Level Up the Reading Skills – The Summary of How to Read a Book

The purpose of reading can be many – to be informed, to learn something, or to entertain. I read a lot, but reading for entertainment is not my thing. Most of the time, I only read for gaining knowledge. ‘’How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading’’ is the book written for this purpose, improve the reading skills to gain knowledge. At first glance of its title – How to Read a Book, many people may be wondering how do we read this book if we do not know how to read a book? Although the title is ‘’How to Read a Book’’, this book is about how to grow knowledge from reading, not necessarily a book, but all kind of reading materials. The authors, Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler, systematically demonstrate the art of reading and how to be a demanding reader. The reading skills the book presents can be applied to any form of reading materials written in any language.


This book focuses on gaining knowledge from reading a book. Gaining knowledge includes obtaining information and acquiring a better understanding.

The authors use ‘’inform’’ to indicate reading for information, and use ‘’enlighten’’ to express reading for understanding. ‘’To be informed’’ is to know something is the case, i.e., remember something. ‘’To be enlightened’’ is not only to know something is the case, but also know what it is, why it is the case, and what its relation to other facts. The distinction between these two is between being able to remember something and being able to explain something. Be informed is prerequisite to be enlightened, and enlightenment happens only when a reader knows what an author means and why the author says that.

The authors suggest that reading a book should be a conversation between the author and the reader, and presumably the author knows more about the topic than the. The gap between the author and the reader is where the reader can grow his or her knowledge. To grow our knowledge, we have to do our best to overcome the gap between authors and readers and read as actively as possible.

Active Reading

The essence of active reading (defined by the authors) is to ask questions and try to answer them during our reading. For example: What is the book about? What is the detail? Is the book true, in whole or part? Asking questions is not enough, we must try o answer them. To answer a question, we have to think. If we say we know something, but we are not able to express it, it means we do not fully understand it. The exercise of asking questions and answer them is the place our knowledge grow. Ultimately, we must make a book our own. To achieve the ultimate goal, this book suggests four levels of reading.

Four Levels of Reading

The four levels of reading are basic reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. The levels are accumulative. In other words, a higher level includes all levels below it.

Basic reading is the foundation of all levels of reading. Inspectional reading focus on getting information from a book within a limit of time. Analytical reading is the most comprehensive reading for a book. Syntopical reading is the skill to read many books around the same topic.

Basic Reading

Basic reading is also called elementary reading, or initial reading. The goals of this level of reading are to recognize vocabularies, to know grammar, and to understand the meaning of a sentence. We must feel comfortable to read the text without stopping to look up dictionaries, or check grammar. This means we cannot read at the advanced level unless we read effectively on the elementary level.

Inspectional Reading

The second level of reading the author calls is inspectional reading. This level is to get the most out of a book within a limit amount of time – usually too short to extract everything that a book provides. The questions to ask at this level are ‘’What is the book about?’’ or ‘’How does the book organize?’’

The most important rule of inspectional reading is: do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book in the first time reading (especially the hardest book). Inspectional reading is the reading skill for preparation so that we can read a book well the second time and the next level.

Inspectional reading has two stages: systematic skimming (or pre-reading) and superficial reading.

Skimming Reading

Skimming or pre-reading is necessary before we decide if a book is worth reading carefully. It gives us comprehension of a book’s theme, structure, and what it covers.

The authors detail the steps of systematic skimming.

  1. Read the title page and its preface, including the subtitles and other indications of the scope of the book.
  2. Read the table of contents. Table of contents gives us a general sense of a book’s structure.
  3. Check the index. The index gives us the sense of the range of a book covered.
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb.
  5. Read the chapters that seem to be important to its topics. Especially, if these chapters have summary statements (usually in their opening or closing pages), read them carefully.
  6. Turn the pages, reading a paragraph or two, or several pages in sequence. Focus on the signs of the main content and an epilogue (if there is one).

Superficial Reading

The rule of superficial reading is: when reading a book for the first time (especially a difficult book), read it through without stopping to look up things that we don’t understand and concentrate on what we can understand. This way we have a better chance of understanding it on a second reading.

People tend to pay more attention to things we do not understand. Therefore, when we encounter something we do not understand while we are reading, we are tempted to seek help such as a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other commentaries. But when these things are done prematurely, they only interfere with our reading, instead of helping it.

Reading Speed

Inspectional reading is a reading skill about time. Ideally, every book should be read no slower than it deserves and no quicker than we can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.  The point the authors made is simple. Many books are hardly worth even skimming. Some should be read quickly, and a few should be read slow enough to allow for complete comprehension. It is a waste of time to read a book slower than it only deserves a fast reading.

