Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren have written an insightful guide to reading books that are worth reading. First published in 1940, their advice for understanding the written word has aged well. Their goal is to help us use the best books in our lifelong education. This version, rewritten in 1972, improves on the first release by incorporating recent research on the psychology of reading and reference to current additions to the growing population of worthy books.
This book discusses both how to read and how to decide what is worth reading. There are four different levels of reading. The first is Level 1 Elementary Reading, in which we move straightforwardly through text, absorbing the obvious. It is a perfectly acceptable way to read road signs and the backs of cereal boxes. It is not sufficient for most books. Level 2 Inspectional Reading consists of scanning the structure and skimming the content of a book to get a general sense of its message. It requires fluency in Level 1 skills and is necessary to make an informed decision about whether to invest more effort in a book.
Level 3 Analytical Reading is an advanced skill to which the authors devote seven chapters of carefully-considered description. Analytical readers need to classify a book and relate it to others that quote or supersede it. They need to outline or profile a book and understand its central messages. Analytical reading requires understanding the book's author, including the vocabulary of words, phrases and personal experiences the author uses to communicate and his or her purposes in writing the book. Analytical reading moves beyond understanding and accepting what authors tell us. It requires fairly evaluating their arguments and then taking a stand with respect to them. We haven't really read a book if we cannot clearly identify our points of agreement and disagreement with its author.
The Level 4 Interpretive or "Syntopical" Reader has master the skills of reading related books and synthesizing from them a grasp of the larger body of knowledge. To echo one critic of this book's first edition, they know "How to Read Two Books." The skills of Level 4 Reading are locating key passages in books, identifying the vocabulary, key questions and major issues of the subject area, and analyzing the ongoing discussion between authors of books on the same topic. Far from believing that this four-level approach is all the guidance we need, Adler and Van Doren present strategies for reading various types of books, ranging from poetry and imaginative literature to history, science and philosophy. They leave us well prepared to enrich ourselves from the pages of books.
This is a valuable book for anyone who reads seriously. I'll advise slipping it into the suitcase of a college-bound niece or nephew. It will also reward a snow-bound adult on a chilly afternoon. For those who write as well as read, The Craft of Research is a congenial companion volume. May your reading be rewarding.