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December 2014

How to Read a Book

How to Read a BookMost of us assume we learned everything we need to know about reading at school. As adults, we consider reading a book to be as straightforward as starting at the beginning and stopping at the end. In How to Read a Book, however, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren argue that, if we read to increase our understanding of the world, we can get more from our books by first learning how to read them more skilfully.

The authors argue that good reading is active and effortful. It requires us to ask questions of a book as we go. Specifically, our goal should be to answer four questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

Taking notes as we read is essential:

“First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.”

There are four levels at which we can read. Elementary reading is what we learn at school. Inspectional and analytical reading are techniques for reading a single book. Finally, syntopical reading is a technique for reading many books on the same subject. Each level builds on the ones before.

Inspectional reading

Inspectional reading involves systematically skimming the contents of a book to rapidly identify its main points. By doing this first, we can later read each chapter with a better understanding of the larger context into which it fits. It’s also useful for quickly determining whether a book is worth reading at all. Not every book has something of value to offer us, and we only have time to read a tiny fraction of those that do.

To conduct an inspectional reading, first look at the title and subtitle. Be careful not to bring any preconceptions about what the book is about. What, exactly, do they say?

Next, study the table of contents. This is a topical arrangement of the material. It indicates the structure of the book and provides an idea of what the main points are and the order in which they will be developed.

Then look at the index. This is an alphabetical arrangement of the material. Words with many references likely represent the key concepts discussed in the book. This gives us an idea of what’s most important to the author.

Read the preface if there is one. This ought to provide a high-level summary of the material that will be covered in the book. Supplement with the publisher’s blurb. Although generally promotional in nature, it can still provide insight into what exactly the book is about.

Finally, look for what appear to be the pivotal chapters of the book and scan their beginning and end for summaries of the points made therein.

Analytical reading

Analytical reading is the process of reading a book in depth, from beginning to end. It involves first understanding what the author is saying, then deciding whether we agree.

What is it about?

The first stage of analytical reading is developing an understanding of what the book is about. This requires us to:

“1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.”

An inspectional reading will have already provided the answers to most of these questions.

When classifying a book, we should consider whether the work is theoretical or practical:

“Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.”

When looking for the structure of the book, it can be helpful to keep in mind the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing:

“The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through.”

What is being said?

The second stage of analytical reading involves interpreting the book’s contents:

“5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.”

The first step is to identify the terms the author uses. These are the words used with a specific meaning. Often these are the most frequently referenced words in the index.

Next, we look for the propositions that the author constructs from these terms. These are single sentences, either premises or conclusions, that constitute declarations of knowledge or opinion that provide the answers to the questions the author is trying to answer. Knowledge can be distinguished from opinion by the presence of supporting reasons.

“Unless we are exclusively interested in the author’s personality, we should not be satisfied with knowing what his opinions are. His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. If it is the book and the subject with which it deals that we are interested in, and not just the author, we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.”

The author’s arguments are contained in collections of sentences that include his propositions. These sentences may be contiguous, within the same paragraph, or spread throughout the book, in which case we may need to construct the argument for ourselves. Every argument must start with either an assumption or a fact that the author holds to be self-evident. The author may or may not make these explicit.

We can either search for the terms and work up to the propositions and arguments, or we can look for the arguments and from them work down to the propositions and terms.

Searching for collections of sentences with a defined beginning and end is one way to find the author’s propositions. To be sure we have understood them, we should state them in our own words, and try to provide an example, preferably from our own experience.

Books that increase our understanding of the world, by definition, teach us something new. Because of this, another way to identify the author’s key terms, propositions and arguments can be to look for the material that we find difficult to understand.

Is it true?

The third stage of analytical reading requires deciding whether we agree with what the author has said. In doing so, we should abide by the following rules of intellectual etiquette:

“9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment , until you can say “I understand.”)

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.”

Point 9 is crucial:

“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.”

If we are going to criticise the author, we must:

“12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.

14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.”

If we can show that the author is uninformed (he lacks relevant knowledge), misinformed (he made a faulty assertion), or illogical (his conclusions do not follow from his reasons, or he has been inconsistent), we can disagree with his conclusions. However, we must give our reasons for doing so, otherwise we are mistaking our opinion for fact.

We should also be sure that we are disagreeing with the book’s conclusions, not its assumptions. The analysis of a book is about determining whether an author’s conclusions follow from his assumptions, not whether the assumptions themselves are valid.

If we can show that the author’s analysis is incomplete, we may suspend judgement on his conclusions.

If we cannot disagree or suspend judgement, however, then we must agree with the author. Note the “must”. We may not like his conclusions, but unless we can show where the author’s analysis was faulty or incomplete, we are bound to agree with them nonetheless.

What of it?

Finally we must consider the implications of what we have read:

“If the book has given you information , you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you , but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.”

If we are reading a practical book, and we agree with the author, then we have an obligation to act upon what we have read.

