How to Read a Book

You might have some welcome time on your hands in the holiday season, so why not dig into a new book! But do you really know how to read a book? Mortimer J. Adler (1902 – 2001) was born in New York City on the 28th of December 1902 to Jewish immigrants. Adler co-founded the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. Adler long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works, such as How to Read a Book. The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading became popular bestsellers. Here is an excerpt from this didactic guide:

“What about thinking? If by “thinking” we mean the use of our minds to gain knowledge or understanding, and if learning by discovery and learning by instruction exhaust the ways of gaining knowledge, then thinking must take place during both of these two activities. We must think in the course of reading and listening, just as we must think in the course of research. Naturally, the kinds of thinking are different—as different as the two ways of learning are The reason why many people regard thinking as more closely associated with research and unaided discovery than with being taught is that they suppose reading and listening to be relatively effortless. It is probably true that one does less thinking when one reads for information or entertainment than when one is undertaking to discover something. Those are the less active sorts of reading. But it is not true of the more active reading—the effort to understand.

No one who has done this sort of reading would say it can be done thoughtlessly Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed. There is, again, a tendency to stress the role of these activities in the process of unaided discovery and to forget or minimize their place in the process of being taught through reading or listening. For example, many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem, they do not have to use their imagination in reading it. The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection. The reason for this is that reading in this sense is discovery, too—although with help instead of without it.”