Review: How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren)

As part of my research on how to bootstrap understanding in a field, I’m reading books that attempt to answer that question. You might think I should have started with that, but it was useful to get a sense of what problems I needed to solve before I looked for the solution. How to Read a Book (affiliate link) is generally very well regarded in this area and came with a strong recommendation from the CEO of Roam, who I would expect to have pretty good thoughts on learning structure. Nonetheless, I was quite disappointed. It took me a long time to put my disappointment into words, but with the help of someone on Facebook I finally figured it out: How to Read a Book is aimed at a narrower subset of books than it acknowledges. What subset, you might ask? I don’t have a great answer, because the authors clearly consider the subset to be the only books, or the only books worth reading, so they didn’t leave a lot of clues. 

What I can say is that it expects books to follow a rigid structure, and to have a single unifying point (what they call “the unity”). This seems to me to be setting up both the author and the reader to throw out a lot of information because they weren’t expecting to see it or couldn’t fit it into their existing frameworks- reading like a state, in essence. This is not the only thing that makes me think HtRaB is more about being able to understand a book than understand the world, although it’s the only one I can articulate.

How to Read a Book didn’t even attempt to answer my current most important question in reading: How do I know what to save or pay attention to? More attentive reading (including but not limited to note-taking) takes more time and more mental effort. Even if it was free, every additional memory or note eats up space in my brain or exobrain and makes it harder to find other thoughts when I look for them. But I don’t necessarily know how important a piece of information is when I read it. Good pre-reading might help me know how important it is to that particular work, but never to my life as a whole.

HtRaB acknowledges that different works have vastly different returns to attention and you should allocate your reading effort accordingly, but I don’t feel like it gave me guidance for choosing what to pay attention to, and I have a suspicion that if I pressed the point the authors’ answer would be extremely in line with the literary and scientific canon of the 1940s-1970s.

My favorite section of How to Read a Book is also the most mechanically detailed: the algorithm for pre-processing a book (explained in detail here). I don’t know if this was the most useful to me because it was the most detailed or because a teacher once told me skimming was immoral and I needed that to be challenged.

For the meat of reading, How to Read a Book suggests questions to ask but not how to determine the answer. To be fair, this is hard. As I work on my own guide to reading I’m intensely aware of how difficult it is to translate the intentions and external appearance of what I’m doing to inner workings comprehensible to many, or even to other people very similar to myself.  I suspect there are people for whom reading these questions causes something to click in their brain and they suddenly start reading better, and that’s great, but it makes the book lucky, not good. Which is nothing to be ashamed of: sometimes a stab at a hard problem is worth more than a perfect solution to an easy one.  But HtRaB’s stab did not happen to hit my particular problem, nor contain enough deep models to let me make the stab myself.

My overall impression is that this is one of those books that is helpful if you read it at the right time and pretty meh otherwise, and it was the wrong time for me. I also predicted it would be one of those books that’s notable for founding a genre but goes on to be surpassed by later books that learned from it, but when I looked at Amazon I found very little. There’s lots on speedreading, confusing memorization with learning, and  “how to study to pass a test designed by someone else”, and I may end up reading some of those because the field is that sparse, but they’re not what I actually want. So if there’s a work you or someone you trust likes that attempts to answer any of the following questions, please share it:

  1. How do you find the most likely sources of relevant or useful information?
  2. How do you get the most (useful) information out of a sources?
  3. How do you decide what information to save?
  4. How do you save it in a maximally useful way?

I’m also interested if you have opinions on any of the following:

  • Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity, and Time Management
    • Kindle Unlimited
  • The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning
  • Extend Your Mind: Praxis Volume 2
  • How to Take Smart Notes
  • Accelerated Learning for Expertise: Rapid Knowledge Acquisition Skills to Learn Faster, Comprehend Deeper, and Reach a World-Class Level (Learning how to Learn Book 6) Kindle Edition
  • The Self-Learning Blueprint: A Strategic Plan to Break Down Complex Topics, Comprehend Deeply, and Teach Yourself Anything (Learning how to Learn Book 3)
  • Writing to Learn
  • Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
  • The Art of Reading

 

So many thanks to my Patreon supporters and the Long Term Future Fund for their support of this research.

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