Girl Reading

Commentary on How to Read a Book

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren
Comentary by David C. Martin

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. (1972). How to read a book. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Photo by Bethany Laird on Unsplash


Why discuss reading a book? Well, the aim of Classical Education or Classical Pedagogy is the development of character, critical analysis skills, knowledge both specific and general. Much if not all this goal is met through reading and the consumption of information given by someone else. Adler and Van Doren (Adler) make the case that we must become active consumers of written work.

Adler's primary audience is, “those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding” (Pg. 3). The prudent person gains knowledge and understanding through reading as opposed to relying on media. It may be useful to compare Alder’s statement against knowledge attained from social media, friends, or general tacit worldviews.

Television, radio, and other media serves a limited purpose. The visual and audio stimulus serves knowledge acquisition while we are otherwise occupied. They also show current events. But too much knowledge is attributed to the presenter and their opinion. The listener does not have to think for themselves, the information is digested for them. The listener adopts the opinion of the presenter and repeats it as their own. We should ask, why or how do I know what we know?

Active Reading

Adler contends that to be productive, all reading must be active. Active reading requires the readers special attention. We should understand what it means to be an active and lively reader. Active reading is better to develop a deeper understanding is more than passive or casual consumption. Like any physical or sports activity, active reading takes practice. Writing and reading are multifaceted. It can take effort to do both. Writers can be unclear or leave out key markers while readers may skip over markers that are left. A complete description of active reading is left for later in the book. Adler proves his own point here. Something is left unsaid for the moment. As with a course of antibiotics, a reader must read until the entire prescription is complete.

Reading to Understand

There is a distinction between learning and coming to understand something. To know something is well and good. To understand or become enlightened is another thing. The difference is being able to “remember something and being able to explain it” (p. 11). Enlightenment comes when we can recall what was said and we know why it was said. There is a significant difference between being widely read and well read. In the first case, we may read a significant volume of texts while in the second, we read for a depth of understanding and wisdom. One may gain independently gain understanding by reading or experience. This we may refer to as ‘learning by discovery’. We may also receive instruction from another. This is ‘guided discover’.

Guided discovery achieves the following:

    o One acts and learns with what is communicated to them o One discourses on what is written or orally presented o One learns by acts of reading or listening.

Teaching and learning are an art. They are accomplished with practice and revision. There is an art to reading a book, to listening to presentation, and art in conducting and participation in discourse. Thinking is an act of pondering. It is reflecting on learning and that what is learned. Reason is linked with “one’s senses and imagination” (p. 14). Reading is a dialectic or discussion with someone who is absent. One who we may refer and re-reference. For most of us, reading was the primary means to learning something new.

Active Reading Described

Active reading is asking questions about what is being read. There are four levels of reading that are cumulative and lead to intellectual growth. If we are moved by the truth, then we must act.

Being motivated to find truth in reading, we should pay attention to the types of books that we read and why we read them. Reading for depth is not required for every book or text. We and our students must be challenged to read texts that challenge our ability. Reading for facts or information does not improve your ability or character. You must be stretched and challenged. Reading for understanding takes effort. Text such as science or mathematics may be easier to read. The authors often take great lengths to explain facts and figures. Poetic and philosophy text can be more difficult and need a broader background in the field. There are bad books (wait until you re-read your dissertation).

A good book, though: (1) Brings improvement in your reading skill. (2) Teaches you something that you did not know either about the world or more importantly about yourself. You become wiser (more prudent). So, what are the topics and books that offer the most value? This is true not only in such fields as science and philosophy, where is obvious that final understanding about nature and its laws, and about being and becoming, has not been achieved by anyone and never will be; it is also true of such familiar and everyday matters as the relation between men and women, or parents and children, or man and God. These are matters about which you cannot think too much, or too well. The greatest books can help you to think better about them, because they were written by men and women who thought better than other people about them (p. 341).

The Great Books

Great Books are the books that you should or could read often. These are books that with many layers. Books that demand deeper analytical and critical examination. These books have not changed—you have. There are several lists of such books. The life and growth of the mind. One might test which books are is by asking, ‘what books would you take with you if you were marooned on a desert island?’ Which are the ten books that you might select? Reading and engaging with a certain author promote the growth of your mind. This growth occurs beyond the aging and maturation of the body. We may challenge our intellect beyond the limits of our body. There is no other mode of amusement or entertainment that can do this. Only through engagement with the best of books can we be challenged to be better human beings. Alder and Van Doren throw down this challenge to Speciesism. To the best of our knowledge, this intellectual growth through reading, writing, and other arts is unavailable to other non-human animals.

Adler's Great Books List--Appendix A