Friday, September 09, 2016

How to Read a Book: A Book Review by Katy Lines

Introduction by Robin Hartman:

One of the first assignments my husband was given when he started seminary back in the mid-1980s was to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles van Doren. It seemed odd to me until I became the Teaching Assistant for that Bibliographic Instruction course taught by the Librarian there at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Tom Stokes. I read the book (or part of it) myself and decided it was brilliant. I have used the principles presented in it ever since.

Now, our Library Services Manager, Katy Lines, is starting her D.Min. program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary with this very book! Of course, she is already an avid reader and easily read the 426 page book in a week in preparation to write a book review of it. She has given permission to re-post here.

How to Read “How to Read a Book”

Written by: Katy Lines on September 8, 2016

I am working under the following assumptions: those who venture to read this blog post are intelligent people; perhaps they have even read the book I review here. For whatever reason you have happened onto this post, welcome! Mortimer Adler’s classic 1940 book, updated with Charles Van Doren in 1972, guides the reader through a systematic method in how to gain increased understanding through reading. A reader of a book and an author of that book participate equally in the giving and receiving of information; like a pitcher and a catcher, their skills converge (5-6).

As a foundation for beginning a new program of learning, How to Read a Book provides a practical structure to critically wrestle, not just with a single book, but with books, authors, and terms. Levels of reading the text offer questions we ask of the author(s) along the way: The Elementary level considers the mechanics of reading; the Inspectional level encourages pre-reading or skimming to ask yourself, ‘might this book be helpful for me?’ In the Analytical level, the reader poses critical questions to understand the author: What are the author’s issues? Is this book true, in whole or part? So what? Finally, at the Syntopical level, the reader looks at a wider library of texts so as to do comparative reading on a topic (17-19).

Great books of the Western World

In order to criticize a book as a communication of knowledge, the reader must first understand the author. Only then can the reader show that the author is uniformed, misinformed, illogical, or presenting an incomplete analysis (162).

According to the authors’ own expectations of a practical book, “nothing short of doing solves the problem” (189). As such, I gained an understanding of how to quickly skim this book to ascertain what would be helpful to me, with the aim of “add[ing] something to the book to make it applicable in practice. [The reader] must add his [sic] knowledge of the particular situation and his judgement of how the rule applies to the case” (190). This seems like the next logical step to reading a practical book such as this.

The authors have crafted a well-designed method to effectively read books. From the standpoint of a doctoral student in a global studies program however, I find two significant shortcomings in their text. The first shortcoming is their denunciation of the aphoristic style of philosophy as “not as important as the other four [styles]” (278). The aphoristic style, that is, short, pithy wisdom sayings, are, according to the authors, most commonly found in “the wisdom books of the East.” As part of a globally connected world however, this style should not be disregarded or considered unimportant today. Perhaps when the text was originally published and then revised, the Western world could ignore the East. But that is to the detriment of everyone. Aphoristic philosophy is also extremely prevalent in social media today, with meme phrases and limited-character tweets dominating our conversations. To ignore this style of philosophy limits the world in which one lives and understands.

The second substantial deficiency of the text resides primarily in the recommended reading list of Appendix A, but to a greater degree, in the selection of books which the authors consider “worth your while to read” (337, cf 164, 170-171). The authors desire for the reader to “discover the best that has been thought and said in our literary tradition” (337). Besides their own admission of the omission of texts by eastern authors (339), their proposed great book list ignores all non-white male authors of the West, and nearly all female authors (George Eliot and Jane Austen are the two exceptions). Within a very brief timespan, and limiting myself to Western authors prior to the twentieth century, I easily came up with many plausible additions, to this list that would fit those categories: WEB Du Bois, Frederick Douglas, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Booker T Washington, Langston Hughes, Teresa of Avila, Emily Dickenson, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the list can go on.

While I fully understand that the purpose in this book (and this assignment) is to understand how to read a book, I cannot fully show that I have read this book in the “proper” manner (according to the text itself) without acknowledging that the authors themselves have left an incomplete analysis (162). To give them credit, the dated context in which they wrote (and revised) the text was an era spotlighting Western, male authors. Perhaps my critique is more directed to the publishers who released the 2013 edition I am currently holding. Due to the continued evolution of cultures throughout time, I daresay it is high time to not only reissue the text, but revise it once again."


Katy has served for nearly twenty years in children's, youth, and cross-cultural church planting ministries. She is currently the manager of the Darling Library of Hope International University (HIU), teaches graduate ministry classes part-time at HIU, and serves as the Neighborhood Engagement team leader of Anaheim First Christian Church, Anaheim, CA.

Citation (Chicago Style):
Adler, Mortimer Jerome, and Charles Lincoln Van Doren. 1972. How to Read a Book. Revised and updated edition. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Available for check out from the Darling Library.

Available for sale on Amazon.

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