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

This is a review of Mortimer Adler’s w to w to Read a Bookthat I posted this morning on GoodReads.com

I have delved into Mortimer Adler’sHow to Read a Bookseveral 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

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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 Leanpub.com at https://leanpub.com/cognitiveproductivity/ 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 whatCognitive Productivityoffers:

  • 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 ofHow to Read a Bookwere 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.


Category: Review

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