How not to write a book

Review of Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book was a pretty big waste of time for me. It probably would be for you too.

Intro

Multiple-choice questions are in turn of many kinds; usually they are presented in homogeneous groups. Sometimes a series of statements follows the reading exercise, and the person being tested is asked to indicate which statement best expresses the main idea or ideas of the passage read. In other cases the reader may be offered a choice of statements about a detail in the text, only one of which is a valid interpretation of the text, or at least is more apt than the others; or it may be the other way around; one is an incorrect choice, and the others are correct. Or a verbatim quotation may be given from the text to discover whether the reader has taken note of it and remembered it. Sometimes, in a statement either quoted directly or simply drawn from the text the reader will find a blank indicating that one or more words that will make sense of the statement have been omitted. Then follows a list of choices, lettered or numbered, among which the person being tested is asked to choose the phrase that, when inserted in the blank, best completes the statement.

Yes, that’s 200 words explaining what multiple-choice questions are. If you’d like 426 more pages of mildly condescending prose explaining the obvious, boy, do I have a book for you. Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book is saved from the appellation ‘worst publication of 1940’ only due to stiff competition from Ba’ath propagandists.

Summary

Here is a good chunk of the book’s actual content:

There are four main questions you must ask about 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? […]

And the rules for analytical reading:

  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 has tried to solve.
  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 of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  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.
  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.

Almost nothing valuable is lost in this abbreviation. The meaning of each point is simply the most obvious meaning you’d guess from the summary here and the author provides little special insight.

Conclusion

I’m sure Adler would wag his finger at this review for failing to follow his rules of fair criticism. But Adler also says (in his characteristically prolix way—never use one word where a dozen will do):

Too often, there are things we have to read that are not really worth spending a lot of time reading; if we cannot read them quickly, it will be a terrible waste of time. It is true enough that many people read some things too slowly, and that they ought to read them faster. But many people also read some things too fast, and they ought to read those things more slowly. A good speed reading course should therefore teach you to read at many different speeds, not just one speed that is faster than anything you can manage now. It should enable you to vary your rate of reading in accordance with the nature and complexity of the material.

Our point is really very simple. Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension. It is wasteful to read a book slowly that deserves only a fast reading; speed reading skills can help you solve that problem. But this is only one reading problem.

And I’m mad for having wasted as much time1 as I already have on this book. It does not, in my opinion, merit more serious engagement.

Postscript

If you look at Amazon reviews, there are a lot of five star reviews of this book. Evidently, some people have found value in it. If you’re not sure whether to believe me or the many Amazon reviewers, it may benefit you to skip directly to Appendix B (Exercises and tests at the four levels of reading). Only proceed to the body of the book if you have trouble with the exercises there.


  1. Perhaps I really did need to read this book if I wasn’t able to judge it a waste of time more expeditiously? No. I granted it the benefit of the doubt due to strong recommendations from people whose judgement I otherwise trust.