Read Analytically

studyFor the last 4 years I have been very critical of my study. I have limited time to read and research and I challenged myself to get the most out of the time I spend being scholarly. I also became interested in a great many books and needed to understand how to filter through all the many choices. I stumbled upon a book originally published in 1940. It has withstood the test of time, and for good reason. “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Mr. Van Doren’s name may sound familiar to you, it did me. Look it up and you will remember why…

This book is good for one doing research on a particular subject. The book does not discuss much about the application of certain books to ones’ life. I tend to read many psychology/philosophy books. When I read I intend to suck the life from the book to understand its true message. It takes me longer to read the book but I enjoy what I receive from my investment. Much of this comes natural to us but it is important to sit down and think about how you spend your time. Are you reading the book to pass the time? Are you reading for entertainment? This kind of reading I usually find pertains to magazines and papers. The reading I want to focus on is reserved for the great historical books of antiquity. I recently sat down to consider the many questions one must ask themselves if they want to truly amalgamate with the author. I went back to review “How to Read a Book” and copied these notes from its summary pages:

“The First Stage of Analytical Reading (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 Second Stage….

  1. Come to terms with an author by interpreting his/her words.
  2. Grasp the authors leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
  3. Know the authors arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which problems the author has solved, and which he/she has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
  5. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette
  6. 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”)
  7. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
  8. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
  9. Special criteria for points of criticism
  10. Show wherein the author is uniformed.
  11. Show wherein the author is misinformed.
  12. Show wherein the author is illogical.
  13. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

NOTE: Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Failing in all of those, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of the last point.

Summary of Synoptical Reading

Surveying the field preparatory to syntopical reading

  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  2. Inspect all the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.

NOTE: These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.

Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage 1

  1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage 1 in order to find the most relevant passages.
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted of employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
  3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they treat the questions explicitly or not.
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions or one side or issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the author’s views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.


NOTE: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should ideally be maintained throughout. One way to ensure this is to always accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual question from their text. “

There are other important topics one must consider while reading:

What are your views on the subject matter being discussed prior to reading the book?

How does the author compare with other authors or people in your life regarding the subject?

Is it different from common thought around the subject?

Is it creative or novel?

Is it safe or risky?

Is the author changing your mind?

Which details, in particular, are you influenced by?

Which details, in particular, are not influencing you?


How can you use the theme of the book or ideas expressed in the book, to improve your quality of life?

Why is the information you have accumulated significant?

Have you increased your wisdom?

Can you define how it may apply to your life and how you might implement its message?

How can it help others?

Are you able to state the authors’ claims and back them up with reference material? (This is when the knowledge gained becomes your own, it is now your theory with your own subjective recipe)

Have you increased your vocabulary?

Do new words have special meaning now? Do they reveal themselves more often in your daily communication?

Reading is obviously not as easy as you think when you break it down. If you want to invest your time wisely its important to think about some of the things above. Ask yourself questions and challenge the author and yourself. Keep in mind the number of books you read is not as important as how many you read deliberately.

Eric Carlson
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