I have found three editions of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. One was published on 9/30/14; a second one was from 1972; a third was from the 1940s. Is one of these versions better than the others?

My goal is to read complex fiction and sophisticated philosophy with greater comprehension. I would like to remember more details books that I read. I believe that this book gives some ideas on how to do this. The newest version would likely refer to using the internet. I would prefer to read a shorter book rather than a longer book, so I thought an older one may be better. My other concern is that Adler was a better writer (which may not be true), and that the most recent version has lower quality ideas in it compared to the earlier versions. But I do not know much about the differences of the different editions.


1 Answer 1


As far as I know, How to Read a Book was first published in 1940; this is what the preface to the 1972 edition states. There was only one revision, namely the one that the original author, Mortimer J. Adler, wrote in co-operation with the writer and editor Charles Van Doren (incidentally the son of poet and literature professor Mark Van Doren, who died in 1972). All other editions I am aware of are reprints of either the 1940 edition (e.g. in 1967 with a different subtitle) or the 1972 edition.

Based on this, the choice is between two versions: the 1940 edition by Adler (and reprints thereof) or the 1972 edition by Adler and Van Doren (or reprints thereof). The preface to the second edition mentions what has been added since the 1940 edition. More specifically (emphasis mine):

The exposition in Part Three of the different ways to approach different kinds of reading materials—practical and theoretical books, imaginative literature (lyric poetry, epics, novels, plays), history, science and mathematics, social science, and philosophy, as well as reference books, current journalism, and even advertising—is the most extensive addition that has been made.

So if you are interested in choosing an edition that would be more useful for reading literary works, the 1972 edition or its reprints appear to be the best choice.

  • I have read both 1940 and 1972 editions and I can say 1972 edition is much better structured and easier to follow.
    – jsx97
    Jan 26 at 21:43

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