Derek Sivers

How to Read a Book - by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer Adler

How to Read a Book - by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer Adler

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Light? No. Serious. Very serious and scholarly. Advises to read books that are above your current ability. A very specific methodology is given. Read books twice, ask questions while reading, answer those questions, then summarize and criticize afterwards. The point is to grow up to the level of the author.

my notes

The reader is the catcher in a game of baseball. Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it.

You know the book has more to say than you understand and hence that it contains something that can increase your understanding.

Reading anything that, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us may increase our store of information, but cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth.

A person tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand. The thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader. The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader’s understanding.

Communication between unequals must be possible, or else one person could never learn from another.

Here by “learning” is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

The reader must be able to overcome this inequality, approaching equality with the writer. To the extent that equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.

Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

Active reading is the effort to understand.

One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed.

You need keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

Reading is learning from one who is absent.

If you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.

Radio and especially television are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary.

The packaging of intellectual positions and views 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.

The non-thinker: He inserts a packaged opinion into his mind. 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.

If you understand perfectly everything the author has to say, you have not increased your understanding.

Gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more.

You have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory.

Avoid the error of assuming that to be widely read and to be well-read are the same thing.

Teaching : sharing with only two other arts - agriculture and medicine - an exceptionally important characteristic :
* the patient must get well
* plants or animals must grow
* the student must learn

When the learner proceeds without the help of any sort of teacher, the operations of learning are performed on nature or the world rather than on discourse. The rules of such learning constitute the art of unaided discovery.

## SKIM:

Skim systematically, to learn everything that the surface alone can teach you.

The question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?”

The analytical reader must ask many organized questions of what he is reading.

Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip.

Check the index.

Estimate the range of topics covered.

Read the publisher’s blurb, where they summarize as accurately as they can the main points in their book.

Look now at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument.

Read summary statements in their opening or closing pages.

Turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two.

Read the last two or three pages, or, if these are an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book. Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages.

You have now skimmed the book systematically.

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

Every book, no matter how difficult, contains interstitial material that can be and should be read quickly; and every good book also contains matter that is difficult and should be read very slowly.

Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time.

The one simple prescription for active reading. Ask questions while you read - questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.

Four main questions you must ask about any book:
2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? (the main ideas, assertions, and arguments)
4. WHAT OF IT? (Is it important to you to know these things? What else follows? What is further implied or suggested?)

Ask a book questions as you read with a pencil in your hand.

The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.

## Forming the Habit of Reading:

You must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them well. But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts.

* Expository books convey knowledge primarily.
* Theoretical books teach you that something is the case.
* Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do.

To make knowledge practical we must convert it into rules of operation. We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it.

If a theoretical book emphasizes things that lie outside the scope of your normal, routine, daily experience, it is a scientific work. If not, it is philosophical.

The philosopher usually finds it easier to teach students who have not been previously taught by his colleagues, whereas the scientist prefers the student whom his colleagues have already prepared.

State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

Discover its theme or main point.

Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is an organized many.

To give an account of the structure of the book:
(1) The author accomplished this plan in five major parts, of which the first part is about so and so, the second part is about such and such, the third part is about this, the fourth part about that, and the fifth part about still another thing.
(2) The first of these major parts is divided into three sections, of which the first considers X, the second considers Y, and the third considers Z.
(3) In the first section of the first part, the author makes four points, of which the first is A, the second B, the third C, and the fourth D.

Find out what the author’s problems were.

The author starts with a question.

Formulate the questions as precisely as you can.

The kinds of questions anyone can ask about anything:
* Does something exist?
* What kind of thing is it?
* What caused it to exist, or under what conditions can it exist, or why does it exist?
* What purpose does it serve?
* What are the consequences of its existence?
* What are its characteristic properties, its typical traits?
* What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or of a different sort?
* How does it behave?
* What ends should be sought?
* What means should be chosen to a given end?
* What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order?
* Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse?
* Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that?

The first stage of analytical reading, or rules for finding what a book is about:
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

The best poetry is that which is the most richly ambiguous.

The most important words are those that give you trouble.

You have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand.

He may indulge in all sorts of supporting and surrounding discussion. But the heart of his communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for so doing. To come to grips, therefore, you have to see the main sentences as if they were raised from the page in high relief.

See how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it.

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

If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.

The fact that we have stated these rules in a fixed order does not mean that you have to follow them in that order.

“State in your own words!” That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence.

If you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. Like knowing not just “2 + 2 = 4” but therefore “4 – 2 = 2”

Exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it. To imagine a possible case is often as good as citing an actual one. If you cannot, you do not know what is being said.

Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought and knowledge.

Lack of grammar and logic results in slavery to words rather than mastery of them.