Syntopical reading

Beyond inspectional and analytical reading is another level of reading that the authors term syntopical reading. This is the process of reading more than one book on a particular subject in order to obtain a broader understanding of that subject.

Preparing for this requires drawing up a shortlist of potentially relevant books, then performing an inspectional reading of all of them. The latter helps us to determine which are actually relevant, as well as clarifying what our subject actually is, something that’s not always simple.

Next we must actually read the books we have identified. Although the skills of analytical reading are still important when reading syntopically, analytical reading is primarily about how to read a single book with the goal of understanding what its author is trying to say. In syntopical reading, however, the goal is to address our concerns. Thus we do not simply read every book on our shortlist analytically. Instead:

“1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject… in order to find the most relevant passages.

2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing , whether they actually employ the words or not.

3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.

4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.

5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.”

The goal is to look at all sides, but take none:

“The aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it, or the final solution of the problem with which the project began. This is particularly true of the report we might try to make of such syntopical reading. It would be dogmatic, not dialectical, if, on any of the important issues that it identified and analyzed, it asserted or tried to prove the truth or falsity of any view. If it did that, the syntopical analysis would cease to be syntopical; it would become simply one more voice in the discussion”

Avoiding explicit judgements, however, isn’t sufficient:

“Partiality can intrude in a variety of subtle ways—by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various different answers to key questions are presented.”

Adler and Van Doren have a solution, however:

“In order to avoid some of these dangers , the conscientious syntopical reader… must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language.

How to Read a Book provides an invaluable framework for anyone who reads for wisdom, understanding and enlightenment.

What is Love?

There is a fascinating aside in How To Read A Book, in which Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren discuss what is meant by the word “love”.

Even once the authors have whittled down the definition, for the purposes of their example, to love between two human beings, the meaning of the word remains difficult to pin down.

Is love about what you can get for yourself, or what you can give to others?

“You would find, for instance, that love is said by some writers to consist wholly in acquisitive desire, usually sexual desire; that is, love is merely a name for the attraction that almost all animals feel toward members of the opposite sex. But you would also find other authors who maintain that love, properly speaking, contains no acquisitive desire whatever , and consists in pure benevolence. Do acquisitive desire and benevolence have anything in common, considering that acquisitive desire always implies wanting some good for oneself, while benevolence implies wanting a good for someone else?”

Is love an intellectual act rather than an emotional one?

“At least acquisitive desire and benevolence share a common note of tendency, of desire in some very abstract sense of the term. But your investigation of the literature of the subject would soon uncover writers who conceive of the essence of love as being cognitive rather than appetitive. Love, these writers maintain, is an intellectual act, not an emotional one. In other words, knowing that another person is admirable always precedes desiring him or her, in either of the two senses of desire. Such authors do not deny that desire enters into the picture, but they do deny that desire should be called love.”

Even if we just focus on romantic love, what exactly do we mean by that?

“Is the love that a man and woman have for each other the same when they are courting as when they are married, the same when they are in their twenties as when they are in their seventies?”

Are there different kinds of familial love? If so, how are they different?

“Is the love that a woman has for her husband the same as that she has for her children? Does a mother’s love for her children change as they grow up? Is the love of a brother for his sister the same as his love for his father? Does a child’s love for its parents change as he or she grows?”

What’s the difference between love and friendship?

“Is the love that a man has for a woman, either his wife or some other, the same as the friendship he feels for another man, and does it make a difference what relationship he has with the man— such as one with whom he goes bowling, one with whom he works, and one whose intellectual company he enjoys? Does the fact that “love” and “friendship” are different words mean that the emotions they name (if that is in fact what they name) differ? Can two men of different ages be friends? Can they be friends if they are markedly different in some other respect, such as possession of wealth or degree of intelligence? Can women be friends at all? Can brothers and sisters be friends, or brother and brother, or sister and sister? Can you retain a friendship with someone you either borrow money from or lend it to? It not, why not?”

Can we love someone very different from ourselves, or someone we have never met?

“If humanoid robots existed, could human beings love them? If we discovered intelligent beings on Mars or some other planet, could we love them? Can we love someone we have never met, like a movie star or the President?

To these, I’d add my own question: is love a feeling or, as Stephen Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a verb, something that we choose to do?

The authors don’t provide any answers. They’re simply making the point that if you read for insight on a given subject, it can be more difficult than you might think to identify exactly what that subject is.

Nevertheless, they’re fascinating questions and I’d very much like to read some books that explore them further. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

On Mindfulness

In our lives, we are all trying to do two things: find happiness and avoid suffering.

Typically, we do this by trying to get and hang on to the things we think will give us pleasure and avoid the things we think will cause us pain. When we find someone we love, we marry them. When we see a new gadget, we rush out to buy it. When we find a neighbourhood we like, we buy a house there. 

