The Rules of Analytical Reading

How to Read a Book

I am about halfway through a challenging but profitable reading of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, so I thought I’d share the authors’ summary of the first two sections of the book.

Adler and Doren propose the following generalised guidelines to help people who want to become better readers of expository books. They define such books as ones which convey knowledge and contrast them with imaginative literature, such as fiction, poetry and plays. The goal they set before analytical reading is increased understanding, as opposed to merely an increase in the amount of information possessed.

Because there are many kinds of expository writing (history, science, philosophy etc.), the following rules are in some ways abstractions from the practice of analytical reading. In the third part of the book, which I am currently reading, the authors propose more practical approaches to various different kinds of reading matter.

Rules for Finding What a Book Is About

  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.

Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  3. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which of his problems the authors has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he has failed to solve.

Rules for Criticising a Book as a Communication of Knowledge

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

  1. 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.’).
  2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  3. Demonstrate that you recognise the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

  1. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
  2. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  3. Show wherein the author is illogical.
  4. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account in incomplete.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is available online at Amazon US and Amazon UK.


5 Responses to “The Rules of Analytical Reading”

  1. well, surprisingly that's what I normally do as well, but for movies instead of books…

  2. I guess tat's wat most ppl do isn't it? when reading or watching stuff?

  3. Regarding “Criticising a Book”, do you jot down your criticisms (say, in the back of the book), or do you just treat it as a mental exercise, pondering them for an hour or so?

  4. @Jonathan Aquino

    Often I discuss my criticism of a book with a friend, who may or may not have read it themselves. If they have read the book, they can often shed extra light on the issue. If not, it forces me to re-state the author’s argument, which helps make sure I understand it fully myself.

    When I do write down my criticisms in the book, I usually do it in the margin of the page.

  5. Thanks Mark. I have the “How To Read A Book” DVD, and Adler and Van Doren say it’s great to discuss your reading with a friend.

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