How to Read a Book
y Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren

reviewed by Lindsey Hurd

Ok, so after reading the title, you may be scratching your head and wondering if this book is a new phonics curriculum or a remedial program for juvenile delinquents.  The answer is no, and no.  No matter how elementary the title may sound, How to Read a Book scarcely even mentions phonics.  In the words of the authors, it is “a book for readers, and those who wish to become readers ....  Even more particularly, it is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.”  Lest misunderstanding arise from their use of the word “understanding,” I must hasten to clarify that this word is used in opposition to the word “knowing.”  We can understand things, and we can know things, but these two things are vastly different.  The first necessitates that we can intellectually know and verbally explain the chemistry of something, while the latter begs only that we rattle off a lists of disjointed facts, much like a robot.  Of course, it’s generally recognized that no one wants to be robot – especially not homeschoolers. My mother has always said that if her homeschooling yields no other fruits, she hopes it will equip her children for a life of self-teaching.  This is the goal of almost every homeschooling mother and ultimately, the goal of homeschooling itself.  Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book is about just that.  

If you began homeschooling at kindergarten, reading was the first hurdle to be jumped.  Perhaps you are even now wondering how you’re ever going to get your second-grader past his/her almost cultish addiction to Amelia Bedelia and Green Eggs and Ham, or assuring your reluctant Junior that some dabbling in Shakespeare would indeed prove beneficial to those ole’ SAT scores. The point is that even when the phonics books have been at the dust-collecting stages for years, there is still work to be done. For the writers of How to Read a Book, elementary reading is just the beginning.  Adler and Van Doren cover a great variety of reading skills, such as how to be a demanding reader, Inspectional reading, Analytical reading, Syntopical reading, as well as tips and guides for reading different kinds of genres.  These are designed to give the reader the tools for becoming an active reader. These tools are not geared to one specific audience, but are rules, which can be utilized by anyone at any stage of life.

Having written a book on guidelines and suggestions for becoming a better reader, Adler and Van Doren summarize the book by giving their most important reason for reading.  As it turns out, it’s not so that you can impress your friends by reading every single book on the best sellers list, or because you’ve nothing better to do, or because it’s a worthy goal.  Their concern is that modern radio and television do our thinking for us, "Television, radio, and all sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are artificial props."  Without active reading, the writers assert, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually.  The brain is like a muscle, if not used thoroughly, it will not grow; if it’s not used at all, except in response to stimuli given by the daily news, there will be nothing there when the stimuli one day fails to stimulate us.  The book closes with this statement: "Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing."

From a Christian perspective, life-long cultivation of the mind is certainly not to be the ultimate educational goal.  Far from it.  There are many other duties that demand our devotion as well, the greatest of all being our devotion to God and the calling that he has placed upon our lives.  With knowledge and education (and all other things), it is important to remember that our starting point must begin with God.  Knowledge that begins in man “puffeth up”(1 Cor. 8:1).  If we begin anywhere else, our knowledge becomes lifeless vanity and we show ourselves to be great fools. Knowledge must begin with humility, and that humility involves humbling ourselves to God, admitting that we are neither possessing of all the answers nor self-sufficient, and acknowledging that He is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).  Proverbs 9:10 assures us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding," and we are commanded to search after wisdom and knowledge more than fine gold (Prov. 16:16).  Thus, it is through these things that we come to know and serve God better.

One trained and equipped to be a life-long learner (an active reader) and whose source of knowledge is of the one and only triune God will be one equipped to take “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” even as Paul stood upon Mars Hill and took captive the thoughts of the Stoic philosophers, and later, the educated King Agrippa, as well as the common Jew and Gentile.  Nor will one so equipped be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine that comes along or every news commentator that spouts the latest trend of political correctness.  Now that's a reading curriculum that's worth investing a lifetime.

“Get wisdom! Get understanding!” – Proverbs 4:5




Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas

EST. 01/01/01