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.

Printable: Download this summary to read offline.

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

Lesson #3: There Are Four Levels of Reading

I know. I, too, thought that there is only one possible way to read a book – by simply reading the text. Apparently, that’s not the case.

Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler distinguished four different levels of reading. According to them, the main difference between what you gain from the text in front of you is directly related to the amount of effort you’re willing to put when reading. Therefore, four different levels of reading are forming.

The major part of the book is about these four levels and as you can imagine, it’s impossible to cover everything in my summary. Still, I believe that my brief notes will give you general understanding of the concepts.

Here are the four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary reading: The simplest form of reading. The level we all surely possess. Your main concern if you’re only capable of reading at this basic level is to understand the words on the page. The question you ask yourself when you read through the text is “What does the sentence say?” Your efforts are primarily focused on identifying and recognizing the actual words on the page and not so much on finding the hidden meaning.
  2. Inspectional reading: Here the main goal when reading is to get the most out of the text for a predetermined short period of time. The question you ask yourself when flipping the pages is “What is the book about?” At this level, you’re doing a lot of skimming. You try to understand the text based on the table of contents, the index, the blurb, and by reading short parts from the different chapters.
  3. Analytical reading: If you choose to read analytically, you have a lot of work to do. Here, you must ask many organized questions when you go through the text. The main questions you’re looking for answers are: 1) What is the book about as a whole?; 2) What is being said in detail, and how?; 3) Is the book true, in whole or part? 4) What of it? The last question is meant to prompt you to action. If you agree with what’s written in the book, you should now begin to execute the parts you comply with.
  4. Syntopical reading: Here is where the magic happens. This last level of reading is about figuring out first what topic you want to understand – want problems you need/want to solve – and then finding the best literature on the matter. When reading syntopically, you’re supposed to go through many books. This doesn’t mean that you’ll need to read all of them cover to cover, it’s more about finding literature that will allow you to upgrade your understanding of a particular subject. Once you have the books ready and waiting, you want to use the information you found to solve your problem, not fall so much about the point of the author. Or in other words, here we’re ruthlessly going through different books and egoistically using the contents inside to satisfy our own needs.

Lesson #4: There Are 15 Rules of Reading

Besides giving us the levels of reading, the authors present something else that is essential for avid readers – 15 rules of analytical reading.

The word rules can be quite intimidating. I know. But don’t get scared by it. It’s more like a reading framework. Like a guide that will accompany you through any text so you can understand it better.

Moreover, these rules are not only to follow when you open a dusty book, they can also serve you well when you’re exploring less demanding reading materials – like newspapers and random articles online.

By following these steps you will understand the material on a new level – you’ll finally get what the book is all about.

The 15 Rules of Reading

Rules for Finding What a Book Is About
  • Rule 1: Classify the book according to kind and subject matter: Before you start reading, determine what kind of book, article, you’re reading. What is the genre? If you’re reading a business book, ask yourself, “What type of business book?”
  • Rule 2: State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity: Say, or write down, with your own words, what the book is about. What’s the theme and what’s the main point the author is trying to prove.
  • Rule 3: Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole: Every piece of written art has different components – find them! While the theme of the book is usually one, the text is never only about one thing. There are different components that are forming the whole piece.
  • Rule 4: Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve: Every book tries to answer questions and solve certain problems – even if they are not directly set by the author. Your task as a reader is to figure out the questions, outline the problems, and find the solutions in the text itself.
Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
  • Rule 5: Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words: This rule is composed of two parts: First, understand the overall language used. This means being 100% comfortable with all of the words, expressions used in the book. Secondly, to spend time reflecting on the meaning. The meaning of the text is often not clearly sensible. A lot of times you need to think deeply about what the author meant by what he wrote.
  • Rule 6: Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentence: This rule is about focusing even more deeply on the sentences used by the author and understanding the reason he wrote the text the way he did. But not only, it is also about outlining the most important sentences related to the arguments presented by the author.
  • Rule 7: Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences: After discovering the leading sentences in the rule above, construct a whole paragraph. When you outline the key components you’re left with a powerful short summary of the major argument.
  • Rule 8: Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not: Discover the major problems that the author tried to solve in the text. Did he succeed in solving them? Did he fail? And finally, which of the problems the author knew he failed to solve?
Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
  • Rule 9: Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book: Before agreeing or disagreeing with the author, you should understand the text. Or as mentioned in the book, “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree.”
  • Rule 10: Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously: Even if you disagree with most of the text, focus more on the learning part, on understanding why the author said what he did.
  • Rule 11: Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make: A book is not about facts. Even if we’re talking about a scientific paper. Distinguish the facts from the opinion presented by the author.
  • Rule 12: Show wherein the author is uninformed: If you’re reading an older book and if now the theory presented in the book was proven wrong due to new researchers, don’t get mad about it.
  • Rule 13: Show wherein the author is misinformed: Being misinformed usually originates from the above. If what the author is saying is not completely true due to lack of knowledge, support your remark by making a correction in your own notes.
  • Rule 14: Show wherein the author is illogical: Illogical means failing to give proper reasoning. If the conclusion presented is not in line with what was previously mentioned, determine the exact place where this happened in the text.
  • Rule 15: Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete: You don’t think that the problem suggested by the author was completely answered? Point out exactly where this happened and propose your correction.

