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How to Read a Book is a 1940 book by Mortimer Adler. He co-authored a heavily revised edition in 1972 with Charles Van Doren, which gives guidelines for critically reading good and great books of any tradition. The 1972 revision, in addition to the first edition, treats genres (poetry, history, science, fiction, et cetera), inspectional and reading.
How to Read a Book is divided into four parts, each consisting of several chapters.
Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which classes will be addressed. He also makes a brief argument favoring the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing How to Read a Book.
There are three types of knowledge: practical, informational, and comprehensive. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that practical knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience; that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding equals the author's; that comprehension (insight) is best learned from who first achieved said understanding — an "original communication".
The idea that communication directly from those who first discovered an idea is the best way of gaining understanding is Adler's argument for reading the Great Books; that any book that does not represent original communication is inferior, as a source, to the original, and that any teacher, save those who discovered the subject he or she teaches, is inferior to the Great Books as a source of comprehension.
Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the art of reading well, up to and including undergraduate, university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings in formal education, it falls upon individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.
Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three levels of readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings "structural", "interpretative", and "critical", in that order.
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