Author: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles van Doren

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A well-read person is not one who reads widely, but one that reads well. A person who reads well is a person that understands a book and elevates themselves to become peers with the author.

The book itself is long-winded but the process seems legit. I’m making it a goal to follow Adler’s book reading process from now on.


There are four levels of reading.

First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

  • At this level of reading, the question asked of the reader is “What does the sentence say?”

Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

  • Systematic skimming: Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading.
    • Look at the title page, and if the book has one, at its preface.
    • Study the Table of Contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure
    • If the book has a dust jacket, read the publisher’s blurb
    • Look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument.
    • Turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that.
  • Superficial reading
    • Read the book through without stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

How to be a demanding reader

There are four main questions you must ask about any book (or anything worth reading.) These four questions inform the process for the next level of reading.

  • What is the book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail, and how?
  • Is the book true, in whole or part?
  • What of it?

Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences
  3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organised into a whole, by being ordered to one another to the unity of the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
  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 as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book.
  10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  11. Demonstrate that you recognise the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
  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

Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading

  1. Find the relevant passages
    • In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books you read
    • Your aim is to find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs.
    • Your task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may be very far from the author’s own purpose on writing it.
  2. Bring the authors to terms
    • It is you who must establish the terms and bring your authors to them, rather than the other way around
  3. Get the questions clear
    • Frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem and to which each of our authors give answers
  4. Define the issues
    • Often, more than two alternative answers are given to a question.
    • In that case, the opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views
  5. Analyze the discussion
    • The solution to the problem consists of rather in the ordered discussion itself than in any set of propositions or assertions about it. Thus, we have to ask them in a certain order and be able to defend that order; we must show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why; and we must be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers.
    • The syntopical reader tries to look at all sides and take no sides.