As you’ll see in the last 4 rules about judging a book, the idea is to fill the blank spots. Even if you find some sort of loopholes in the text, incompleteness or unsatisfactory conclusion, suggest a better alternative. Don’t simply complain.

It is not enough to say that a book is incomplete. Anyone can say that of any book. Men are finite, and so are their works, every last one. There is no point in making this remark, therefore, unless the reader can define the inadequacy precisely, either by his own efforts as a knower or through the help of other books.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

Lesson #5: Make Books Fully Yours by Recording Your Finding Inside

Purchasing a book is just the beginning.

Not only that you have to read the text, but you also have to highlight and even doodle based on the information inside. The act of underlining and numbering pages will transform the paperback into your own piece of art.

The authors say it best:

But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

I got it. You’re not a fan of writing inside the book. I’m, too, not interested in ruining the gentle pages with my disgusting writing style. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t take notes externally – on a note-taking app.

It doesn’t matter where you mark pages, the important thing is to highlight sections you found useful and interesting.

Asking yourself why this so significant?

For three main reasons:

First of all, this keeps you engaged. Alert and fully conscious when reading the text. You’re not only scanning words, you’re actively looking for information inside the text that can potentially be used in a future situation.

Secondly, by outlining passages inside the book you’re giving yourself permission to think about this part more critically on a later stage.

Thirdly, re-writing what the author said improves your ability to keep the new information for a longer period of time inside your head.

All in all, to gain the most out of a book, to make this piece yours truly, you need to engage with the content. To seek questions, to argue with the text. Express your agreements or disagreements with the author when reading.

Actionable Notes:

  • Read to understand more, not to gain more information: There are two possible outcomes when you engage with a text, any text. You either understand what’s inside the pages, or you don’t. When you get a clear sense of what’s written, this means that the author and the reader are on the same level of intelligence – here you simply gain more information. Something more interesting happens when you don’t actually get the whole text. When you don’t understand a book perfectly, it means that the text is saying more than what you’re capable of understanding. At this stage, to move from “understanding less to understanding more,” as noted by the authors, you must pounder on the topic to increase your intelligence.
  • Read without the help of others: Using external sources to find answers to your question is the best thing about the 21st century. If you don’t understand part of the text. If you don’t really get a particular idea in a book, you can quickly fill the void by asking someone else with more experience. But is this helping you? In the short term, the answer is yes, without a doubt. But in the long-term, you’re building a nasty habit. Try to understand things by yourself when you’re unsure of an answer. This will improve your problem-solving skills and fortify your knowledge on the subject.
  • Be a demanding reader: Your obligation as a reader doesn’t end when the book is in your possession. Reading is an effortful activity requiring your undevoted attention, and not only. There are four important questions you must find the answer to in any book: 1) What is the book about as a whole? 2) What is being said in detail, and how? 3) Is the book true, in whole or part? 4) What of it? Don’t stop reading until you have answers to all of the four questions.
  • Convert knowledge into practical rules: Collecting facts and ideas won’t make a huge difference in your life. True wisdom and positive change come only when you do something useful with the newly found content inside a book or any other text. In the book, this concept is beautifully explained in this sentence: “We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get somewhere.” Move from only knowing to knowing how. Once you have your notes, outline rules and future action steps.
  • Be enlightened reader: There is a huge difference between getting more information on a certain topic and actually understanding what is all about. When you’re informed, you know why investing your money in stocks is a good idea. When you’re enlightened, though, in addition to the previous, you also know why you should do it and how to actually start investing. An enlightened reader makes the connection between other critical information and takes action.

Commentary and My Personal Takeaway

Needing a book on how to read a book might sound absurd, I know. Yet, after taking the time to immerse myself in the work by Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler, I understand why this book had to be written.

The general population still believes that reading is a passive activity that should be performed mainly to relax your brain. But that’s not the case if you want to learn something from a written text.

How to Read a Book perfectly outlines the importance of reading. Why you should read to understand, not only to gain new information. And more importantly, how to take notes, use the text, and morph it into an actionable spreadsheet full of future steps that you need to take in order to improve your existence.

If you’re a vivid reader but your life, outside of the realms of pages full of important information remains unchanged, get this book. It will show you how to use books to make improvements in your life, not merely to gain more “life-changing” insights.

Practical lessons are present around every corner of the pages written by Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler. Yes, you can get lost here and there because the book was first published in 1930, meaning that some passages are quite formal-sounding, but the overall reading experience can be a real game-changer.

This book will teach you how to spot the critical parts in any text so you can act on them.

My key takeaway is this:

Ask questions while you go through any text. Reading shouldn’t be a passive activity. It should be like a conversation. You question the arguments laid down by the author and answer them to better understand what was said.

Notable Quotes:

We must be more than a nation of functional literates. We must become a nation of truly competent readers, recognizing all that the word competent implies. Nothing less will satisfy the needs of the world that is coming.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

Here by “learning” is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.” Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler

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