The title of the book is pretentious but interesting nonetheless. I purchased it with the sole purpose of procrastinating my re-reading of The Selfish Gene. How To Read a Book is one of the most boring books I can remember (and, as a completionist, I’ve had my share of tortuous reads).

But the book is not useless. It contains three elements that save it from the purifying fire of the Stoics:

  1. The book delineates the distinction between different levels of reading.
  2. The book outlines a method for approaching different types of books.
  3. The appendix includes a list of what a “cultured man” should (have) read. These are books worth reading or, at the very least, just knowing their titles and authors separates us from our lesser brethren.

Levels of reading

The authors put forward four levels of reading, each with increasing demands of the reader in terms of engagement or intelligence. The value of the concept of different levels is that it makes us aware that there’s a better way of processing information. The book describes four levels: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. We don’t have to agree with their proposed levels, but we intuitively know that there exists a reading comprehension spectrum. On one end, we can hardly express what the book we just finished reading is about. On the other end, we are able to connect nodes of ideas within the book and with ideas from other books and beyond the realm of literature. We develop our own opinion based on information, deduction, reflection.

If we choose carefully the books we read, we want to be closer to the correct end of the spectrum. Otherwise, as the authors suggest

“A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.”

Method

The book outlines a method for reading non-fiction books with the intention of putting the reader in a position to intelligently agree, disagree, or suspend judgement. This method corresponds to the third level: analytical reading.

The authors also provide a framework for levels two and four, but I found them less useful than the analytical reading method.

In sum, when reading a book, we want to be able to answer these questions:

  1. What is the book about?
    “State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences… You must be able to tell yourself or anybody else what the unity is, and in a few words. (If it requires too many words, you have not seen the unity but a multiplicity.) Do not be satisfied with “feeling the unity” that you cannot express.”
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
    Identify the propositions and arguments that the author sets forth in her book, and also determine which problems the author has solved, and which she has not.
  3. Is the book true?
    After (and only after) answering questions 1 and 2, we could begin to agree, disagree, or suspend judgment with the book. We must make up our own mind.
    (Bonus: When criticizing a book, the author reminds us, we should respect the rules of etiquette: a) do not criticize unless we’ve answered questions 1 and 2, b) do not be contentious, do not base our criticism on emotional prejudice, c) present good reasons for our judgments.)
  4. What of it?
    We need to assess the significance of the book we just read. If what we learned is important to us, we should ask ourselves what’s next. We need to act on it. And if the book did not enlighten us, at least we should identify why the things the author said are important to him.

What a cultured man should (have) read

The list is of books in Appendix A is very good. It misses much of the late 20th century and the 21st century because How To Read A Book was last updated in 1972, and first published in 1940.

We should aim at having our own list based on our upbringing, knowledge, heritage, limitations, interests, and taste.

Here’s the list proposed by the authors. It could be a starting point for our own collection. We axe some or many titles and plant our own.

