Review of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book — 42 years later

This is a review of Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book, which I posted this morning on

I have delved into Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book several times since the 1980’s. The book addresses major problems all readers face. Even if one doesn’t adopt the strategies it proposes, it’s useful to think about these problems.

Why try to improve something, like reading, that we already do very well? Because information processing is the key to become more effective, and it involves an improvable set of skills, objectives, attitudes and beliefs. Compare Tiger Woods. Throughout his career, he repeatedly improved his golf skills, even when they were the best in the world.

Adler’s book has a number of problems, however. Many of them are due to its age. For instance, it doesn’t cover any cognitive science —the cognitive revolution had just begun when the second edition was published. However, Adler continued to publish well into the cognitive revolution, whose ideas he steadfastly resisted. Adler, an Aristotelian philosopher, couldn’t be helped! Perhaps there was something wrong with his reading strategies…

One might argue in defence of Adler and related authors (e.g., Susan Wise Bauer) that reading and its neural substrate haven’t changed over the years. However, the scientific understanding of reading has changed. (Michael Pressley and Afflerbach later published the book, Verbal Protocols of Reading: The Nature of Constructively Responsive Reading, which reviews empirical research on reading.) Technology and the Internet pose new challenges and opportunities for readers that Adler couldn’t dream of. For example, outliners (such as OmniOutliner) are powerful tools for annotating documents –not even invented then, of course.

Information is available in many different forms (such as traditional e-books, e-pub books, animations, screencasts, podcasts, audiobooks, videos, webinars, and lectures). Reading is just a special case of information processing. One needs a more general, technology-enabled, cognitive science-based system for processing resources than Adler’s book provides.

Carefully try to summarize what it means for a resource to be good or high quality, and you will probably realize that assessing content is actually a very difficult problem. Adler’s schema is noteworthy, however it is inadequate (for the “CUPA” reasons alluded to below).

Another limitation of How to Read a Book is that it fails to specify one of the most important implicit reasons that we process knowledge: to become effective users of the information. That’s an important limitation because we must, as Stephen Covey Sr. said, “begin with the end in mind”.

To address all of the problems mentioned above and more, I wrote the book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. It is available on at and it will soon be on Amazon and iBookstore. To assess Adler’s book (or a related book, like Bauer’s), it’s helpful to contrast it with what Cognitive Productivity offers:

  • it reviews the challenges and opportunities we face in reading (and more generally, processing content) with technology,
  • it summarizes the cognitive science (psychology) that is pertinent to the problem of processing information,
  • it suggests ways of organizing information about reading so that you can quickly access your notes about PDF files, ebooks, web pages, and more.
  • it provides tips for using technology to annotate e-documents and other types of information,
  • it provides tips for using e-readers like iBooks and Kindle,
  • it provides a systematic schema for assessing the helpfulness of content based on its caliber, utility, potency and appeal (“CUPA”),
  • it develops a notion of productive practice to help you master knowledge gems.

Parts of How to Read a Book were helpful in its day. The criticism above will help you assess his book and determine what you should be looking for in this kind of book.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

8 thoughts on “Review of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book — 42 years later”

  1. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  2. This isn’t a review. At no point do you actually discuss the content of his book, except to note that it doesn’t discuss cognitive science, it “fails to specify one of the most important implicit reasons that we process knowledge”, and it doesn’t account for the Internet, which as we all know changes everything about reading. Your “review” leaves me doubting that you’ve actually read the book, as you’ve failed discuss a single one of its recommendations. If you actually have read the book, then I suggest you review chapters 10 and 11, “Critizing a Book Fairly”, and “Agreeing or Disagreeing with an Author”.

  3. Thank you, David. “Response to…” would have be a better title for this blog post. In my opinion, Adler’s book doesn’t need yet another adumbration or complete review at this point; but it did require a modern response, which is what this post began and Cognitive Productivity provides in detail. Having said that, Adler’s book may still be helpful to some people.

    As for your suggestion that I didn’t read the book, by applying the “think of the opposite” strategy described in Cognitive Productivity you might think of several alternative hypotheses for your impression. In addition, Cognitive Productivity itself deals at length with the problem of deriving benefits from one’s readings. It puts forth a large number of reasons why someone might fail or seem to fail to understand a conceptual artifact. Cognitive Productivity stipulates a technical distinction between comprehension and understanding that you might find helpful in this respect.

