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How To Read A Book
Chapter: Writing

Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
Published by MJF Books in 1972
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1997


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I read this book about 1977, and immediately wished someone had forced me to read it while I was yet in high school. Adler's four types of reading are invaluable guidelines to the types of reading I evolved into over the twenty years or so before I had read the book, but to have a guidebook to reading before then would have greatly aided my reading and reduced my confusion as how to proceed with the books I tackled incorrectly.

The four levels of reading are:

1. Elementary reading: basically the level of reading one is taught to do in elementary and high schools.

2. Inspectional reading: systematic skimming and superficial reading.

3. Analytical reading: classifying, coming to terms, determining the message, criticizing the book, and author. [typical undergraduate college reading]

4. Syntopical reading: reading multiple books on one subject as defined by you - "one book opens another" C.G. Jung[typical post-graduate college reading]

Syntopical reading is the touchstone of scholarship and is the most important type of reading for a serious reader. Adler says, "Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement." Learning to satisfy the second requirement is a key to one's personal development as a reader and scholar. Often knowing what the subject is that one is reading is no simple matter. This became very obvious to me when I attempted to categorize some 287 books into a small number of chapter headings for my book of reviews and essays entitled A Reader's Journal - Journeys into Understanding. The chapter headings had to be created from the syntopical subjects on which I had been reading books before I was even aware of the existence of the subjects. The chapter headings are the same that I've chosen for this book:

1. Evolution of Consciousness

2. Quantum Physics

3. Spiritual Science

4. Psychotherapy

5. Reading for Enjoyment

6. Writing

Once one has developed the subjects of one's individual syntopical reading, then Adler's five steps may be applied:

1. Finding Relevant Passages: "In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read. Your aim is to find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs." [page 316]

2. Bringing the Authors to Terms: "It is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around." Here one must develop one's own terms and bring the syntopical authors to one's terms.

3. Getting the Questions Clear: These are the questions one brings to the book to be answered. Finding the answers in the author's text to one's own question.

4. Defining the Issues: This is especially important when one author defines the issue one way and another author another way.

5. Analyzing the Discussion: One thoroughly examines and critiques the output of the first four steps to determine the dimension of the problem. "It can clear away the deadwood and prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough." [page 323]

Unfortunately I misplaced our original paperback with all its marginalia and underlinings and have replaced it by a pristine hardback copy, so, without a new reading I am unable to share the details of the book that so attracted me and infused my reading with a new vigor. I have a feeling that this book has single-handedly extirpated me from the wandering path of dilettantism and planted me on the royal road of independent scholarship. I am eternally grateful to the authors Adler and Van Doren for that.

Addendum 2008

The Center for Great Ideas has just released a DVD containing three hours of animated discussion by the authors of this book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, about the art of reading.

To watch a portion of this conversation and acquire your own copy of this DVD, follow this link:


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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