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How To Read a Book


How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

It seems like a very simple question: how to read a book?

1. Locate the book

2. Open the book

3. Find the first page

4. Move your eyes across the letters from left to right

5. Congratulations, you are now smarter, maybe…

In the past year I have read the following books on this very topic, which is not quite as simple as it sounds. I recommend reading all three of them if this topic interests you, as each book approaches reading in a slightly different way.

The answer is that, as with so many things…it depends. What are you reading for? Is it for a class? Is it a science fiction novel? Is in non-fiction? Are you a literature professor and you’re reading yet another three page essay about the color green in The Great Gatsby?

Is it a horrific academic treatise on Dutch trade routes in the 1800s?

The books mentioned above focus on the various types of reading–inspectional, analytic, etc–and the goals of the reader. Different goals require different methods of reading. Or do they?

Are you interested in getting the most possible out of every book you read? How do you choose what to read? Is there such a thing as a book you should read?

All of those questions and more are almost answered in the books I’ve mentioned.

I’m not going to try to summarize what they all say beyond this: rereading and close reading are where the magic really happens.

Oh, and Harold Bloom feels that it is imperative that you memorize poems and recite them to yourself constantly. I’m not going to do that. What’s the opposite of imperative? That’s how I feel about memorizing poems and reciting them to myself.

How I read a book

It depends. When I am reading purely for story and pleasure–like when I read the Jack Reacher novels–I usually skip over descriptions and passages that don’t advance the story. (Meaning, I skip to the next fight, pretty much).

I’ve been reading some books of Tolkien criticism in preparation for Tolkien month here on the blog in September. To engage with the material I can’t really afford to skim over anything, or I lose the author’s argument.

I slow down. I take notes. I read with the Lord of The Rings right next to me so I can check things against the criticism. I am getting very excited for Tolkien month, by the way. I know, that probably makes one of us.

If I run into a line that I think is worth remembering I put it into a Google document that I created for quotes from books.

If I’m having a hard time understanding something, I slow down. I might reread a paragraph in a Derrida essay 20 times and get no closer to understanding it.

Sometimes I read a book twice in a row, like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. That book had so many clever, frustrating things going on that I couldn’t wait to go back through and take another look once some of the mysteries were cleared up.

It changes for me with every book, and every book changes for me as I grow older.

I reread a book of Woody Allen’s prose not too long ago and wondered why I had once thought it was so funny. I reread Self Reliance when I got my copy from the Domino Project and was amazed that I had ever thought any of it was boring.

Sometimes I am a serious reader. Sometimes not. Sometimes I want to know why David Deutsch thinks about the multiverse, and sometimes I want to read about a wizard trying to fight a shadow in the first Earthsea book.

My basic habits don’t change. Open the book, follow the letters, enjoy or discard.

But the way I react to the books changes, and that’s one of the reasons I can’t stop. I love to read. I love it more than anything. I refuse to do anything (or read anything) that makes the act of reading feel like a chore. Even reading that Derrida paragraph 20 times was fun, because I was reading it for a very specific reason.

What about you? Any reading rituals? Habits that you find interesting, or that are changing as you read more? As you age? Do any of you sickos go about reciting poetry to yourself constantly?


PS: I’ve heard very good things about How To Read Literature Like A Professor, but I haven’t read it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Francisco Ramirez August 30, 2011, 4:16 am

    I think my worst habit is whenever I do pick up a book, I start it and hardly ever finish it. To what would you attribute that? Could it depend on the subject or author or style…or is it just my commitment level?

    • Steve M August 30, 2011, 8:50 am

      Could be related to the amount of reading material that’s out there. At least that’s a good part of my problem. I’ll be reading a book, then later spot a reference to some new book that stirs my interest, drop the first and pick up the second. If a person has broad interests these days, it takes a lot of self discipline to stay focused and not “surf” books the way we surf the internet.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 30, 2011, 10:21 am

      Could be all of the above, or none. I can only speak for myself.

      Do you enjoy the books you’re reading? Even if you don’t finish them all? It’s pretty hard for me to start a book, enjoy it, and not finish it.

  • Steve M August 30, 2011, 5:42 am

    You might be interested in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a recent publication by Alan Jacobs. The author, a college English professor, develops the notion of reading on “whim” rather than out of a rigid sense of duty. His prescription for selection of reading material is not quite as self-indulgent as my short description might lead you to believe. Worth checking out.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 30, 2011, 10:20 am

      Thanks Steve, I’ll look it up. Have you read the book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains? It’s what I usually recommend to people who are wondering about whether they are losing the ability to read non-web material.

      • Steve M August 30, 2011, 12:22 pm

        I’ll check it out at our local library, Josh. Thought of another recent book addressing some of these issues: Hamlet’s Blackberry – A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. And then there’s the book that tipped me off as to what was coming more than 15 years ago: The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts.

        I’m going to try a multi-media strategy to read a classic I’ve always meant to complete – Don Quixote. I’ve got the Edith Grossman translation and just picked up the unabridged reading on 35 CD’s. I’ve listening while reading along in the text. A bit of an investment, but I think it will be worth it. I did this sort of thing successfully once before. Fifteen years ago, I was laid up on crutches having blown out an Achilles tendon and had time on my hands. I read along with recorded version of Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. We’ll see if the technique works for me again now.

        • Josh Hanagarne August 30, 2011, 3:51 pm

          nice, thanks for the recommend. Don Quixote is my favorite audiobook.

  • Wanderlust August 30, 2011, 10:41 am

    I have always been a very slow reader, but I think it’s because I can’t stand to skim a book. I read (and re-read and mark up passages) for the beauty of the writing. Sometimes I’ll read a paragraph and think, “how did they do that? how did they come up with just the perfect words to convey an image or feeling?). Words are magical.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 30, 2011, 11:10 am

      I just wandered over to your post about bras on Wanderlust and got hypnotized for about five minutes.

  • Todd August 31, 2011, 4:31 pm

    Are any of these books on CD? Sorry, couldn’t help that. I’ve become a reading fool. I’ve read more in the last two years, than the previous forty… and that includes college.

    Depending on what I’m reading changes how I read. I tend to do more skimming when it’s something technical. When it’s more enjoyable, I take my time, sometimes rereading a sentence or paragraph.

  • JustOneMoreReader December 4, 2011, 5:47 pm

    Hey !
    I’m what I consider a ‘normal reader’. I don’t take notes, but I do read for the pleasure it holds itself. I think one of my pet-peeves is that I DESPISE having to read a book whilst in the middle of another. I HATE IT. One of my rituals (very disturbing, I must say) is that when I buy a new book, I always. Have. To. Start. It. At. Night. Then I’ll usually stay up until 5 in the morning xD Anyway, I’m quite a young reader (13) but I’ve already read a few classics, like the earlier mentioned Don Quixote (it helps that I’m a Spainyard too, I guess :D).