How to Read a Book

Quote of the Day

The best software is usually written three times: (1) First, you write the software to prove to yourself (or a client) that the solution is possible. Others may not recognize that this is just a proof-of-concept, but you do; (2) The second time, you make it work; (3) The third time, you make it work right.

— Esther Schindler, software blogger. During my time at HP, they had the concept of an initial "throw away" design that was done to learn about the product. Today, we call them "proof-of-concept" designs.

Figure 1: Mortimer Adler, who wrote the book called "How to Read a Book".

Figure 1: Mortimer Adler, who
wrote the book called How to
Read a Book

Last week, I was having a conversation with my youngest son about how I read the books that I own – he sees that I vigorously engage with these books, and he was wondering why I read this way. I shared the following story with him, and it may be of interest to some of you.

When my son says that I vigorously engage with a book, he means that I do things like:

  • Read the book in stages.
  • Write up pertinent sections in my own voice.
  • Make notes throughout the book
  • Cross-check the book I am reading with  other sources.
  • On technical books, I write Excel, Mathcad, or Mathematica summaries of my readings. In fact, these summaries grew into this blog.

My approach to reading came from an interview that I saw as a boy on the show Firing Line – yes, my father was a staunch Republican and all his children watched Firing Line on Sunday morning. Normally, I paid no attention to what was being said on the program. However, one episode contained an interview with Mortimer Adler (Figure 1) on how to read a book, and I listened carefully to his every word. I was so impressed with that interview that the next day (Monday) I marched to the Osseo Public Library and requested Adler's How to Read A Book. I would have gone to the library on Sunday, but it was closed that day.

I was highly receptive to his message, and I decided to try his approach. While I was not a good student, the Space Program was an inspiration for me to improve because I wanted to understand what they astronauts were doing. I even secretly hoped to someday participate  – kind of my own October Sky tale. So began my lifelong effort to learn how to learn. I am still working at it and no end is in sight.

Fortunately, Youtube now has many interviews with Adler. Here is a good one.

Figure 2: Youtube Video of a Mortimer Adler Interview on How to Read a Book.

The only problem with my method is that when I am done with a book, it has been worked hard: marked-up, dog-eared, and torn dust cover. I long ago decided that is a small price to pay to learn what is inside the book.

I should mention that the Wikipedia has a good summary of the key points of How to Read a Book.


Of course, I treat library books VERY carefully. I am speaking here of books that I own.

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3 Responses to How to Read a Book

  1. Tyler says:

    Do you know who re-typed the version of this book you have linked as a PDF? There are numerous typos and errors that make it close to impossible to read fluidly--I want to be sure I'm reading the real thing, and if not then..!

    • mathscinotes says:

      Hi Tyler,

      Sorry to hear about the PDF quality. I have the hard copy, so I did not check out the PDF closely. I will look for a better copy. Thanks for the alert.


  2. Viet-Cuong says:

    Hi Mathscinotes,

    Thank you a lot. I had read this book in my native language, Vietnamese.
    As a math teacher, I have recommed this book to all students as the consirable resourse for self-learning. Due to your website, I have got the origin of the the book.
    Again, thank you.

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