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler p163

“You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.”

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler p327


Book Notes

Part One: The Dimensions Of Reading

1 The Activity and Art Of Reading

  • Things like the internet and all the different kinds of media we consume are designed to make thinking seem unnecessary.
  • All of these sources of content are ways for someone to “make up their mind” with very little effort.
  • This is a trap however as what is really happening is we’re receiving someone else’s pre-packaged opinion and blindly accepting it without thinking critically about it.
  • There are 2 goals of reading:
    1. reading for information – As you read a book and find that you understand everything, then you’ve gained information but you have not increased your understanding
    2. reading for understanding – As you read a book and find that you don’t understand everything, you can say it contains information that can increase your understanding

“We can learn only from our ‘betters’. We must know who they are and how to learn from them.” (p13)

“To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about” (p13)

  • You become enlightened when you know what the author says and what they mean when they say it.
  • It is incorrect to assume that reading a lot and reading well/effectively are the same thing.
  • Thinking is one aspect of learning. You must also construct your own mental models to further develop your understanding.

2 The Levels Of Reading

1 Elementary Reading

  • At the first level, elementary reading, you have basic reading skills
  • You begin to be able to recognize the words on the page
  • You can read what is being written

2 Inspectional Reading

  • At this level, you skim the surface of the book to learn from a high level what it’s about.

3 Analytical Reading

  • At this level, you read thoroughly and actively.
  • Here you are reading a book for understanding rather than just information.
  • You are interpreting the contents of the book

4 Syntopical Reading

  • At this level, you actively read many books and can link them to one another.
  • This level of reading requires the most effort.

4 The Second Level Of Reading: Inspectional Reading

  • The levels of reading are cumulative i.e. elementary reading (level 1) is contained in inspectional reading (level 2) and so on.
  • This means you can’t understand a book without first being able to read it. Obvious enough.

Inspectional Reading 1: Systematic Skimming or Pre-Reading

  • Skimming/pre-reading is the first part of inspectional reading
  • Your goal is to examine whether the book is worth reading or not
  1. Look at the title page and the preface
  2. Read the table of contents to get a sense of the structure of the book
  3. Read the index to see the topics that are covered in the book
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb (take this with a pinch of salt)
  5. Skim over some of the pages of the actual book – only briefly
  • This act of skimming a book will allow you to understand the main aspects of the book before you start reading it.

Inspectional Reading 2: Superficial Reading

  • If you’re reading a difficult book for the first time, read it through once without stopping to look up things you don’t understand.
  • On your second reading, you will be able to understand a lot more.
  • Not sure how much I agree with this proposition but I’ve never done it before.

Part Two: The Third Level Of Reading: Analytical Reading

6 Pigeonholing A Book

  • Rule 1 of analytical reading: you must be able to classify the book e.g. fiction, non-fiction, etc.
    • You do this by first inspecting the book (perform the steps involved in inspectional reading).

7 X-Raying A Book

  • Rule 2: Summarize the book in a few sentences
    • I do this as part of my book notes process and it helps me to better understand what the book is about.
  • Rule 3: Outline the major parts of the book and how it’s organized
    • The best books will have the clearest structure. Part one is about x, part two is about y.
    • Rule 2 and 3 are closely linked. You cannot understand the whole without first understanding the individual parts and vice versa.
  • Rule 4: Find out what the author’s problems were
    • Explain the main question or problem the author is setting out to answer in the book.

8 Coming To Terms With An Author

  • Rule 5: Find the important words and understand what they mean
    • Consider any terminology or field-specific words that are used in the book and understand what they mean
    • “Every field of knowledge has it’s own technical vocabulary”
    • This will increase your understanding of the book as you read through it.

9 Determining An Author’s Message

  • “Sentences and paragraphs are grammatical units or units of language.”
  • “Propositions and arguments are logical units or units of knowledge.”
  • Rule 6: Highlight the most important sentences in a book and examine the propositions they contain.
  • Rule 7: Find or outline the basic arguments in the book

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.” (p120)

  • Rule 8: Find out what the author’s solutions are
    • Which problems were solved and which weren’t.

10 Criticizing A Book Fairly

  • “Reading a book is a kind of conversation.”
  • Rule 9: You must be able to say “I Understand” before you can say “I agree” or “I disagree”.
    • You should understand the points the author is making before you rush in and agree or disagree with them.
  • Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonably
  • Rule 11: Respect the difference between knowledge and personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make
    • This is how you can come to a resolution

11 Agreeing Or Disagreeing With An Author

Disagreeing with an author:

  1. You are uninformed
    • If the author is uninformed, he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he’s trying to solve.
  2. You are misinformed
    • If the author is misinformed, he is saying something that is not the case
    • To say this you must be able to put forward an opposing and accurate argument instead.
  3. You are illogical
    • If the author is illogical, he is inconsistent or what he isn’t well-reasoned
  4. Your analysis is incomplete
    • If the author’s analysis is incomplete, he has not solved all of the problems he set out to.

“Too often, we use that phrase [well read] to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.” (p163)

Part Three: Approaches To Different Kinds Of Reading Matter

How To Read About Current Events

The questions you should ask when reading about current events:

  1. What does the author want to prove?
  2. Whom does he want to convince?
  3. What special knowledge does he assume?
  4. Does he really know what he’s talking about?

These questions are extremely important to ask in the current climate where fake-news is very hard to discern from “real-news”.

Part Four: The Ultimate Goals Of Reading

20 The Fourth Level Of Reading: Syntopical Reading

  • Inspectional and analytical reading can be considered preparation for syntopical reading.
  • Step 1 in Syntopical Reading: Find The Relevant Passages
    • Find the passages in the books that are most relevant to your requirements i.e. I want to consider the passages related to time management.
    • Create a bibliography of your subject
  • Step 2: Bringing The Authors To Terms
    • Read the books in your bibliography and understand the specific terminology used by each author.
    • Each author may refer to concepts differently. Ensure you have all of this straight in your head.
  • Step 3: Getting The Questions Clear
    • Frame a set of questions that shed light on your problem, and make note of the authors that provide answers to those problems.
  • Step 4: Defining The Issues
    • Examine the issues or questions set out by each author. Each author may have different questions and answer them differently.
    • You want to be able to join the issues of different books together.
  • Step 5: Analyzing The Discussion
    • Understand how the questions are answered differently by each author and why.

21 Reading And The Growth Of The Mind

What Good Books Can Do For Us

  • “The more active reading is, the better it is”
  • Active reading is defined as the asking of questions based on the material you’re reading.

“You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.” (p327)

The Life And Growth Of The Mind

  • Our minds do not stop growing at any age.
  • Our minds can atrophy, like our muscles, if not used regularly.

“Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.” (p335)


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