How to Read a Book

Success in anthropology means lots of reading. Perhaps none of you will become professional anthropologists, but everyone can learn more about how to be a good reader. Here are some tips from Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of the classic How to Read a Book.

Yes, there is a book on how to read books.

Its actually a highly useful reference volume to have around, much of it is what I had to figure out on my own when I was in college and grad school. In this blog post I paraphrase a lot of the most relevant stuff. Sometimes I’m quoting Adler and Van Doren, at other points its my spin on what they’re saying. I hope it comes in handy!


Some people refuse to mark up their books so they can return them when the campus bookstore buys them back at the end of the semester. Really the bookstore is going to give you peanuts for your return. If you need to cut corners its better to split the cost of a book with a partner and mark it up together.

So how do you read a book? I mean physically, what are you doing when you read? Curl up in bed with a nice cup of tea and put on some soft music? If you’re falling asleep while you read its because you’re not doing it right. Study in a clean, well-lit place set aside for studying. Don’t read in bed unless you’re going to bed!

Here’s a tip – make a habit of asking a book questions as you read. Ask questions and try to answer them. Develop a conversation between yourself and the author.

How to develop a conversation with the author:

  • Underline major points in the text.
  • Use vertical lines at the margins to emphasize something already underlined or a passage that is too long to underline.
  • Put a star or asterisk at the margin for the most important points. Use these sparingly.
  • Write numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points as the author develops an argument.
  • When the author makes a point and then returns to it later or perhaps makes a contradiction, note the page number in the margin (traditionally this is noted with the abbreviation “cf.” as in “cf.134” to refer you back to page 134).
  • Write your own ideas and questions in the margins. Make your own simplifications of complex passages at the bottom or top margins. Summarize major points or try to answer your own questions raised earlier.

These are ways to be an active and engaged reader. It is a way to make the book your own. Not just in terms of property, the book is yours when you buy it, but of making the book a part of you. Incorporating it into your self.


In addition to reading you will need to take notes in whatever format works best for you. I write all my notes in 5×7 spiral notebooks because that’s my thing. You may want a composition book or to use your laptop. Discover what works best for your style of learning and stick with it.

In the course of reading especially long and difficult chapters you may come to some insight about the topic. Suddenly things will click! Often, however, you may not get it right away. In these cases your note taking should be conceptual. Are you following the concepts the author is working with?

Any art or skill is gained through process and formed out of habit. Get in the habit of active reading and note taking. You will not only do well in this class, but all your classes.

As you read your first task is to find out what the reading assignment is about. This is the easy part:

  • What is the author writing about?
  • Summarize the chapter or assignment in your notes in just a few sentences.
  • Number the major points of the author’s argument. Note how these fit together into a big picture.
  • What is the problem the author outlines and how is it solved?

Once you have completed the most basic task of finding out what the chapter is about, you can move on to interpreting what has been said.

  • Come to terms with what the author has said using the same specialized terminology.
  • Find the chapter’s most important sentences.
  • Use these sentences to help you reconstruct the author’s argument.
  • Determine if the author has actually solved the problem he or she has set out to solve.

The point of these steps is to ensure that you understand the reading. Once you understand what the author is telling you, you can move onto formulating a critique.

  • Wait to begin criticism until you have outlined what the author says and developed your own interpretation of the concepts.
  • Make up your mind about the author. Is what he or she is saying credible? Is the evidence substantial enough to support the claim being made? Do not disagree without a reason.
  • Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting the reasons for your judgment: Is the author factually misinformed (wrong)? Is the author factually uninformed (lacking)? Is the author illogical in drawing conclusions? Is the author’s work incomplete?


Success in anthropology begins with strong reading skills, but reading anthropology is different than reading other styles of writing. In particular because we are humans going about the practice of studying other humans it becomes difficult to be dispassionate about humanity. Instead we wind up becoming inextricably intertwined with our subject material. While it is not always possible to be scientifically objective about our task we can be culturally relative and temporarily set aside our personal values and beliefs for the purpose of study. Then returning to our everyday identities and personal cultural practices we can reflect not only on the experience of what it is like to be a member of another group, but also what is like to learn from other people.

