How to Read a Book by Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

As strange as it might sound, the book How to Read a Book was an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1940. Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler noticed that the act of reading, while on the surface might seem apparent, was not executed properly by the majority of the population which led to the creation of this manuscript. This book is a practical guide. By listing the four levels of reading, and explaining how we should read different kinds of literature, the authors want to upgrade our reading skills plus show us how to gain the most out of any text.

The Core Idea:

Though flipping through pages and reading words printed on them might seem like a no-brainer, if you want to understand what’s the whole point of the text you’re holding, you need to do some work. To gain most of any book, to become a competent reader, you should ask questions and actively answer them while going through the text. Or in other words, reading is not a passive skill. It’s an active activity that when done properly will increase your understanding of the subject at hand.


  • Reading is about understanding and getting the most out of any book, not simply to gain new information.
  • Ask questions while you read through texts. This will keep you engaged and help you find solutions to the problems presented by the author.
  • First find topics you want to master and then search for literature on the subject, not the other way around.

5 Key Lessons from How to Read a Book:

Lesson #1: Mass Media is The Main Rival of Reading and Thinking

Why a book about reading should exist?

This question was immediately morphed in my brain when I first found out about this piece.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I thought. “After all, all you need to do is read the words printed on a page?”

Luckily, my questions were quickly answered when I immersed myself in the text.

Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler start the book by laying down the two main problems they believe are preventing people from reading and from thinking about what they read. Making the need for their work evident.

Here are the two major problems leading to the creation of this book:

First, the increasing trend that literature is no longer necessary. The popularity of radio and television and their ability to quickly transmit information across sadly convinced a lot of people that the act of reading is no longer required if they want to learn new things.

The second major problem that’s responsible for the decline of book lovers, and people who actually get the text they read, is again related to mass media. By consuming media and news, you are sold the idea that thinking about what you consume in unnecessary.

The sexy packaging and the selected scenes convince people that this information is true and that further considering the problem is unrequired. Therefore, people stopped thinking about what they intake and rather insert the prepackaged opinion by the mass media in their heads.

The outcome?

Brainwashed unengaged viewers who refrain from using their thinking skills.

The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, 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, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. 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.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

Lesson #2: The Act of Reading is Not a Passive Activity

Reading is not passive.

Yes, it might seem that you’re not doing much while you’re sitting on your sofa and staring at words with your eyes – you’re not moving after all. But that’s the general misconception about the act of reading.

We mainly associate reading books with leisure activity done for fun. That’s hardly the case when you want to gain knowledge out of the source you’re flipping. You need to push yourself, mentally, to understand what the author wanted to say and also figure out how this applies to your life.

Not taking reading seriously leads to skimming information and essentially wasting your afternoon. Or as the authors interestingly noted, “How many times have you daydreamed through several pages of a good book only to wake up to the realization that you have no idea of the ground you have gone over?”

After all, the main goal when reading is to understand the information written inside the book, not to finish it, and add it to your book collection.

It’s something else entirely.

While writing a book, the author, any author, wants to transmit information from his brain to yours. This shouldn’t be considered as a one-way stream of data flow. When done properly, reading becomes like a conversation even though it might seem like the author is doing all the talking. While you read the words, you should ask questions based on the text inside and later answer these queries.

This will not only make reading more fun, but you’ll also start to gain more from the texts you go through.

When you become an active reader, your ultimate task when going through any text transitions from solely reading to gain information to reading to actually understand. You start to engage with the content, you set certain goals in mind, you search for answers that are not visible on the surface but appear when you dig deeper.

The art of catching is the skill of catching every kind of pitch—fast balls and curves, changeups and knucklers. Similarly, the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

Hey there, sorry to interrupt…

Since you’ve come this far, it seems that you are really passionate about books and learning. I’m too! And while what I’m about to say next probably won’t quite excite you, I have to say it…

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