You often have to search through all the paragraphs of a chapter to find the sentences you can construct into a statement of a single argument.

One of the most familiar tricks of the orator or propagandist is to leave certain things unsaid, things that are highly relevant to the argument, but that might be challenged if they were made explicit.

Every argument must involve a number of statements.

If you find the conclusion first, then look for the reasons. If you find the reasons first, see where they lead.

Discriminate between the kind of argument that points to facts as evidence for some generalization and the kind that offers a series of general statements to prove some further generalizations.

Observe what things the author says he must assume, what he says can be proved or otherwise evidenced, and what need not be proved because it is self-evident.

Every argument must start with assumptions agreed on between writer and reader, or with self-evident propositions, which neither the writer nor reader can deny.

Self-evident propositions are indemonstrable but also undeniable truths, based on common experience alone and are part of common-sense knowledge.

The second stage of analytical reading, or rules for finding what a book says (interpreting its contents):
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

Reading a book is a kind of conversation. The reader has the last word.

Reading does not stop with understanding. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging.

There is no book so good that no fault can be found with it.

Unless readers exercise their critical faculties now, they are doing the author an injustice. He has done what he could to make them his equal. He deserves that they act like his peers, that they engage in conversation with him, that they talk back.

To regard anyone except yourself as responsible for your judgment is to be a slave, not a free man. It is from this fact that the liberal arts acquire their name.

Be not only a responsive but also a responsible listener.

Take the responsibility of taking a position.

To criticize is not always to disagree.

Suspending judgment is taking the position that something has not been shown - that you are not convinced or persuaded.

Hesitate before you say, “I understand.” You have a lot of work to do before you can make that declaration honestly

Writers, such as Plato and Kant, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, who have not been able to say everything they knew or thought in a single work. Those who judge Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason without reading his Critique of Practical Reason, or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations without reading his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, or The Communist Manifesto without Marx’s Capital, are more likely than not to be agreeing or disagreeing with something they do not fully understand.

Regard disagreements as capable of being resolved.

Disagreement is futile agitation unless it is undertaken with the hope that it may lead to the resolution of an issue.

The person who disagrees should be as much prepared to have his own mind changed as seek to change the mind of another - to keep the possibility that he misunderstands or that he is ignorant on some point.

Many people regard disagreement as unrelated to either teaching or being taught. They think that everything is just a matter of opinion. On such a view, communication cannot be profitable if the profit to be gained is an increase in knowledge.

Distinguish between genuine knowledge and mere opinion.

The reader who does not distinguish between the reasoned statement of knowledge and the flat expression of opinion is not reading to learn. He is at most interested in the author’s personality and is using the book as a case history.

Knowledge consists in those opinions for which there is evidence of one kind or another.

Opinion is unsupported judgment.

After he has said, “I understand but I disagree,” he can make the following remarks to the author:
(1) “You are uninformed”
(2) “You are misinformed”
(3) “You are illogical - your reasoning is not cogent”
(4) “Your analysis is incomplete”

In science and history, the lack of information is discovered by later researches.

Non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered.

If you have not been able to show that the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree. You must agree. You cannot say, as so many students and others do, “I find nothing wrong with your premises, and no errors in reasoning, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.” All you can possibly mean by saying something like that is that you do not like the conclusions. You are not disagreeing. You are expressing your emotions or prejudices.

The third stage of analytical reading: rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge.

General maxims of intellectual etiquette:
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say “I understand.”)
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism
12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.
13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
14. Show wherein the author is illogical.
15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

No higher commendation can be given any work of the human mind than to praise it for the measure of truth it has achieved.

A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.

The great writers read fewer books. But what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They become authorities in their own right.

One approaches the ideal of good reading by applying the rules we have described in the reading of a single book, and not by trying to become superficially acquainted with a larger number.

Seeking the meaning of a book: do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help. For if you act consistently on this principle, you will find that you need less and less outside help.

Read the great books in relation to one another, and in an order that somehow respects chronology. The conversation of the books takes place in time.

Abstracts are useful in only two connections:
First, they can help to jog your memory of a book’s contents, if you have already read it.
Second, when you wish to know whether a certain work is likely to be germane to your project.

An abstract can never replace the reading of a book, but it can sometimes tell you whether you want or need to read the book or not.

To use a reference book well, you must, first, have some idea of what you want to know.

Use a dictionary according to its primary intention - as a help in reading books that might otherwise be too difficult because their vocabulary includes technical words, archaic words, literary allusions, or even familiar words used in obsolete senses.

We would not recommend looking up a technical word or with a word that is wholly new to you during your first reading of a good book unless they seem to be important to the author’s general meaning.

The seven liberal arts : grammar, rhetoric, and logic, the trivium; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, the quadrivium.