1. Homer – Iliad, Odyssey
2. The Old Testament
3. Aeschylus – Tragedies
4. Sophocles – Tragedies
5. Herodotus – Histories
6. Euripides – Tragedies
7. Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
8. Hippocrates – Medical Writings
9. Aristophanes – Comedies
10. Plato – Dialogues
11. Aristotle – Works
12. Epicurus – Letter to Herodotus; Letter to Menoecus
13. Euclid – Elements
14. Archimedes – Works
15. Apollonius of Perga – Conic Sections
16. Cicero – Works
17. Lucretius – On the Nature of Things
18. Virgil – Works
19. Horace – Works
20. Livy – History of Rome
21. Ovid – Works
22. Plutarch – Parallel Lives; Moralia
23. Tacitus – Histories; Annals; Agricola Germania
24. Nicomachus of Gerasa – Introduction to Arithmetic
25. Epictetus – Discourses; Encheiridion
26. Ptolemy – Almagest
27. Lucian – Works
28. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
29. Galen – On the Natural Faculties
30. The New Testament
31. Plotinus – The Enneads
32. St. Augustine – On the Teacher; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
33. The Song of Roland
34. The Nibelungenlied
35. The Saga of Burnt Njál
36. St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica
37. Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy;The New Life; On Monarchy
38. Geoffrey Chaucer – Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
39. Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks
40. Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
41. Desiderius Erasmus – The Praise of Folly
42. Nicolaus Copernicus – On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
43. Thomas More – Utopia
44. Martin Luther – Table Talk; Three Treatises
45. François Rabelais – Gargantua and Pantagruel
46. John Calvin – Institutes of the Christian Religion
47. Michel de Montaigne – Essays
48. William Gilbert – On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
49. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
50. Edmund Spenser – Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
51. Francis Bacon – Essays; Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum, New Atlantis
52. William Shakespeare – Poetry and Plays
53. Galileo Galilei – Starry Messenger; Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences
54. Johannes Kepler – Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Concerning the Harmonies of the World
55. William Harvey – On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals
56. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan
57. René Descartes – Rules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on the Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy
58. John Milton – Works
59. Molière – Comedies
60. Blaise Pascal – The Provincial Letters; Pensees; Scientific Treatises
61. Christiaan Huygens – Treatise on Light
62. Benedict de Spinoza – Ethics
63. John Locke – Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; Essay Concerning Human Understanding;Thoughts Concerning Education
64. Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies
65. Isaac Newton – Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Optics
66. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding;Monadology
67. Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe
68. Jonathan Swift – A Tale of a Tub; Journal to Stella; Gulliver’s Travels; A Modest Proposal
69. William Congreve – The Way of the World
70. George Berkeley – Principles of Human Knowledge
71. Alexander Pope – Essay on Criticism; Rape of the Lock; Essay on Man
72. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu – Persian Letters; Spirit of Laws
73. Voltaire – Letters on the English; Candide; Philosophical Dictionary
74. Henry Fielding – Joseph Andrews; Tom Jones
75. Samuel Johnson – The Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; The Lives of the Poets”
76. David Hume – Treatise on Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
77. Jean-Jacques Rousseau – On the Origin of Inequality; On the Political Economy; Emile – or, On Education, The Social Contract
78. Laurence Sterne – Tristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
79. Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments; The Wealth of Nations
80. Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure Reason; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
81. Edward Gibbon – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
82. James Boswell – Journal; Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D.
83. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier – Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
84. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison – Federalist Papers
85. Jeremy Bentham – Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
86. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Faust; Poetry and Truth
87. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier – Analytical Theory of Heat
88. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit; Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
89. William Wordsworth – Poems
90. Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems; Biographia Literaria
91. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice; Emma
92. Carl von Clausewitz – On War
93. Stendhal – The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
94. George Gordon, Lord Byron – Don Juan
95. Arthur Schopenhauer – Studies in Pessimism
96. Michael Faraday – Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
97. Charles Lyell – Principles of Geology
98. Auguste Comte – The Positive Philosophy
99. Honoré de Balzac – Père Goriot; Eugenie Grandet
100. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Representative Men; Essays; Journal
101. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
102. Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
103. John Stuart Mill – A System of Logic; On Liberty; Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
104. Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
105. Charles Dickens – Pickwick Papers; David Copperfield; Hard Times
106. Claude Bernard – Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
107. Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience; Walden
108. Karl Marx – Capital; Communist Manifesto
109. George Eliot – Adam Bede; Middlemarch
110. Herman Melville – Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
111. Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
112. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary; Three Stories
113. Henrik Ibsen – Plays
114. Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace; Anna Karenina; What is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
115. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Mysterious Stranger
116. William James – The Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; Essays in Radical Empiricism
117. Henry James – The American; The Ambassadors
118. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; The Genealogy of Morals;The Will to Power
119. Jules Henri Poincaré – Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method
120. Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
121. George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces

Side notes

  • Surprising fact: the book was first published in 1940, the version I have was updated in 1972, three decades before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, and yet the idea of information overload was already popular.
“There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.”
  • From an amazon reviewer:
“There are so many, “no-duh” moments and examples that went on for pages to explain what the author meant by a simple statement. This could have been condensed into 20 pages of his overall points and provided me with 10 additional precious hours of my life”
Our amazon reviewer has my full support, as I made similar notes while reading the book. For example:
      1. An example of my main criticism of this book: belaboring a simple concept.

        “A term can be defined as an unambiguous word. That is not quite accurate, for strictly there are no unambiguous words. What we should have said is that a term is a word used unambiguously. The dictionary is full of words. They are almost all ambiguous in the sense that they have many meanings. But a word that has several meanings can be used in one sense at a time. When writer and reader somehow manage for a time to use a given word with one and only one meaning, then, during that time of unambiguous usage, they have come to terms.”
      2. More belaboring. The authors take five pages to describe a simple idea: words can have several meanings, to correctly understand a book, we need to understand which meaning is the author ascribing to his words.
        “If we write Xa in a given place, and you read Xb, we are writing and you are reading the same word, but not in the same way. The ambiguity prevents or at least impedes communication. Only when you think the word as we think it, do we have one thought between us. Our minds cannot meet in X, but only in Xa or Xb or Xc. Thus we come to terms.”