How to read a book, by Mortimer Adler

Reading is not what you really think it is.

Reading well, which means reading actively, is not only a good in itself, nor it is merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.

How to Read a Book

Before the Internet, there were books. We shared information with each other by means of the printing word, ink and paper, from cover to cover. It’s possible that you, like me, were encouraged to read since you were very young. We aren’t alone: literacy across the globe has experienced a steady increase since the end of World War II.

Alas, that isn’t enough. With the pervasive literacy also comes the competition; we are drawn to take away more from the books we read, from the information we are presented. However important that is, researches agree that we haven’t found ways to consistently drive our reading skills further from what we learnt when we were 7. In terms of reading and collecting information from what we read, we are still in playground.

Is this because our reading abilities peak at that age? That seems unlikely. With special emphasis, much older children and even adults with reading problems can make huge progress and catch up. Nor does it mean that what we do at that tender age resembles perfect reading; many pupils will do poorly in high school because of their inability to get meaning from the printed page. Kids can improve, need to improve, but don’t.

This isn’t news to you. Many of us thought in the mid twentieth century that they could read better, if only they knew how, and joined speed reading courses that popped up everywhere in order to compete in a highly literate world with a demand for complex skills that required an effective ability to read, comprehend, and assimilate concepts written down on books. The late demand of cognition boosting drugs such as Ritalin and Aderall is old wine in a new bottle; young adults making up for their lack of reading skills throw pills into the mix, with likely long term consequences for their health. With the advent of social media and other distracting tools, we argued in Deep Work, our inability to stay focused begins to crumble when there is no need to even try.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The basics, hearteningly, are simple to understand. You just can’t read everything the same way. It doesn’t make sense to read the 822-page Gödel, Escher, Bach and the motorway billboard in the same way. Some books are to be read more slowly, because they are more demanding; others are to be read more lightly, because they are less so. If people read like they wonder in museums, reading well is like pausing in front of each painting, looking at it closely. You probably ‘see’ less, but you certainly understand more. You won’t even need a camera!


There are two processes happening at the same time when you read. The most straightforward is the one in which you’re taking away what you can from it. But at the same time, there’s the process of figuring out whether the book in your hands is worth reading. The fact that our time is limited, literally— we have to go to work, spend time doing something else—, and figuratively— humans are finite—, we need to be conscious of the fact that reading something implies not reading anything else. Thinking of your time in terms of net present value helps yourself in setting the right approach to reading: you must figure out whether to read the book completely, or just skimming it, at the same time as you are learning from it. This is the reader’s paradox.

The only way to solve whether an enterprise is worth pursuing is failing fast. Likewise, if we are deciding whether to purchase a book for further reading, then we must read it fast. The first reading is, actually, skimming. In order to do so, we must understand in very little time what the book is about, what are the main issues the author is dealing with, and how they are brought to a conclusion. Once we do that, we are prepared to answer the crucial question: Is this book worth reading?

But first, let me define what I mean by reading: reading is learning from an absent teacher. When lectured by a teacher, you don’t learn by osmosis; you struggle with what you’re presented, until you get it. Over that struggle, you may ask questions to the teacher, and he or she may answer them. A demanding teacher is almost always a better one, because he or she is pushing the student’s capabilities to their extremes. When reading, this mindset must continue; in this case, the reader has to wear the hats of the curious pupil and the demanding teacher. Ideally, a curious pupil never stops asking questions, and a demanding teacher brings about what he is teaching from different angles. An ideal reader, thus, will have procured himself with a version of the book he is reading “written by him or herself”.

If we have decided that the book is worth our time and attention, we now must read the book through, without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you don’t understand right away. Given that the book is difficult, in order to read better we need to form the habit of asking questions, and ask them as you read. That habit is the mark of a demanding reader; a habit that is formed by reading. Now that we have decided that this book is worth reading, then we aren’t putting it down until we are satisfied with the results. Thus, taking notes is as part of reading as it is turning to the next page. This will keep you focused as well as alert for the answers you’re looking for.


The strategy to gain as much insight from a book as you possibly can is analyse it both ways: one goes top-down, and we call it analysis; the other is bottom-up, and we call it synthesis.

Analysis is looking from the title of the book and its chapters, and distill the ideas on it, drilling down towards the details. If the book is a body, we are uncovering its skeleton. We will have done so when we are able to explain, in our own words, what the books is about. Special emphasis comes with the ‘own words’ because we are trying to avoid just parroting out ideas that we don’t fully understand. In order to do so, we need to come to terms with the author.

‘Communication’ is a word that’s rooted in the same grounds as ‘common’. That is, it is an effort to share something. That something is the meaning of the key words. In Language in Thought and Action, we argued that the process of abstracting ideas into words leaves out much of the mental process that each one of us go to internalise that word; that is, a word has one meaning for each individual; coming to terms is making sure that the overlap between what the writer means and what the reader understands is maximum.

A term is the building block of communicable knowledge. […] a word used unambiguously.

How to Read a Book

The reader, again, must be the teacher. An important question that must be asked frequently is, hence, what does the author mean by that?. This will develop into further questions that will lead the reader into the point the writer is trying to make. Only by latching onto them, a demanding reader will get what he or she is after.

