On How to Read a Book

Sometimes a book really grabs you. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Adler and Van Doren was one for me. I found it in the sidebar of Cal Newport’s website, so thank you, Cal.

It’s one of those books where the authors have thought through the concepts they’re presenting so well that the work itself is a representation of those ideas. There’s probably a simpler way to say that. They write by the principles they prescribe. And my goodness, do I appreciate that.

It’s also a book of mastery. It’s about the ideals one can strive for when trying to learn. While the central concept is about learning from a book, the idea can certainly be generalized.

They break down learning and reading into various levels and stages. Their opinions are well sprinkled throughout with clear propositions with well reasoned arguments. All the while, they invite the reader to discuss and argue with it much as we should with any good book.

Some of the ideas seem simple, common sense, in fact. But having a mapped out process of what an ideal may be makes such a difference. For example, they break levels of reading into the levels of:

  • Elementary
  • Inspectional
  • Analytic
  • Syntopical

Each of these, in turn, have multiple rules and practices allowing for assessment as to whether the book in front of you is worth your time, and then what to do if it is.

Interestingly, I noted the book drew more stares and questions than others while I rode the train (pre-pandemic) or at other places I tend to wander with a book. The inevitable joke of how do you read the book in the first place certainly came to mind.

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