Mortimer J. Adler was an American philosopher and educator. He wrote many books, but I think there is one that is his gift to all students in every field: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
During my first semester of seminary back in 2006 my professor Dr. Gary Tuck assigned this book for his introductory hermeneutics class. I was a bit puzzled by this decision. First, we were seminarians. We were grad students. Did we not know how to read a book? Second, this is hermeneutics! Shouldn’t we be reading something like Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral or Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Is There Meaning in the Text? or almost anything by Anthony C. Thiselton? What about philosophical hermeneutics from the likes of Hans Georg Gadamer or Paul Ricoeur? Well, I have had the opportunity to read some of these writers or dabble in their works. They have been very helpful. But my professor made a very good decision to chose Adler.
In this book’s simplicity it allows you to learn how to read not like you learned to read in grade school, but to ready wisely. In fact, I would say that reading Gadamer, Ricoeur, et al., can be enhanced by reading Adler first.
I won’t give a large overview because I think the blogger at Classical Bookworm does an excellent job in her post “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I advise taking a moment or two to read her post. But I will say that this book helped me become a better reader of Scripture, the text books assigned to me, other books I needed for research, and even my own papers before submitting them to a professor.
Adler teaches you how to skim over a book to see if it is worth your time. Listen, there is far more secondary literature on topics that matter to you than you can begin to read. Don’t try! Rather, learn to browse a book quickly so that you can determine whether it will be worth your time and address your current interest. When I was doing my thesis on the Epistle to Romans I began to become overwhelmed by the reality that everyone and their mother seems to have written on it. Contemporary works are being produced as a rapid pace. Older works exist is mounds and piles. I had to determine whether a book was worth ignoring. I know, I know, everyone who has written on Romans thinks their work is necessary and important, but this isn’t true and it can’t be. If I were to have spent all my time reading secondary works I would have been unable to read Romans itself.
So learn to read wisely. Adler’s book may sound elementary and maybe it is, but I sense that you will agree with me that it is extremely valuable if you read it.
For the many who are beginning new school years this September please take my advice and read this book.