Despite this, however, we often find ourselves dissatisfied. Our partner’s mannerisms, once endearing, become annoying. Our phone, once perfectly adequate, suddenly seems too small. A noisy family moves in next door. If only we had a more understanding partner, or that new iPhone, or we lived somewhere else, then we would be happy, we think.

Yet even if we get these things, our happiness is only short-lived. There are no perfect people, places to live, or phones. Before long we become dissatisfied again, and new “if only”s take the place of the old.

Escaping this cycle requires becoming comfortable with where we are right now. How can we do that?

Why we suffer

First, we need to understand why we suffer.

You might think we suffer when something bad happens to us. However that’s not exactly true. We don't suffer because of the situation. It's our opinions about that situation that cause us to suffer.

For example, being stuck in a traffic jam is not inherently bad. It just means we are moving more slowly than usual along a particular stretch of road. Only when we allow ourselves to get frustrated, and start thinking about the fact that we’re now going to be late for work, and that this means we’re going to miss an important meeting with our client, do we become unhappy.

The distinction may seem pedantic, but it’s crucial. It means we can reduce the suffering we experience by changing the way we respond to a situation. As Viktor Frankl observed in Man’s Search For Meaning, subsequently echoed by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there is a gap between stimulus and response into which we are able to step.

However, even if we agree that this gap exists and that we can use it to choose a response that will cause us less suffering, being able to do it is another thing entirely. Perhaps we can manage it when we’re stuck in traffic, but what about a more challenging situation – being left by our spouse, for example?

Fortunately, there is a tool that is designed to help us do this: mindfulness.

What mindfulness is

Mindfulness is simply the non-judgmental observation of whatever is going on in the present moment. That can be an experience (say, the feeling of the wind blowing in your hair), a thought (“I wonder what I’ll have for dinner tonight”) or an emotion (“That guy is an idiot!”).

By observing it, we distance ourselves from it. This can help us avoid getting sucked into a train of thought that, at best, distracts us from what’s going on, or, at worst, leads to us obsessing over something over which we have no control. This distance is the very gap between stimulus and response to which Frankl was referring. By consciously creating and enlarging this distance, it becomes easier for us to acknowledge what is happening while refusing to become entangled in what we think and feel about it. It allows us to respond to the situation instead of reacting to it.

In particular, when we experience a painful situation, mindfulness means being unafraid to look directly at it and experience it as it is, instead of trying to avoid it. As Pema Chodron memorably puts it in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times we should:

"...acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look... We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?"

Mindfulness also means not becoming caught up in positive experiences, thoughts or emotions. We should enjoy them when they arise, certainly, but take care to not crave their continuation. When a positive experience ends, as they all inevitably must, we will feel sadness and loss in direct proportion to the strength of our attachment to that experience.

What mindfulness is not

Mindfulness is not about analysing our experiences, thoughts and emotions. It’s not about suppressing them, or denying them, or even reappraising them to see them in a different, more constructive way. It is purely about observing them, then seeing what happens.

Mindfulness is not indifference. If we are indifferent to something, we don't care about it. It implies a degree of apathy. When we are mindful, however, we do care. Mindfulness does not remove our responsibility to act if a situation can be changed, but it encourages us to accept those situations that cannot. After all, if a situation cannot be changed, what is achieved by obsessing over it?

Mindfulness is not about being emotionless. Joy and sadness are entirely appropriate in certain situations. If a loved one died, it would be dysfunctional for us to not feel sad. Mindfulness is simply about not letting those feelings of sadness overwhelm us. As a result, writes Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen:

"If we can accept things just the way they are, we’re not going to be greatly upset by anything. And if we do become upset it’s over more quickly."

Developing mindfulness

Like playing an instrument, mindfulness is a learned skill. And like playing an instrument, where we must practice our scales before we can play in a concert, mindfulness requires practice too.

Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. It allows us to improve our skill so it becomes easier to apply mindfulness in the heat of everyday life. As exercise strengthens our muscles, meditation strengthens our ability to be mindful.

There is nothing complex about meditation. The most common way of meditating is to sit still and focus on a single thing. Often this focus is our breath, flowing in and out of our body. As we sit, our mind invariably becomes distracted and we start thinking about something else. When we realise that our attention has drifted, we gently label the thought (like brushing a crystal glass with a feather), then patiently return our attention to the breath. This is not a problem. We don't beat ourselves up when it happens. Indeed, being distracted, then returning our attention to the breath, over and over and over again, is the entire point.

Meditation does not have to be a big time commitment. Just ten minutes per day can make a difference. Even though meditating is a simple procedure, having an instructor talk you through what to do during the session can be helpful. For this, I’ve found the guided meditations offered by Headspace to be excellent.


While meditation is important for helping to develop mindfulness, it's important to remember that this is just practice. The goal remains to be mindful in everyday life.

Mindfulness is not a panacea. It is a process of gradually retraining the mind to respond to the change inherent in life in a more constructive way. As Dan Harris says, it might make you 10% happier. That's good enough for me.