How To Read A Book

01.15.2012 by Greg Billingsley

One of our main goals here at is to give our readers the tools and knowledge to enrich their study of God and his Word. Our plan is to meet this goal in a variety of different ways, whether it is through theological, apologetic, or exegetical discussions through our blogs, or book reviews, analyses, and recommendations through our book reviews section. In light of this goal and our strategy to meet it, and seeing that this is our first review, I wanted to share with you a book that has been fundamental to my development in studying God's Word through both scripture itself and the writings of many godly men.

Reading is at the core of education and is a primary tool for learning about God. Obviously, the rise in education has coincided with the rise in literacy, for primary education itself is largely literacy and applying that literacy. When we look at the history of the church we can also see a clear correlation between the Reformation and literacy (with an assist from the printing press). When the Bible started to become available to the common man, things started to change. Even more than that, though, the simple idea that "commoners" can read and understand the Word was a revolution of philosophy. Subsequently, the world changed. However, today in literate societies, such as ours in the United States, do we take for granted our ability to read? Are we complacent with reading at the elementary level and have no desire to better our reading skill? Are we even aware that our reading skill can be improved? That is the problem addressed by the authors of How to Read a Book.

​How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, first published in 1940, truly is THE classic guide to intelligent reading. It received immediate success and continues to be used by many high school and college courses. However, even with all the acclaim there are still many more who have never heard of it. I myself didn't know about it until I was in my early thirties and heard about it in a radio program. 

If you don't make it any farther than here, then let me say: read this book.

Book Summary

​How to Read a Book is split up into four parts. Parts one and two, the main meat of the book, describe the first three levels of reading (out of four total levels), each level making progressively more demands upon the reader but also giving progressively greater results. We are first challenged with our goal in reading. Are we reading for entertainment, information or understanding? Each answer will determine what type of reading is necessary. The first level, Elementary Reading, is the level in which someone becomes literate and by which they can then fulfill the goals for entertainment or information, but not generally for understanding.

The second level, Inspectional Reading, is about skimming or scanning a book within a limited timeframe to gain a general knowledge about the book. This level is not yet about the goal of understanding, but is a premise to understanding. Often overlooked or ignored, the small amount of time taken pre-reading is important to quickly gain an author's intent, primary and secondary arguments, and overall structure of the book. There is tremendous value in this - knowing where an author is going in their overall argument so you can understand the current points you are reading, especially those points that are given early in the book. For example, if you were to pre-read Romans first then, when doing your regular reading, chapter 3 will make much more sense and give you a deeper understanding of what Paul is trying to say because you already know where Paul is going and the overall point he is making. It helps keep things in context.

Before moving on to the third level of reading, the authors pause to tackle the subject of how to be a demanding reader. I found this short chapter to be very helpful primarily because they advocate asking specific questions of the book while reading (you'll find that asking questions is something I like to do). Below are the four main questions that you must ask about any book, and the rest of the book gives a specific strategy for answering these questions.

  1. What is the book about as a whole? (What is the main theme?)
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? (What are the main ideas and arguments that form that theme?)
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? (Do you agree with the author?)
  4. What of it? (What is the significance of the book?)

Another reason why I enjoyed this chapter is because it teaches us to treat authors of books with great respect - that we should understand before we critique, yet it is still our obligation to critique if we are serious about our reading and respect the author's ideas and time involved in writing the book.

"Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading - the best reading you can do."

The third level, and the one that is given the greatest amount of attention in the book, is Analytical Reading. Analytical Reading is the approach taken to gain understanding. The authors give six main steps to accomplish this goal through the answering of the four questions that a demanding reader must ask. While I won't go into great detail of the six steps, I must stress that each step is filled with a wealth of knowledge. The first step, Pigeonholing, is to determine the type of book. Figuring out what kind of book you are about to read is usually simple to do, but it will determine how you approach the remaining steps. The second step, X-Raying, is to find out the book's unity through its structure. Many times this can be done by examining the table of contents. Coming to Terms with the Author is the third step. Here, a discerning reader is to learn the key words that an author uses. The meanings behind these words will be primary to the author's argument. Fourth, Determining an Author's Message, is to identify the main propositions of a book and constructing the author's basic argument(s). The fifth and sixth steps are Criticizing a Book Fairly and Agreeing or Disagreeing With an Author. These are also sections that I found to be quite helpful. In addition to expanding upon the ideas of respecting an author, these chapters challenge the discerning reader to truly understand an author's argument before ever criticizing it, promoting the rarely followed notion of patience in this day and age. The authors then close this part of the book with a brief discussion on aids to reading.

Next, the third part of the book gives specific approaches to differing kinds of books. While the overall method of Analytical Reading is followed, each different type of book may give way to special attention in specific areas. For example, for poetry the authors recommend that you read the poem completely through first without stopping regardless of your level of understanding. Then, you should read it again - out loud. Because of the typical rhythm and word play in poetry, this will aid your overall understanding of the poem. The types of books discussed here are imaginative literature; stories, plays, and poems; history; science and mathematics; philosophy; and social science.

In the fourth and final part of the book, the authors describe the fourth type of reading, Syntopical Reading. This type of reading takes the Analytical approach and applies it to multiple books on the same subject. Here you are not only analyzing a single author's arguments, but you are also comparing their arguments to those of other authors who have written on the same subject (while also criticizing the arguments of those other authors). The book then closes with a short discussion on the good that books can do for us and then two appendices giving a recommended reading list and exercises and tests for developing the four levels of reading.


I wholly enjoyed this book. For such an analytical subject, How to Read a Book could have easily been dry, but I found that to not be the case. The style was engaging and challenging while still being extremely practical. Most importantly, it accomplished it's goal. It gave me the desire to read better, holding out the promise that I will gain in understanding and, over time, it has delivered on that promise in every book I have since read. There is no question that it takes extra effort to read better, but the reward is much sweeter, an increase in understanding that far surpasses the extra energy that is given. The trade-off is worth it, and once your new found reading method becomes habit, then the extra effort becomes a natural and easy part of your reading. Therefore, not only do I recommend this book, but I recommend that this be the next book you read.