In the Garden, 1896 - Joaquín Sorolla

Eventually, the skeleton of the book will reveal itself— the better the book and the reader’s skills, the easier this will be. Now it will be time to pull back and start the backward process of synthesis. That is, provided that you’ve come to terms with the author, is time to elaborate a personal version of the book. From the words, the reader must elaborate coherent sentences that express the author’s points. In the same way that terms are unambiguous words, propositions, like those used by Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, are unambiguous sentences. These propositions are the building blocks of the author’s argument, and as a reader you must find a way to articulate them. From those propositions, a set of ideas must arise from a sequential order or paragraphs into an essay. For an essay is an attempt to understand a complex idea, and good books are usually based on one or more of them. This process is done when the reader can articulate in his or her own words.

We have circled back to where we started: the main outline of the book. We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t finished with the book just yet. It’s time to emit a form of judgment of the book.


In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahnemann elaborates on human beings’ impulse to jump into conclusions as quickly as they can. We seem to be mentally wired to take actions almost instantly, and only pause and reflect by making a conscious effort to do so.

It’s worth pointing that out, because as you can see, judgement comes after reading, analysing and synthesising the book. Only when I can say “I understand”, I’m in a position to declare whether I agree or not.

That, in my opinion, is what makes this book highly valuable and recommendable. Not only lays out a process for reading, but can be extrapolated as understanding a conversation, a political speech, or an argument with your partner. It can be understood at different layers, like onions: from the concrete set of challenges that any good book can present, to the discussion of high level ideas that we ruminate for ages with no dispute in the horizon.

Frequently, and unfortunately, people discuss at the level of words. They think like they read: in a level of abstraction that is simply too concrete, and leads nowhere. People simply don’t speak in terms, and because of that no communication is happening.

What is, then, the correct mindset? One in which the reader approaches any conversation or reading as an opportunity to learn. One that regards any disagreement as capable of being solved.

If truth is at stake, we can safely assume that there is only one kind of it, and it isn’t a matter of opinion: we either didn’t come to terms or its solution is behind facts and reason. This is crucial, and not everyone agrees to it, so it’s worth remember: some opinions are more valuable than others. If truth is at stake, it’s worth hearing arguments for and against an idea; but only coming to terms will reveal what the truth is; otherwise, the discussion is pointless.

This is possibly one of the key takeaways of the book: that agreement is always possible, because truth is unique. It branches out from postmodernist ideas, where truth is a matter of opinion and personal experience, and agreement isn’t always possible. Thing is, I find myself in a strange paradox here: I don’t agree with the authors. Truth isn’t simple, and unique; it seems to me that competent and smart people can be found in both sides of long held arguments, be it monetary policy or social benefits. What strikes me as a correct statement, because I don’t see how something can be “truth-y” but not true, “faulty” but not false, clashes with my understanding of how stock markets operate in terms of future outcomes. No one is entirely right; they just make a profit out of what they think the future will hold.


One book is, nevertheless, only the beginning. Initially, our aim was to scratch an itch: we wanted to answer a question we had. Frequently, reading a book will open a world of possibilities that we weren’t aware before reading it. That shouldn’t scare you, but excite you.

Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow. Or a herd of cows. The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.

The Beginning of Infinity

Take the idea that truth is unique, for instance. Doesn’t that relate with Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile? That some ideas have resisted the test of time because, we may say, have an element of truth? To get a deeper fluency on anything, you have to read more than one book; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Our world is complex, and one side of the story isn’t going to cut it.

Apparently, the reader’s paradox goes deeper than we initially thought: there’s so much that we ignore, that reading resembles poking around in pitch darkness, and knowing what books to read is usually learnt after reading. What books should we read?

Again, there is an extra layer to reading. We must inspect, and be open to new books. We should gravitate around an idea, and skim every book within reach for clues. Eventually, you will develop an eye for book quality; be it trustworthy reviews that you find that correlate with the kind of books that resonate with you, or the kind of flow that authors can imprint in their narratives that come from a curated craft. We can separate the wheat from the chaff only if we are confronted with enough grain, but that means confronting chaff is inevitable. Steering the wheel when running into low quality books is what makes us good sailors.

We try one book, then the other. Nowadays, technology is a tool at our disposal that floods us with options, with suggestions, with recommendations, with rankings. But ultimately, it’s on us to make the most of our reading.

The process must always start with a question. Then, start reading. Having a roadmap might be useful, but it’s only the beginning.

book-roadmap

The means that will serve you in the improvement of your reading are the books you read. And reading our own minds is how we think, so maybe taking the time to read well only a few books has more value than casually being exposed to slogans the unfrequent summer reading. Reading also begets writing, so maybe reading well can lead to better writing, speaking and, overall, communicating with others and with yourself.

Essentially, reading is an investment, and a good book rewards you. First, because your reading gets improved when you successfully tackle a good and difficult work. And second, because a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You become wiser, not just more knowledgeable, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the truths of human life.

Reading must imply caring about what you read, being selective. You are learning on your own, and are free to choose what you read, which is good and bad at the same time. You don’t have reading assignments anymore. Being on your own also means making mistakes, but that comes with choosing, with trial and error. You are prone to fail, but so long that those failures are not critical, you can get up and get going. That’s how you learn. Read this book; it will change how you read. Then, it will change how you write. Ultimately, it will change how you see the world.

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