Analytical Reading

Analytical reading is the best reading we can do for the sake of understanding. In contrast to inspectional reading which is the complete reading within a limited time, analytical reading is the best and most complete reading without time limit. In this level of reading, reading is always intensely active, and the goal is to make a book our own. The authors proclaim reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it.

There are three stages of analytical reading. The first two stages come from a mastery of grammar and logic. The third stage depended on the principles of rhetoric and conceived in the broadest sense.

Stage 1: Rules for finding what a book is about

The analytical reader must ask many organized questions of what a book about.

  • We must know what kind of book we are reading (inspectional reading should give us some ideas for the book we are reading)
  • We can state the whole book as briefly as possible (one or a few sentences)
  • Enumerate the book’s major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as we have outlined the whole. We cannot know the whole book comprehensively without knowing the organization of its parts.
  • Define the problem(s) the author tries to solve.

Stage 2: Rules for finding what a book says

From a reader’s point of view, the important sentences are those require an effort of interpretation. We understand them just well enough to know there is more to understand. Therefore, we have to read much slower and more careful these sentence than the other. To know we have fully understood the proposition(s) in the sentence is ‘’state in our own words’’. We should be able to say the same thing in different words.

However, from the author’s perspective, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which the author’s whole argument depends on. A reader is required to discover the proposition(s) that each of these important sentences contains. In other words, we must know what the sentence means.

  • Find the important words and their meanings. This rule includes: first, to locate the important words, the words that make a difference. Second, to determine the meaning of these words, as used, with precision.
  • Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.
  • Identify the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the relation of sentences.
  • Find the solutions to the problems the author tries to solve, including which of the problems the author has solved and which the author has not, and decide which the author knew failed to solve.

Stage 3: Rules for criticizing a book as communication of knowledge

Reading a book is a kind of conversation, i.e., a conversation between an author and a reader. It must be completed by the work of criticism and judging. Therefore,

  • We must be able to say ‘’I understand’’ (with reasonable certainty) before we can say any of these: ‘’I agree’’, ‘’I disagree’’, or ‘’I suspend judgment’’. Besides, to say “I don’t understand” is also a critical judgment, but only after we have tried our best on the book.
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. That is to say, winning the argument does not matter; learning the truth does.
  • When we make a critical judgment, we need to admire the difference between knowledge and personal opinions by giving reasons.

The conclusion of criticizing a book is that if we fail to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical about relevant concerns, we cannot disagree.

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading is the skill to read more than one book on the same topic. Syntopical reading can also be called comparative reading. The primary concern is the issue(s) we care about, not the books we read. Eventually, after the syntopical reading of the topic we concern, we should be able to build our analysis of the topic. Moreover, the conclusion we made may not even be in any of the books. Syntopical reading is the most active and effortful reading.

There are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is a preliminary stage, and the other stage is syntopical reading appropriable.

Step 1: Surveying the field preparatory to syntopical reading

Step 1: Create a tentative bibliography of our topics

Step 2: Inspect all of the books that we have identified as relevant and also to acquire clear ideas of the topic

These two steps are not chronologically distinct. The two steps have an effort on each other, especially, while we are doing the inspection reading of the bibliography, we may also modify the bibliography.

Step 2: A syntopical reading of the bibliography amassed in stage 1

Once we have the bibliography identified in stage 1, we can start the second stage of syntopical reading.

Step 1: Finding the relevant passage

Inspect the books already classified as relevant to our topics in Stage 1 to find the most relevant passages. The goal is to find the passages in the books that are most appropriate to our needs.

Step 2: Binging the authors to terms

Every author may use different terminologies on the same topic, so we need to construct a neutral terminology of the topic that the majority of authors can be employed, even if they do not employ the words.

Syntopical reading develops the relationship between many books on the same topic. Therefore, as we proceed on our project of syntopical reading, we have to build up a set of terms that help us to understand all of our authors (not just one or a few of them) and helps us to solve our problems.

Step 3: Getting the questions clear

As step 2, establishing the common terminology, many authors may have different views on our topic, so we have to create a set of neutral propositions. However, this is much harder than building a set of common terms. This book provides a simpler way to do so: we can build a set of questions around our topic, and all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers to the set of questions, even if they do not treat them as questions.

Step 4: Defining the issues

Once we have clear questions from step 3, we should define the issues around these questions. If these questions are not simple, it is very likely different authors have different answers to these questions. We need to define these issues – the issues between the authors who answer the question in one way and those who answer it in one or another opposing way.

Step 5: Analyzing the discussion

The first four steps correspond to the first two stages of analytical reading but deal with many books. Therefore, the last step of syntopical reading is to analyze the discussion of questions and issues defined by step 3 and step 4. Besides, a syntopical reader should try to look at all sides and to take no sides.

Reflection and Thoughts

The impression the book gave me after reading it is that the authors did a great job to introduce a systematical way of improving reading skills. Especially, the skill of syntopical reading is corresponding to my experience of academic research.

