How to Read a Book – Part 2

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

By Alison Solove

Visit Part 1 to learn about the first two types of reading.

Mortimer Adler provides almost 150 pages of suggestions for analytical reading in How to Read a Book. We’re going to focus on the one I find the most useful for analytically reading novels, marking up a book:

  • Whenever possible, buy your own copy of a book you intend to read analytically. You can always make use of book sales or used copies online. If you can’t buy the book, find a notebook or pad of paper where you can make observations and ask questions about what you read.
  • As you read, underline or box any passages you find especially compelling. Pause and ask yourself why. Record your thoughts in the margins.
  • If you have questions while you’re reading—and you almost certainly will—write them down in the margins. Why did the character act in a certain way? Why did the author decide to have a particular thing happen to a character?
  • Recall what the blurbs had to say about why this book is worth reading. Make note of any observations you have about the meaning of the book in the margins or the end papers.

If you’re reading actively, Adler expects that you will have something to write on almost every page. When you are finished reading the entire book, go back and review your notes. Perhaps you can answer some of the questions you asked yourself. Then ask yourself a few more. What did I gain from reading this book? What is its ultimate meaning?

Syntopical reading is the highest level of reading and demands an expansive knowledge of Western literature. When you read syntopically, you take everything you have learned from your reading and use it to form your own opinions and judgments. The Well-Read Mom approach, organizing a year-long course of reading around a single theme, is really an exercise in syntopical reading. Maybe you finished The Year of the Spouse with a new and better understanding of what it is to be a wife, for example.

When you pick up The Death of Ivan Ilyich, take five minutes for an inspectional reading. When and where was the book published? Does the historical context of the book affect the way we receive it? What does the publisher have to say about the book? The translation? How long is the book? How is the story divided? What do you hope to get out of this book? (I like to skim through the essay and questions in The Well-Read Mom Reading Companion so I can let what we’re going to discuss at the meeting guide my own reading.)

Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Underline or box the passages that seem especially beautiful or important to you. (Here’s my favorite: “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”) Write down your questions and observations. Bring your marked-up copy or notes to your group discussion. Someone else might have something to gain from your favorite passages or might be able to answer your questions.

Finally, as you read the other books from The Year of the Friend, compare them to The Death of Ivan Ilyich. What do the books collectively have to teach us about being industrious women, wives, and mothers?

Active reading is hard—but rewarding—work. What better way to learn and practice than with a group of loving friends at Well-Read Mom.

A moth ate words. To me it seemed

a remarkable fate, when I learned of the marvel,

that the worm had swallowed the speech of a man,

a thief in the night, a renowned saying

and its place itself. Though he swallowed the word

the thieving stranger was no whit the wiser.


A tenth-century Anglo-Saxon riddle