Corey M. Marsh’s Review of HOW TO READ A BOOK: THE CLASSIC GUIDE TO INTELLIGENT READING, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Published on May 19, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Touchstone, 1972 | 426 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Corey M. Marsh



Deceased since 2001, Mortimer J. Adler (Ph.D., Philosophy, Columbia University) taught briefly at his alma mater before accepting a professorship at the University of Chicago in 1930, teaching Philosophy of Law. He is best known for both his advocacy of “educational perennialism,” an academic paradigm based on what is perceived to be universal learning-essentials common to all human beings, as well as serving as chief architect behind the celebrated publishing monument—the Great Books of the Western World series (54 vols). While Adler was the sole author behind the original and first revised edition of How to Read a Book (1940, 1967), he was joined by fellow perennial advocate and Institute for Philosophical Research associate Charles Van Doren (Ph.D., English, Columbia University) for the book’s third and still-most recent edition (1972; 2014). A son of famed American poet Mark Van Doren and eclectic academician in his own right, Van Doren taught literature at Columbia University as well as published several nonfiction works before becoming editor and vice president of Encyclopedia Britannica. While revising How to Read a Book, Van Doren and Adler conducted various “discussion groups” and “executive seminars” around the country, helping shape the additions made to the book (xiii).



Beginning in chapter one, the authors clearly announce their intended audience: those whose main purpose in reading is to gain increased understanding. The idea of “reading for increased understanding” becomes a notable theme within the book, its concept inserted into whatever reading level the authors describe. Stated in their own words: “The point we want to emphasize here is that this book is about the art of reading for the sake of increased understanding….Our subject, then, is the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim you have in view” (10, 11). Indeed, it is the dual concepts “learning” and “understanding” – or reading for understanding – which the first chapter emphatically points out to be the book’s overall thesis and purpose.

Following a brief preface, the book is laid out in four main parts: Part One, “The Dimensions of Reading”; Part Two, “The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading; Part Three, “Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter”; and Part Four, “The Ultimate Goals of Reading.” The book concludes with two appendices labeled A and B—the former being a lengthy reading list incorporating authors from the Great Book Series as well as some others (e.g., the Old and New Testaments), the latter being select passages from different authors throughout history to which the reader can apply and practice the different levels of reading learned throughout the book. According to the authors, the works listed in these appendices were chosen because they are “endlessly re-readable.” In other words, “These are the works that everyone should make a special effort to seek out. They are the truly great books; they are the books that anyone should choose to take with him to his own desert island” (347). The constant reference to “great books” permeates the entire How To guide.

Part One of the book really centers on describing two levels of reading: “elementary” and “inspectional.” While the first section on “elementary reading” provides solid refresher on rudimentary basics to reading, with some added historical insight into Americana education philosophy (28–30), it is the second section, inspectional reading, that is most germane for the serious reader. Those engaged in inspectional reading or “systematic skimming” do so when time is a governing factor. “When reading at this level,” explain the authors, “your aim is to examine the surface of the book, to learn everything that the surface alone can teach you” (18). It is while “inspecting” a book that the reader devotes a short amount of time (no longer than an hour [25]) following six steps presented on pp. 32–36: (1) look at the title page and read the preface; (2) study the table of contents; (3) check the index; (4) read the publisher’s blurb; (5) read opening and closing paragraphs of what seem to be pivotal chapters; and (6) turn to various pages within the book and read at least a paragraph and at most a few pages in sequence. After completing these six steps, the reader is encouraged to give the book a quick once-over following this main rule: “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away” (36).

Parts Two and Four of the book are devoted to what the authors suggest are the highest forms of reading: analytical and syntopical. Analytical reading, according to Adler and Van Doren, is “the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time” (19). It is an intensively active reading level with “understanding” as its foremost goal. Here, the reader learns several techniques such as “pigeonholing a book” viz., classifying the book as theoretical or practical (59–74), “x-raying a book,” where the author’s intentions are discovered through outlining the book’s structure (75–95), as well as “determining the author’s message” (114–136) and learning how to “criticize a book fairly” (137–151). The chapter ends with a section devoted to various “aids to reading” (168–190) dealing with the pros and cons of reference tools like dictionaries and encyclopedias. The importance the authors attach to analytical reading is obvious as they devote 131 pages to this level, the most space given of all the reading levels.