An encyclopedia is not the best place to pursue understanding. It contains no arguments. Reading practical books, the kind dealing mainly with the principles underlying rules,

An intelligent reader of such books about “practical principles” always reads between the lines or in the margins. He tries to see the rules that may not be expressed but that can, nevertheless, be derived from the principles. He goes further. He tries to figure out how the rules should be applied in practice.

To fail to read a practical book as practical is to read it poorly.

A rule of conduct is practically true on two conditions: one is that it works; the other is that its working leads you to an end you rightly desire.

We have no practical interest in even the soundest means to reach ends we disapprove of or do not care about.

The two major questions you must ask yourself in reading any sort of practical book.
The first is: What are the author’s objectives?
The second is: What means for achieving them is he proposing?

What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business.

Agreement with a practical book, however, does imply action on your part. If you are convinced or persuaded by the author that the ends he proposes are worthy, and if you are further convinced or persuaded that the means he recommends are likely to achieve those ends, then it is hard to see how you can refuse to act in the way the author wishes you to. If you did not, it is not just because you were lazy or tired. It is because you did not really mean it.

Beauty is harder to analyze than truth.

Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.

The reader of nonfiction should be like a bird of prey, constantly alert, always ready to pounce. Reading poetry and fiction is not the same.

If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality.

The reality of our inner life, of our own unique vision of the world. To discover this reality makes us happy; the experience is deeply satisfying to some part of ourselves we do not ordinarily touch.

Poetry and fiction must be read as having several distinct though related meanings.

One of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask.

A person who has the ability to retain the child’s view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare - likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking.

What are these “childishly simple” questions that philosophers ask?

What is the difference between existing and not existing?
What is common to all the things that do exist, and what are the properties of everything that does exist?
Are there different ways in which things can exist - different modes of being or existence?
Do some things exist only in the mind or for the mind, whereas others exist outside the mind, and whether or not they are known to us, or even knowable by us?
Does everything that exists exist physically, or are there some things that exist apart from material embodiment?
Do all things change, or is there anything that is immutable?
Does anything exist necessarily, or must we say that everything that does exist might not have existed?
Is the realm of possible existence larger than the realm of what actually does exist?
What is involved in any change?
In every process of change, is there something that endures unchanged as well as some respect or aspect of that enduring thing which undergoes change?
When you learn something that you did not know before, you have certainly changed with respect to the knowledge you have acquired, but you are also the same individual that you were before; if that were not the case, you could not be said to have changed through learning. Is this true of all change?
For example, is it true of such remarkable changes as birth and death - of coming to be and passing away - or only of less fundamental changes, such as local motion, growth, or alteration in quality?
How many different kinds of change are there?
Do the same fundamental elements or conditions enter into all processes of change, and are the same causes operative in all?
What do we mean by a cause of change?
Are there different types of causes responsible for change?
Are the causes of change - of becoming - the same as the causes of being, or existence?

Good and evil, of course, are not the same as right and wrong. How do we make this distinction precise?

Philosophy today is no longer being written for lay readers. Second-order questions are of narrow appeal; and professional philosophers, like scientists, are not interested in the views of anyone but other experts.

History is closer to fiction than to science. The historian must always make up something. He assign causes for events and motivations for actions.

The causes of every human action, Tolstoy thought, were so manifold, so complex, and so deeply hidden in unconscious motivations that it is impossible to know why anything ever happened.

It is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it.

Read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now.

## How to Read Biography and Autobiography:

A biography is a story about a real person. This mixed patrimony causes it to have a mixed character.

## How to Read Science and Mathematics:

Until approximately the end of the nineteenth century, the major scientific books were written for a lay audience. There was as yet no institutionalized specialization in those days, days which Albert Einstein called “the happy childhood of science.” Intelligent and well-read persons were expected to read scientific books as well as history and philosophy.

Philosophers seldom write for anyone except other philosophers; economists write for economists.

State, as clearly as you can, the problem that the author has tried to solve.

Scientific objectivity is not the absence of initial bias. It is attained by frank confession of it.

Detect this, and take account of it, by distinguishing what the author assumes from what he establishes through argument.

We are also not told, at least not early enough, how beautiful and how intellectually satisfying mathematics can be.

Start with Euclid, whose Elements of Geometry is one of the most lucid and beautiful works of any kind that has ever been written.

## How to Read Philosophy:

The most important thing to discover in reading any philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer.

Dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them.

Keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful assume. Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion.

A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers.


Syntopical reading is to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

Syntopical reading: inspect all of the books on your list.

Don't read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them.

It will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive.

Read some books faster than others.

In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.

Find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs.

Force an author to use your language, rather than using his.

Refuse to accept the terminology of any one author.

The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides.