Chapter 1 – The Activity and Art of Reading

PART ONE: The Dimensions of Reading


This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers. It is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.

There is some feeling nowadays that reading is not as necessary as it once was. Radio and especially television have taken over many of the functions once served by print … But it may be questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance) … The viewer is presented with a whole complex of elements – all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics – to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.


When we contrast active with passive reading, our purpose is, first, to call attention to the fact that reading can be more or less active, and second, to point out that the more active the reading the better.

Many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive. … On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball.

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. … Both are active, the though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it’s the ball. … The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.

The art of catching is the skill of catching every kind of pitch. Similarly, the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.

It is noteworthy that the pitcher and catcher are successful only to the extent that they cooperate. … The writer’s skill and the reader’s skill converge upon a common end.

The is one respect in which the analogy breaks down. The ball is a simple unit. It is either completely caught or not. A piece of writing, however, is a complex object. It can be received more or less completely.

For the moment, it suffices to say that, given the same thing to read, one person reads it better than another, first by reading it more actively, and second, by performing each of the acts involved more skillfully.

THE GOALS OF READING: Reading for Information and Reading for Understanding

Your success in reading is determined by the extent to which you receive everything the writer intended to communicate.

That, of course, is too simple. The reason is that there are two possible relations between your mind the book, not just one.

As you go through the pages, either you understand perfectly everything the author has to say or you do not. If you do, you may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding.

Let us take our second alternative. You do not understand the book perfectly. … You know the book has more to say than you understand and hence that it contains something that can increase your understanding.  … What do you do then?

Without external help of any sort, you go to work on the book. With nothing but the power of your own mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more.

The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the art of reading.

Here by “learning” is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

There is clearly no difficulty of an intellectual sort about gaining new information in the course of reading if the new facts are the of the same sort as those you already know. A person who knows some of the facts of American history and understands them in a certain light can readily acquire by reading, in the first sense, more such facts and understand them in same light.  But suppose he is reading a history that seeks not merely to give him some more facts but also to throw a new and perhaps more revealing light on all the facts he knows. Suppose there is greater understanding available here than he possessed before he started to read. If he can manage to acquire that greater understanding, he is reading in the second sense. He has indeed elevated himself by his activity, though indirectly, of course, the elevation was made possible by the writer who had something to teach him.

In short, we can learn only from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them.

The point we want to emphasize here is that this book is about the art of reading for the sake of increased understanding. Fortunately, if you learn to do that, reading for information will usually take care of itself. … Of course, there is still another goal of reading, besides gaining information and understanding, and that is entertainment. However, this book will not be much concerned with reading for entertainment.

READING AS LEARNING: The Difference Between Learning by Instruction and Learning by Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This distinction is familiar in terms of the differences between being able to remember something and being able to explain it. … Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

Being informed is prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral that comes after it”

The avoid the error of assuming that to be widely read and to be well-read are the same thing – we must consider a certain distinction in types of learning.

The difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery – or, as we would prefer to say, between aided and unaided discovery – is primarily the difference in the materials on which the learner works. When he is being instructed – discovering with the help of a teacher – the learner acts on something communicated to him. … When, however, the learner proceeds without the help of any sort of teacher, the operations of learning are performed on nature or the world rather than on discourse.

The reason why so many people regard thinking as more closely associated with research and unaided discovery than with being taught is that they suppose reading and listening to be relatively effortless. … But it is not true of the more active reading – the effort to understand. No one who has done this sort of reading would say it can be done thoughtlessly.



How to Read a Book was first published in the early months of 1940.

Why then attempt to recast and rewrite the book for the present generation of readers? (1972)

There has been a shift of interest from the reading of fiction to the reading of nonfiction. The educators of the country have acknowledged that teaching the young to read, in the most elementary sense of that word, is our paramount educational problem.

However, certain things have not changed in the last thirty years. Once constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different – appropriate – speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed. As Pascal observed three hundred years ago, “When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing”

Another thing that has not changed, unfortunately, is the failure to carry instruction in reading beyond the elementary level.

Professor James Mursell of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Failure of Schools.”

Upt to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taught and well learned.  To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level.

[Students] can improve; they need to improve; but they don’t.

To all intents and purposes [the student] remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college.

If there was a need for How to Read a Book thirty years ago, …, The need is much greater today.

How To Read a Book

How to Read a Book
By: Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren
© 1940, 1972

The excerpts from this book contain emphasis.  Italics  and CAPS are the Authors’
Bold is mine to call out what I believe to be important points
Underline is mine to identify supportive material that is not necessary to the primary point, but useful in further understanding them



PART ONE – The Dimensions of Reading

  1. The Activity and Art of Reading
  2. The Levels of Reading
  3. The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
  4. The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
  5. How to be a Demanding Reader

PART TWO – The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

  1. Pigeonholing a Book
  2. X-Raying a Book
  3. Coming to Terms with an Author
  4. Determining an Author’s Message
  5. Criticizing a Book Fairly
  6. Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author
  7. Aids to Reading

PART THREE – Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter

  1. How to Read Practical Books
  2. How to Read Imaginative Literature
  3. Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems
  4. How to Read History
  5. How to Read Science and Mathematics
  6. How to Read Philosophy
  7. How to Read Social Science

PART FOUR – The Ultimate Goals of Reading

  1. The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading
  2. Reading and the Growth of the Mind

APPENDIX A – A Recommended Reading List

APPENDIX B – Exercises and Tests at the Four Levels of Reading