New York: Touchstone, 1972 (revised edition)
426 pp. $14.99 (Kindle)
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. —Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
These words were first written in 1940, in the first edition of How to Read a Book. They are as relevant as ever.
The print version of the book is a hefty 426 pages, all of which explore different aspects of one central idea: the difference between reading as a means of absorbing information uncritically and understanding that information. The latter requires several skills that take a lot of practice, such as identifying bad reasoning, extrapolating from incomplete or poorly organized data, and evaluating claims in the proper context.1
The book sets out to offer the average reader a set of high-leverage intellectual tools that can vastly enhance the depth and value of his reading, and it succeeds; its flaws are minor in comparison to its achievements.
The authors begin by highlighting a societal problem that is centuries old, although many think of it as a modern phenomenon: . . .
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1. Throughout the book, the authors use terms such as “reading for knowledge” and “reading for understanding” to refer to this distinction. However, their use of these terms—“knowledge” in particular—is often imprecise, which is why I’ve paraphrased them extensively throughout this review.
2. Many of the ideas and strategies the book presents in the context of nonfiction can easily be carried over to fiction of almost any kind, vastly enhancing the reader’s ability to enjoy and learn from his favorite storytellers, and the authors do concede this point.