How to Keep Awake While Reading

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The rules for reading yourself to sleep are much easier to follow than are the rules for keeping awake while reading. Just get into bed in a comfortable position, see that the light is inadequate enough to cause a slight eyestrain, choose something you don’t care whether or not you read, and unless you have insomnia, you will be nodding soon enough. Those who are expert in relaxing with a book don’t have to wait for nightfall or for bed. A comfortable chair in the library will do at anytime.

Unfortunately, the rules for keeping awake do not consist in doing just the opposite. It is possible to keep awake while reading in a comfortable chair or even in bed, and people have been known to strain their eyes by reading late, in light too dim. What kept the famous readers by candlelight awake? One thing certainly — that it made a difference to them, a great difference, whether or not they read the book they had in hand.

Whether you read actively or passively, whether you try to keep awake or not depends in large part on your purpose in reading. There are many kinds of reading and many sorts of things to read. You may be seeking the same effortless pleasures of relaxation that the movies and radio so readily afford, or you may be making the effort to profit by your reading. Let me roughly divide books into those which compete with the movies and those with which the movies cannot compete. They are the books that can elevate or instruct. If they are fine works of fiction, they can deepen your appreciation of human life. If they are serious works of nonfiction, they can inform or enlighten you.

Everyone admits that if your aim in reading is to profit — to grow somehow in mind or spirit — you have to keep awake. That means reading as actively as possible. That means making an effort — for which you expect to be repaid.

Everyone admits that good books, fiction or nonfiction, deserve such reading. To use a good book as a sedative is conspicuous waste. To all asleep or, what is the same, to let your mind wander during the hours you planned to devote to reading for profit is clearly to defeat your own ends.

The sad fact is that many people who can distinguish between pleasure and profit (and who know which books give which) nevertheless fail to carry out their reading plans. The reason is that they do not know how to read actively, how to keep their mind on what they are reading by making it do the work without which no profit can be earned.

I have one simple rule for keeping awake while reading. It underlies every other rule for successful reading. You must ask questions while you read — questions which you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. Asking and answering questions is what pays the dividends in reading.

Any questions? No. The art of reading consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order. Let me illustrate this by giving you the four main questions you must ask about any book or, to make it more concrete, about any nonfiction book.

  • What is the book as a whole about? Here you must try to discover the leading theme of the books. And how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate topics.
  • What in detail is being said, and how? Here you must try to underline for yourself — with a pencil, perhaps, or mentally if the book is borrowed — the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s message.
  • Is it true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said — and to do that you must know how it is being said, for you must be able to penetrate through the author’s language of his mind — before you can sit in judgment and decide whether you agree or disagree. When you do understand a point, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s is not enough.
  • What of it? If the book has given you information, and especially if it is true, you must certainly ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these facts? If the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is still necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what follows next, what is further implied or suggested.

These four questions summarize all the obligations of a reader. They apply to anything worth reading — a book or an article or even an advertisement for something you may be interested in buying. Knowing these questions is, of course, not enough. You must remember to ask them as you read. The habit of doing that is the first mark of an active reader. But more than that, you must be able to answer them precisely and accurately. The trained ability to do just that is the art of reading.

This ability most of our college graduates lack today, for the art of reading is no longer taught in our “over-progressive” schools. But, college graduate or not, you can learn to read for profit, and profitably, if you will only try. It is necessary, of course, to know more than these four questions, because skill in answering them can be acquired only through following all the rules of the art of reading.

To answer the first question, for instance, you must follow the rules for reading a book analytically. A book is a complex structure, a whole having many parts, which you must know how to take apart. To answer the second question you must follow the rules for reading a book interpretatively. To reach the author’s mind, you must know how to see through his language, and this means weighing his words, turning over his sentences, and tying up his paragraphs. And to answer the first two questions, you must follow the rules of critical reading, which tell you how to make a fair and dispassionate judgment of the true and the false before you decide to agree or disagree with the book’s message.

To expound and explain all these rules in a helpful way cannot be done here. What I have said, however, makes the two main points. Unless you want to keep awake while reading, there is no need to develop skill or art in reading. But if you do want to, you must do more than keep your eyes open and your mind off your work, finances, basketball, cooking and the children. You must keep your mind on the book — as actively as possible. To learn to do that, you must keep asking questions and keep trying to answer them.

One word more. People go to sleep over good books not because they are unwilling to make the effort, but because they don’t know how to make it. Good books are over your head. They wouldn’t be good for you if they weren’t. And books that are over your head weary you unless you reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level. It isn’t stretching that tires you, but stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill. To keep on reading actively, you must have not only the will to do so, but the skill — the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first right seems to be over your head.

The more you keep awake while reading, by sustaining the activity of asking and answering questions, the more exciting you will find the process. Don’t be afraid that it will become too exciting.

Intellectual insomnia is still quite a long way off.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]