In a nutshell anthropology is somewhere between history and science. History, of course, is not very scientific. It is a story or chronicle of things that have happened in the past and every story inherently has a point of view. Science, on the other hand, is not very historical because it is not interested in producing knowledge that is only valid at one particular place and time, but is general and valid to equal degrees universally. Keep this in mind as you study anthropology. Claims to objectivity often come with a caveat that there really is an angle or point of view, only it has been hidden. The more we learn about any particular ethnic or cultural group the more we are learning about all people everywhere. Anthropology is both science and history!


In history, whatever the topic under consideration you must make an effort to distinguish between history as fact and history as a written record of facts. History is a kind of narrative, it is a way of arranging facts in a certain way so as to make a point. This is not the same as claiming that the historian simply makes up stories about the past. He or she is bound by some notion of what an accurate fact is. These are then placed in order to make a story and every story is written from someone’s point of view. Words do not write themselves any more than they can read themselves.

If you come to a historical text only wanting to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past then you may miss the chance to learn about all of humanity, of the way we act at all times in all places, especially here and now. That is very much our goal in this class and more broadly, it is the goal of most anthropologists. We look to the past to understand the present.


When taking notes you should always work towards being able to state, as clearly as possible, the problem the author is grappling with. This is particularly necessary in the scientific fields. The aim of science is always to describe some sort of phenomena as accurately as possible, and to trace the connections among different phenomena.

In pursuit of this task scientific authors lay claim to their objectivity by stating their assumptions explicitly. Each author will distinguish what is assumed from what is established. Hence, scientific objectivity is not the absence of bias, but the frank confession of it.

A scientist, unlike a historian, tries to get away from locality in time and place by emphasizing generality. The scientist works through inference, beginning with observable evidence arguments are made to establish a general proposition. By contrast to deduce means to begin with general positions that are already well established then make a reasonable argument about something specific – taking a theory and applying it to an individual case. To best follow reasoning based on inference you should pay careful attention to the evidence the author is using in order to grasp the underlying theory.


Consider the word “society,” people living together rather than in isolation. Or the adjective “social,” it seems so familiar. But your reading of these words with ease imparts a specious sense of security because the jargon and metaphors of social science writing, combined with the deep emotional feelings that are often imbued with such terminology, make for deceptively easy reading. The very familiarity of the terms and propositions in social science writing is an obstacle to understanding.

Scientists make clear what their assumptions are and what they intend to prove, but this is more problematic in the social sciences where the terms are not so easy to spot. Simply put, it’s just harder to stipulate the usage of terms in the social sciences. It is one thing to define a circle or an isosceles triangle, but it’s an entirely different matter to define “mental health” or “creative expression.” Even if the author defines these terms one way, the reader is still likely to question their usage.

Many people already have strong opinions on the matters that social science deals with so there raises a level of commitment in the reader that is not raised by science. Many readers fear that it would be disloyal to their commitment to stand apart and question what they are reading. Yet this is necessary whenever you read analytically. You must check your opinions at the door. This requires considerable restraint on the part of the reader because at the end of the text the reader may say, “I cannot fault the author, but I nevertheless disagree.”


Children by nature question everything around them. Not only do they question constantly, but the quality of their questioning is revealing of their motivations. Children question because they want to understand, not because they need the right information.

In anthropology we deal constantly with questions of being and becoming. What is this world? What happens in it? When we as humans set about trying to understand other humans it is impossible to avoid also asking if this is the only world that can be. Perhaps the world could be more equitable. Perhaps something ought to be done. Anthropology is based in observation like science, but other aspects of the discipline are more speculative and existential. Be prepared to question the limits of human knowledge (epistemology), have your personal distinction between right and wrong drawn into question (ethics), and to ponder the relation of the individual to the community (politics). All of this has a place in anthropology. Today anthropologists even question the way they question!

So how to proceed? If your question were scientific, you would know that to answer it you would have to perform some kind of research or develop an experiment so that you could observe a wide range of phenomena. If your question were historical, you would know that you would also have to perform research, but of a different kind. But sometimes there are no special phenomena to observe, no document that you can read. You just have to think. Have an idea. Open your mind and reflect. If this sounds abstract, it is. No general knowledge is expressible except in abstract terms.

A philosopher faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it – which means, as we know, thinking about it. Sometimes there are no other aids except the mind itself.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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One Response to How to Read a Book

  1. Pingback: What is a human? | Professormthompson's Blog

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