  4. Thank you for your polite, reasonable response, Luc. While I easily accept that my hypothesis is wrong (and unhelpfully heated and hyperbolic), it was motivated by your blog post title, which does indeed say “review”, and the contents, which fail to mention a single one of Adler’s instructions, which are the sum and substance of the book

    As a “Response to”, this article could still be greatly improved by explaining how you feel Adler instructions are outdated. Half of his book is spent describing the steps and application of “analytical reading”. I would expect any response to Adler’s work to focus on this. While I’m sure cognitive science and technology can improve on Adler, it remains to be shown how they outdate him. I would be honestly interested to know how, as I only recently read his book and would like to know in what ways his instructions are flawed.

  5. I agree with you, David, that this article could be improved. And if I was to write a detailed review of Adler’s book, I would certainly highlight its many strengths. For the record: Adler’s How to Read a Book is important and still relevant. However, it requires a lot of effort to devise information processing strategies to use with information technology, and to develop strategies that meet one’s needs. Not everyone has the same needs.

    I wrote the following in Cognitive Productivity:
    > It is dated, but fundamental aspects of how to read have not changed.
    The “but” clause here was meant to suggest that much of what Adler says still applies because many fundamental aspects of reading haven’t changed. But that we need to go beyond it.

    In the same paragraph, I then wrote:

    > More serious limitations, with respect to our objectives are—in line with the fact that the first edition of that book was published in 1940—that (a) it is not informed by cognitive science; (b) it is not addressed to knowledge workers (in the general sense used in this book); (c) it does not include guidance on how to use information technology.33 The current book can be read as a modern version of Adler’s.

    > 33: The last two of these criticisms were mentioned as areas for future research on study strategies by Mulcahy-Ernt & Caverly (2009).

    One of the concepts I put forth in the book is “delving”, which is for multiple media (including but also beyond reading).

    As an example of (a) above, regarding developments in cognitive science, consider the transfer problem (of applying knowledge). In Cognitive Productivity, I also stressed the concept of “monitors” (from AI), in particular the development of “valenced perception”. Also regarding (a) I discussed deliberate practice and test-enhanced learning (TEL). I put forth the heuristic relevance signaling hypothesis to explain how the brain determines what to properly index (to be able to remember it). Chapter 7 in Cognitive Productivity describes deliberate practice and TEL at great length. This research was not available to Adler. Chapters 13 and 14 show how deliberate practice can be applied. I described a concept of productive practice to this effect.

    In re-reading my own post, I think it contains how I would answer your question, though perhaps not to your satisfaction. There is for instance a bullet list of categories of suggestions. As an example of a specific tip from Cognitive Productivity, I emphasize detecting and noting knowledge gaps in particular because it has a strong a priori argument, it is one of the most potent strategies, it has received empirical attention, and information technology now makes it much easier to keep track of knowledge gaps. (I provided a technique to do this using “inner tags”). Yet in my experience (from c. 15 years in this field), it is overlooked.

    Incidentally, my comment about Adler’s rejection of cognitive science is based on his The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes book (which I read in the 1980s) and knowing about him from colleagues (including an AI researcher) who worked with him.
    [Comment updated 2015-12-30 2_20 PM PT]

  6. Thank you for responding. I understand this article much better now, and your book sounds interesting, relevant, and well researched. I’m adding it to my shopping list.

    I apologized for flying off the handle. I thought this article was just an ad disguised as a review, and my internet temper got the better of me.

  7. As a former college student, I have always thought of Adler’s “How to Read a Book” as a ramp up to reading the “Great Books” series, and also a way of getting over falling asleep while reading assigned material at the college library. For me, getting involved personally in the issues of our day helped me better approach political science books, and this then was a stepping-stone to reading some of the political theorists in the “Great Books” collection.
    Also, after trying out Adler’s examples of active reading, and learning to have a dialogues with authors, I heard something similar (in person, at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington USA) from modern writing guru Peter Elbow (author of “Writing with Power” and “Vernacular Eloquence”). Peter taught us that the more we wrote, the better we read; and the more we read the better we could write.
    Finally, Adler points out that there is a difference between reading for information and reading for knowledge. I extend that principle also to reading for wisdom. Adler’s encouragement to study the “Great Books” seems to point to treasure chests full of wisdom.
    There are so many books in this world to read, and so little time. Sometimes a person like Adler can help us make good choices at to what to read with the little time we have. In other words, WHAT we read is sometimes as important as how we read it!

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