Some Thoughts On Reading From Mortimer J. Adler

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

Mortimer J. Adler

“….a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”

Mortimer J. Adler

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.”

Mortimer J. Adler

“The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Mortimer J. Adler

“A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to analyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration.”

Mortimer J. Adler


Currently Analytically Reading: How To Read A Book By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

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I have read this book numerous times over the years and I wanted to go back and delve into how I could become a more productive reader since I am mostly like your our readers in be inundated with information. I came across this in the book in the summary about inspectional reading on page 43 and wanted to share this with you. I have been a plower of books, in other words, start and page 1 and keep on going until I got into the book and just got bored. Even though I have read this book numerous times I have never applied these rules or thoughts to my reading. Now to page 43:

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”

I have never spent enough time skimming or pre-reading a book, but I ran into a girl last night at the book store who told me she was reading five books at one time. It brought me back to inspectional reading and how to manage my time in reading.

I have made a commitment to reading each and every book that I purchase to skim even those that I sense that I need to read analytically.

Finally, I wanted to share this from page 43 also:

Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through. This is the most important rule of all; it is the essence of inspectional reading. Do not be afraid to be, or to seem to be, superficial. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time.”

I have included this video that may be of interest to our readers:

The Fourth Step In Syntopical Reading

The fourth step in syntopical reading from How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is defining the issue.

Excerpts from pages 321-322:

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“If a question is clear, and if we can be reasonably certain that authors answer it in different ways—perhaps pro and con—then an issue has been defined.”

“When only two answers are given by all of the authors examined, the issue is a relatively simple one. Often, more than two alternative answers are given to a question. In that case, the opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views.”

“Usually differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject. The task of the syntopical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as they may be.”

We will tackle in the near future, step five, which is analyzing the decisions.

The Third Step In Syntopical Reading

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The third step from the book How To Read A Book from Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is getting the questions clear.

Once of the most difficult things, but the best approach, to do in this step is to compose neutral questions in order to answer the problem that has been presented. These questions should be put in an order to help us come up with a solution which allows us to interpret the author so that he can give us an answer to our questions.

These questions that we want answered may not be the same as the authors of these books may recognize. Sometimes the author gives no answer to our questions and we must recognize this.

The first question usually has to do, according to page 320, has to do with “the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating. If the author says that the phenomenon exists or that the idea has a certain character, then we may ask further questions of his book. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers of the previous questions.”

If you have any interest in syntopical reading and getting answers to the questions that you would like answered in your reading, there is no book better than this.

The Second Step In Syntopical Reading

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The second step in syntopical reading from How To Read A Book From Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bringing the author to terms. Coming to terms with an author is different in analytical reading as compared to syntopical reading. An excerpt from page 318:

“Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.

This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really come down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his.”

This is quite different for me than normal analytical reading and I must understand as the author’s state that it is an exercise in translation. I must begin to understand all the authors and build up a set of terms that allows me to solve the problem that I am faced with.

Some Thoughts On Syntopical Reading

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It has been over a year since we have discussed syntopical reading here and I thought it might be a good idea to explore the five steps. The first step is to find the relevant passages. Remember that the books are not the priority, but it is your concerns that need to be addressed. One of the most difficult things for me to do with syntopical reading is to narrow my question in what I want to discover through syntopical reading. If I am too broad, then I must address more books than I possible have time for. So my first advice is to narrow your focus.

By inspectionally reading these books, you can uncover the relevant passages and as you read more books syntopically you will be able to further clarify the passages that you need to understand your subject more clearly.

Remember that your main purpose is to make a connection with the author in what he is attempting to get across to the reader and as Adler and Van Doren have previously stated: Come to terms with the author in a different way.

More On Syntopical Reading From How To Read A Book By Mortimer J. Adler

Cover of "How to Read a Book (A Touchston...

Cover of How to Read a Book (A Touchstone book)

This quote from page 318 of How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler really helped me in understanding the significance of syntopical reading and its importance.

“In syntopical reading, as we have noted, the books are read to serve you, not the other way around. In this sense, syntopical reading is the most active reading you can do. Analytical reading is also active, of course. But when you read analytically, you put yourself in a relation to it of disciple to master. When you read syntopically, you must be the master of the situation.”

Hopefully you are sensing the difference between the different types of reading. As I have been reading the majority of my life, it is somewhat disconcerting that I have not known these differences in the types of reading.