How to Read a Book
by Mortimer AdlerPublished 1940
If I were asked to sum up this book in as few words as possible, I think the words I’d select would be “eminently readable.” I was impressed by how clear and simple Adler made the task of reading.
When I was in high school, I tried to read as much “significant literature” as possible. I think that reading through The Scarlet Letter, my first ever difficult book, was probably the spark for this kick; but the result was that by my junior year of high school, I was wading through Middlemarch and offering my thoughts on Thomas Hardy to anyone who would listen.
I would read and read and then talk all about what I liked about the book, even when I didn’t really know what I meant. It was frustrating, not knowing what I liked and what I didn’t. Feeling like the book was some sculpture that I could only see from one angle. And yet: feeling like a lot of other people—smart people, important people—thought that the sculpture was significant and moving and seminal; and wanting to count myself their peer. So I’d say things like, “The imagery is beautiful,” or, “She really transports you to the 19th-century English countryside.”
One time, my girlfriend said, “You like everything you read.” She said it dismissively. “Do you really like it?”
Since then, I’ve struggled with finding things not to like about books. I don’t know how successful I’ve been. I think I’ve never known quite how to put a value on a book.
Adler’s How to Read a Book, though, has at least given me a bit of a map among value judgements like these. Nothing he says is new to me, but putting the things that I’ve learned over the course of hundreds of books into a framework that can be in turn reapplied feels freeing. I don’t have to struggle to uncover the things that I don’t like—I can apply some rules and think through some questions and come up something a little bit more concrete. Something I can point to.
It feels like spending a long time wandering around on the ground, learning the shapes of hills and fields, discovering what lies on the other side of a ridgeline, where the gaps and stiles are in the walls. And then one day being taken up in a light aircraft. Adler isn’t teaching me anything I didn’t know before; but by lifting me up a little bit higher, by showing me a bigger picture, much that didn’t make sense before, now does.
Should you read it? If you read for anything more than diversion—if you read to learn something, then yeah. It’s not a long book, nor is it particularly difficult, but it gives you the tools to take on the long and difficult books with a bit more confidence.