When I was in graduate school, the process of doing research was:

First, discussed the research topic with my advisor and my advisor gave me a list of references such as papers and books.

Second, read the survey paper and added more reference to the list my advisor gave me. After I had the updated bibliography, I started skimming through each material on the list. For paper, I read only abstract; for books, I read the preface, table of contents, and chapters related to my research topic. While the skimming process marked the papers and books I need to read carefully and started building the relationship between each material.

Third, carefully read the papers and books I need to read seriously to build my foundation knowledge of my topic.

Fourth, analyzed the solutions and issues other people provide and the different views from each author. After the step, I had the idea which direction my research should go.

Finally, I concluded the result of my research. Of course, academic research is more these stopes, but I feel the general process is corresponding with the analytical reading.

Although syntopical reading the most top level of reading and it is the most difficult reading, I think the method of syntopical reading can be simplified as the following algorithm (use Python syntax)

def get_bibliography(topic):
    # Building the initial reading list which my be relevant to the topic
    return bibliography

def inspectional_read(topic, reading_list):
    # Do inspectional reading for each book and pick the books worth to read analytically
    # and the books relevant to the topic.
    # Therefore, analytical_list is a subset of modified_reading_list, and
    # modified_reading_list is a subset of reading_list
    analytical_list = []
    modified_reading_list = []

    for book in reading_list:

        # Skimming reading
        read preface or abstract
        read table of contents
        read chapter related to the topic

        if book is worth to do analytical reading:
            # Add the book to analytical_list

        if book has relevant content of topic:
            # Add the book to modified_reading_list

    return modified_reading_list, analytical_list

def analytical_read(analytical_list):
    for book in analytical_list:
        do analytical reading

def syntopical_reading(topic, modified_reading_list):
    # syntopical reading is mainly for build the relationship between books
    common_terminologies = []
    common_questions = []
    common_issues = []

    while syntopical reading:
        # Bring authors to terms

        # Building the set of questons

        # Building the set of issues

    return common_terminologies, common_questions, common_issues

if __name__ == "__main__":

    # Choose a topic
    topic = "choose a topic"

    reading_list = get_bibliography(topic)

    modified_reading_list, analytical_list = inspectional_read(topic, reading_list)


    common_terminologies, common_questions, common_issues = syntopical_read(topic, modified_reading_list)

    # Do whatever we need to do to solve the topic
    get_conclusion(topic, common_terminologies, common_questions, common_issues)

Suggestion for reading ”How to Read a Book.”

Indeed, the idea approach to read ‘’How to Read a Book’’ is to follow the method this book advises. Nevertheless, we do not know the approach the book suggests before we read this book. I have read this book at least three times, on both printed and kindle version. I would suggest the following approach (of course, the approach is what I learned from this book)

Step 1 (Skimming Reading)

Read Preface, Table of Contents, chapter 1, chapter 2, ‘’Summary of Inspectional Reading’’ of chapter 4, ‘’The Third Stage of Analytical Reading’’ of chapter 11, the first section of chapter 20, and ‘’Summary of Syntopical Reading’’ of chapter 20.

Step 2 (Superficial Reading)

Read through the entire book with a time limit (Amazon Kindle suggests the typical time to read this book is 6 hours and 21 minutes). Skip ‘’Part Three: Approaches to Different Kinds of Books.’’, if necessary.

Step 3 (Analytical Reading and Beyond)

After the inspectional reading, we should have enough understanding of the reading mechanisms the book presents. Therefore, we should try our best to apply the skills to read the book again.

In short, ‘’How to Read a Book’’ is a practical book; the ultimate goal is not only to make the book our own but also to embed the reading mechanisms to our reading habits.

Review and Conclustion

This book first released in 1940 and revised in 1972. The writing style may be a little old. For the same reason, it lacks discussions of the modern media such as Google and Wikipedia. For example, in chapter 12, ‘’Aids to Reading’’, this book does not mention Internet as an aid to reading. Besides, in my opinion, this book is a little be wordiness. The patient is necessary when reading this book. Despite the age of this book, the reading skills the authors present are still available today. Especially, we live in the era of the Internet. We can know more things about the world than ever. Yet, we are also easily distracted by bountiful information. Yes, we read a lot, but most of our reading may not improve our understanding and knowledge. This book helps us to read better – faster and more understanding. Besides, the reading skills can also be applied to any material written in any language. Also, the authors use the relationship between pitcher and catcher to describe the relationship between a reader and a writer. Reading and writing skills go hand in hand. The better our reading skills, the better our writing skills.

In summary, the book not only helps us read better but also think deeper and wider. I highly recommend this book to whoever wants to level up his or her reading skills, especially college and graduate students.


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