Notes on How to Read a Book

“Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some to be chewed and digested.”– Sir Francis Bacon

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is definitely a chew-er.
This book was originally written in 1940 and was last updated in 1972 as far as I can tell.

Four levels of reading:
Elementary reading (being able to read words and sentences)
Inspectional reading (pre-reading that is done in a particular, limited amount of time)
Analytical reading (unlimited time reading, asking questions of the work, seeing what it says and how)
Syntopical reading (reading many works, relating them to each other)

They discuss the historic approaches to reading. Apparently phonics is for folks 50 years and older. (Ed. And they’re saying folks fifty plus in 1972. I’m only 46. I learned to read with phonics. My mom who is 62 did not learn phonics.)

And whole language came next and has been very successful. (Ed. But not for my brother who had to go to summer school, where he learned phonics and began to read like a couch afire. Neither was it helpful for my sisters who eventually learned to read using phonics. I taught both my sons to read using phonics.)

Four stages of elementary reading:
Reading readiness (can see, hear, speak well, able to work well with others)
(Ed. He says that this usually happens by age six. He also says that it is far more important to wait until it is there before trying to teach someone to read than being upset because someone is behind. Of course, that is easy for him to say. He’s not the parent. M did not begin to read till after he was eight, even though he had all these other things earlier than that.)
Simple reading
Rapid progress in vocabulary building
Refinement and enhancement of skills previously acquired

They then discuss the fact that sometimes people don’t read when they graduate high school. At some point half of the 40,000 freshmen at City University of New York were in remedial reading courses. They then decry the fact that syntopical reading is not taught before graduate school and sometimes not even then.

At this point I felt very positive about my work, since I do teach and model reading and require syntopical reading on several subjects in my freshman composition courses. This semester, for example, they had to do syntopical reading on three different candidates. They also had to do syntopical reading on two candidates on the same issues. Finally they are now in the process of doing syntopical reading on both sides of a controversial issue.

“We must be more than a nation of functional literates. We must become a nation of fully competent readers…” (30).

One thought on “Notes on How to Read a Book

  1. We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

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