The first and biggest takeaway is his oft-quoted, “It’s not how many books you can get through, but rather how many books can get through to you.”
So, right there, I feel like he’s onto the right idea.
Other readers have complained, though, that Adler definitely has a specific set of books in mind that are “worth” reading, the not-so-subtle implication being that reading other books that don’t fall into this category (that he set up) is somehow a waste of time. This is questionable, to say the least.
Obviously, there are some books that are a complete waste of time (looking at you, Sylvia Browne!) but I don’t believe that anyone else can necessarily tell you which ones those are, not even me! Everyone will have their own set of “classics” which are classics for them, no matter what anyone else thinks.
How to Read a Book definitely has tons of great advice, though, don’t get me wrong. So let’s take a look at nine more takeaways that will help turn you into a much stronger reader, without taking a whole lot of time:
- Skim the table of contents and stuff first, or else you’ll be trying to get a rough idea of what the book is about at the same time as you are trying to improve your understanding of the material itself. Best to do one thing first, then the other. Figure out what the author is trying to say, then spend the next part of your reading trying to figure out whether or not he said it.
- The ideal is not merely to read faster, but to read at different speeds, and to know when the different speeds are appropriate. This is a huge piece of the puzzle! Fiction can be read faster (but some books, like Cloud Atlas, was one of my slowest reads because I was enjoying it so much), and there are plenty of non-fiction books that can be skimmed and “speed-read.” So, speed for the sake of speed misses the point. And that doesn’t even get into poetry, which should be read in the rhythm the poet intended; and it’s usually best to do so aloud.
- The important terms to know are sometimes the words that give you the most trouble. If you don’t know a word, look it up! It could keep coming up again and again, and you may find it useful to know that term in the future as it comes up again in different contexts.
- Ideally, you should be able to restate what the author is trying to say in your own words. This is an excellent learning strategy. If you can put it into your own words, teach it to someone else, film YouTube videos about the books you’re reading, etc., you’re going to be able to learn and remember more effectively.
- “Being well-read should refer to quality and not just quantity.” Now, I don’t believe that anyone can be well-read any more, simply because the ridiculous number of great books there are out there to read. No one in the world has read more than half of the best books. But Adler’s right here, quality matters. Nothing against murder mysteries, but you should definitely sprinkle in as many of the best books of all time as you possibly can.
- “The best philosophical books ask the same sort of questions that children ask.” So true!
- The discovery that you come to on your own will be far more valuable to you than anyone else’s ideas. This is so true as well! There are social rewards for being able to talk about all the impressive books you’ve read, sure, but it’s the concepts and ideas and truths you come to on your own that will have the most value for you in your life. Think for yourself.
- You have to stretch your mind by reading books that are slightly more difficult than what you are comfortable with. This is another excellent piece of advice from Adler. It’s just like lifting weights in the gym: at the beginning, you can lift a certain amount of weight. Not as much as the hardcore lifters, but everyone starts somewhere. Then, as the weeks and months progress, you progressively overload your muscles to the point where they stronger and you’re able to lift more, which improves your physique as well. It’s pretty much the same thing with books. The child who reads Harry Potter will go on to read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, and then they’ll go on to read Infinite Jest as an adult — if they are encouraged.
- When you return to one of very few books that are worth reading a second time, you find that the book has grown along with you. Seek out the few books that have this value for you and read them over and over.
Those are the nine (well, ten) lessons that jumped out for me from my notes on How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. There’s tons more great stuff in there, which is why it’s definitely worth checking out, although like I said, some people find his writing style and viewpoint kinda stuffy, and I’m not sure that I can disagree.
Anyway, I hope this was helpful to you, and you can check out my Top 20 Unconventional Reading Strategies (free) if you want to learn more about how to become a stronger reader.
I only mention this to establish credibility, not to flex, but I’ve read 925 books in the last 7 years, so I like to think that I know what I’m talking about! The point being, if you’d like to improve your reading confidence, expand your abilities, and tackle the world’s greatest books, I can help you.
All the best,