How to Read a Book

Mortimer J. Adler


The modern education systems does an inadequate job teaching it’s students how to read. There are 4 levels of reading, each of which builds off the previous. These 4 stages are: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading and syntopical reading. Almost all students are taught how to perform elementary reading, some learn how to perform inspectional reading and few are taught inspectional reading and almost none are taught syntopical reading. Some students may self educate the higher levels of reading. Syntopical reading is learned during graduate school but it should be taught well before then.

Elementary Reading

Adler’s How to Read a Book aims to outline steps students can take to achieve higher levels of understanding when reading. The first step is elementary reading. To understand a book you must first understand the symbols used to communicate. In this case, the symbols are the letters and words (mathematical and scientific books use a larger set of symbols). You must also understand the grammar of the book. This is taught early in childhood for most people. We know the alphabet and thus can perform elementary reading. We can achieve elementary understanding by performing elementary reading.

Inspectional Reading

During inspectional reading the you try to answer questions about the form of the book. What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? What are it’s part? There are two steps to inspectional reading: systematic skimming and superficial reading. Both of these steps are meant to let the reader achieve a higher level understanding of a book in a short amount of time. A book should be inspectionally read in under 30 minutes. To perform systematic skimming a you should: read the title and preface, read the table of contents, read the index, look at chapters which seem pivotal to the argument and read paragraphs (maybe pages) here and there. In many cases these steps are all you need to perform to decide if the book is worth more work. Maybe the book is poorly written. Maybe the book is filled with fluff. Maybe the book isn’t relevant to the your interests. Superficial reading requires the you to read without stopping. Reading a book beyond your level requires time and effort to understand. It is better to understand 50% of the whole book than getting discouraged after spending a week to understand 100% of the first chapter. Use superficial reading to see the forest without getting lost in the trees.

Analytical Reading

Analytical reading requires much effort. During this phase of reading the you questions such as: what is the book about as a whole? What questions is the author trying to answer? What arguments is the author making? There are four parts to analytical reading: pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author and determining the author’s message. There are eight rules to analytical reading which come from these four parts.

Pigeonholing the Book

Reading is a two way street. Not only must the author act as a teacher, the reader must act as a student. A reader performing analytical reading has decided – because of inspectional reading – that this book is worthwhile. The author has done his job of being a teacher. Now the student must play the part of a student. Being a student is not a passive task but an active one. Students must put in effort to learn and should not expect understanding to come without work. The first step to being a student is knowing what you are being taught. Learning changes according to context. Teaching history is different from teaching physics. The words used, the arguments employed, the questions asked and the expectations of students. Similarly, learning history is done differently from learning physics. You must read books on history differently from books on physics. Pigeonholing the book you’re reading is an important part of setting your mental model of learning before putting in the work to learn.

X-raying the Book

X-raying is a deeper level of inspectional reading. X-raying a book results in finding the underlying structure of the book. In finding the bones under the flesh. Three rules must be followed to x-ray a book:

  1. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence or at most a few sentences.
  2. Set forth the major parts of the book and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the book
  3. Find out what the author’s problems were.

These three rules complement each other. By knowing the unity of the book you can put the parts of the book into perspective. By understanding the parts you both gain deeper understanding of of the whole and understand the author’s problems and his solutions. Students should strive to outline books down to their most basic units. This may result in outlines longer than the original. To find out the author’s problems the you must know what questions the author has. Knowing an author’s questions gives insights to the author’s intentions. Knowing these things (unity, parts and problems) gives you a framework from which to build understanding.

Coming to Terms with the Author

Words and terms are different. Words have different meanings in different contexts. The word “point” means one thing in a book about logic and something else entirely in a book on geometry. To understand a book you must understand the key words that an author uses and the meaning of those words. Authors may go out of their way to define their terms as teachers sometimes do. It is impossible to learn what is being taught if foundational concepts are misunderstood. Examples of terms in this book are: read, understand, elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical, term, proposition and structure.

Determining the Author’s Message

Now that you understand the author’s terms it is time to understand the author’s arguments. To understand the author’s arguments your must understand his propositions. A proposition is an expression of judgement. A declaration of knowledge. It is important to remember that propositions are opinions unless they are backed by reason or evidence. To understand an author’s message you must know the authors problems. To understand the author’s problems you must know his questions. To know his questions you must know answers. To know his answers you must know his arguments, their propositions, the fabric which weaves those propositions together and the terms used to composed the propositions.

The Eight rules of Analytical Reading

  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 is trying to solve.
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading is the highest form of reading which gives the deepest understanding. To read syntopically is to read many books about the same topic, synthesize understanding of each book and reach understanding of the topic as a whole. Much like analytical reading, syntopical reading has steps and rules. The first step is to decide on which books to read. The second step is to read them.

Building Your Bibliography

Inspectional reading must be done before analytical reading. Building a bibliography must be done before diving into a book. You must understand the topic of interest and it’s high level themes and ideas. You may find that some books originally of interest are not germane. You may discover books and articles which you would have otherwise missed had you not built your bibliography.

Reading Your Bibliography

Once again you should not dive into a single book. Perform an inspectional reading the books in your bibliography. Find the most important passages and read them first. Iteratively increase the resolution of your understanding. High level ideas must be understood before the details. Because authors may have different terms you must create a common vocabulary for all of the books in your bibliography. Define a set of questions to which most or all of the authors provide answers, either implicit or explicit. Define issues and by the opposing answers the authors provide for the questions you’ve defined. Analyze the topic by ordering questions and their issues from highest generality to lowest. This is the hardest form of reading as now the author must come to you. You must define a framework and decide how to fit books, questions, answers, propositions and terms within that framework.


Reading to achieve understanding is no small task. Effort must be put forth by the author and the reader. Just as there are steps to a game of chess, there are steps to achieve understanding when reading a book. Elementary reading is learning what the pieces of the game are and how they move. Inspectional reading is understanding the phases of the game. Analytical reading is understanding tactics and strategy. Syntopical reading is understanding styles of play. Each type of reading builds off the previous and following these steps will help you achieve understanding more effectively and efficiently.


Buy the book here.

All my notes can be found on goodreads.

An interesting idea that stood out to me was the notion that there are two types of discovery, aided discovery and unaided discovery. Going to school to learn from a teacher is aided discovery. Coming to understand a difficult to understand book is unaided discovery. All of the information is there but it’s up to the reader to have an ‘aha’ moment.

I’ve never in my life performed inspectional reading or syntopical reading. I think it will be quite some time before I do syntopical reading. However, I now understand the value of inspectional reading.

Speed reading should not be thought of reading fast all the time. Different parts of a book deserve different levels of thought and attention. Speed reading should be thought of as reading a various speeds, as demanded by the book.

If you read on a kindle you should follow these tips to read faster. The defaults aren’t optimal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s