How to Read a Book was written in 1940 by Mortimer Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren.

The book gives guidelines for critically reading what the authors consider to be the Western canon, which they refer to as the "Great Books." The 1972 revision added tips for approaching various genres (poetry, history, science, fiction, etc.) and a whole new section on syntopical reading.

Overview of the first edition

The book is divided in to three sections, with each containing several chapters.

Part I

In this section, Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which of those classes will be addressed by this book. He also makes a brief argument in favor of what he calls the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing this book.

Adler defines three types of knowledge: how-to, informational, and understanding. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that how-to knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience, that informational knowledge can only be gained by one who already has a level of understanding equal to that of the person who wrote the information, and that understanding or insight is best learned from the person who first achieved that understanding--an "original communication", Adler calls it.

The idea of communication directly from those who first discovered an idea as the best way of gaining understanding is the basis for Adler's argument in favor of the reading of the Great Books. He claims that any book that does not represent original communication is an inferior source to the original, and, further, that any teacher, save those who discovered the thing which they are teaching, is inferior to these books as a source of understanding.

Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the arts of reading well, up to and including undergraduate university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings formal education, it falls upon the individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.

Part II: The Rules

Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a wholly or primarily non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings, "structural", "interpretative", and "syntopical", in that order.

The first reading is concerned with understanding the structure and purpose of the book. It begins with determining the basic topic and type of the book being read, so as to better anticipate the contents and comprehend the book from the very beginning. Adler says that the reader must distinguish between practical and theoretical books, as well as determining the field of study that the book addresses. Further, Adler says that the reader must note any divisions in the book, and that these are not restricted to the divisions laid out in the table of contents. Lastly, the reader must find out what problems the author is trying to solve.

The second reading involves constructing the author's arguments. This first requires the reader to note and understand any special phrases and terms that the author uses. Once that is done, Adler says that the reader should find and work to understand each proposition that the author advances, as well as the author's support for those propositions.

In the third and final reading, Adler directs the reader to criticize the book. He claims that now that the reader understands the author's propositions and arguments, the reader has been elevated to the book's author's level of understanding, and is now able (and obligated) to judge the book's merit and accuracy. Adler advocates judging books based on the soundness of their arguments. Adler says that one may not disagree with an argument unless one can find fault in its reasoning, facts, or premises, though one is free to dislike it in any case.

The method presented is sometimes called the Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (SPE) method.

Part III: The Rest of the Reader's Life

This is the shortest section of the book. In it, Adler briefly discusses approaches to reading fiction and poetry, while insisting that a whole separate volume would be necessary to give that topic the treatment that it requires, and suggesting several other books that address it in a more in-depth manner. He explains his preferred method of approaching the Great Books--that being to read the books that influenced a given author before reading works by that author--and gives several examples of that method. He concludes the book with a chapter expounding on his belief in the importance of reading and learning in the functioning of a democratic government and in the lives of "free men".

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