As for the final level of reading called “syntopical” in Part Four of the book, the authors describe it boldly as “the most complex and systematic type of reading of all” (20). This is the type of reading normally required for graduate or doctoral level research as various books are compared and contrasted that deal with a single subject. Here the authors give five steps to ensure the reader is reading syntopically (316–322), such as finding relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms determined by the reader, as well as analyzing the discussion in a matter more comprehensive than what the previous analytical stage. In short, “The syntopical reader…tries to look at all sides and take no sides ” (324). Thus, the objectivity is the reader’s ethic at the final level as he or she judiciously compares and contrasts all the voices on a given topic.



It goes without saying that How to Read a Book is a classic. Now over a half of century years old since the first edition, its staying power has continued to advance the legacy of Adler and Van Doren, becoming “perennial” in its own right. The book’s thesis of teaching one how to read for increased understanding, not merely for mindless entertainment, is certainly met and nobly defended throughout its pages. Indeed, this type of serious reading—apparently the only reading that matters—is relentlessly drilled into the consciousness of the book’s audience to such an extent, the reader may unwittingly absorb the same elitist ethos from its authors and divide the world’s readers into groups taxonomized by snobbery. As such, a few critiques are in order.

First, it must be pointed out that the authors tend to write in a verbose manner when reaching for a point. This is probably due to the book being dated to a time when literature, regardless of genre, was published in a world less distracted by visual stimulation or one craving quick informational bites. Today’s world is one heavily immersed in short-hand everything—from social media memes to emoji texting. To that end, those looking for a concise, pithy read may need to look elsewhere to learn how to read. Second, the authors do seem to load their book with rules upon rules ad nauseum. While one of the additions to most current version was to make the rules more “flexible,” they nonetheless retain both a rigid and burdensome tone. A final critique of the book may point to the authors’ exclusive affinity for Western literature, especially for works that (falsely) presuppose a neutral objectivity customary to Enlightenment rationalism. While nods are given to the impossibility of the “absoluteness” of objectivity (e.g., 324), coupled with a less-than-satisfying answer to the charge of overtly ethnocentric Western literature recommendations (349), the overall tenor of the book is one permeated by an elitist posture. It is not a stretch, therefore, to suggest that one may come away from the book easily assuming the authors’ approaches to reading are the definitive approaches to reading, and whatever books they recommend are the definitive books worthy of anyone’s time.

These critiques notwithstanding, this reviewer thinks How to Read a Book is still the best text on how to get the most out of literature. Contrary to the plethora of cheaply priced, speed-reading books out there for those whose aim is not primarily reading for increased learning, How to Read a Book is more akin to James Sire’s now-classic How to Read Slowly. That is, when comprehension and actual learning from literature is the goal, Adler and Van Doren are still the reigning champs in showing how it can be done. Perhaps, the book’s biggest help to the budding-serious reader is learning to truly own level-two type of reading—inspectional reading or “systematic skimming.”

Indeed, this level of reading as laid out by Adler and Van Doren has served this reader tremendously through college to post-graduate studies and beyond. Simply knowing how to quickly yet thoroughly “inspect” a book can save a reader from all types of wasted energy while inspiring a better appreciation for how they might personally structure their own writings (e.g., the importance of a good Table of Contents, a clear thesis / proposition, Bibliography, Index, et al.).

Additionally, the section on syntopical reading is enormously helpful for researchers, particularly graduate and doctoral students, as it outlines useful steps that can be applied to thesis and dissertation research and writing (especially when composing a “literature review”). Moreover, implications of this fourth reading level abound for pulpit or church ministry as it can give the teaching-pastor more confidence in his understanding of a biblical-theological issue, enabling him to truly “own” his personal position against the backdrop of opposing voices. Even though this section in the book acts partially a commercial for the authors’ Great Books series and accompanying Syntopicon (which are in themselves valuable tools), syntopical reading is still a helpful concept to apply, namely, learning the art of comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing literature. This is especially helpful for the pastor surveying opposing commentaries or scholarly views on a controversial passage or subject. As such, the book’s utility, intentional or not, serves both the Church and the Academy.

In the end, there is a reason why How To Read a Book has remained in print for well over 60 years. It continues its reign as champion of the best book penned in modern times on the art and science of reading for understanding. At some level, all readers, novice and experienced, are sure to walk away from it benefited by its perennial wisdom on respecting the beauty and technicality of literature.


Cory M. Marsh is a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO. He also serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at the College at Southern California Seminary, El Cajon, CA.

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Touchstone, 1972 | 426 pages

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