Book Reviews, Books, Essay, Non-Fiction, Reviews

How to Read a Book?

If you are reading this post, then you are certain about the importance of ‘reading’.

To acquire knowledge with aim of increasing one’s understanding, is reading enough? The answer is yes, but the question remains, how?

We need to think about how we read and Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is a perfect place to start with. Published in 1940, it immediately became a bestseller, and since that time the book has been updated many times, famously and notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

Most of the times, we think reading is something that you can do or you cannot – that is you can either read or not. The truth, however, is that reading is a skill that can be improved with knowledge and practice.

The goal of reading determines how you read. If you’re reading for entertainment, you’re going to read a lot differently and likely different material than if you’re reading to increase understanding. There’s nothing wrong in reading for entertainment but ask yourself, are you really learning anything new?

Adler in her book, describe four levels of readings that if practiced can help in improving one’s reading as a skill. The four levels are:

  • Elementary
  • Inspectional
  • Analytical
  • Syntopical

Elementary Level

This is the level of reading that we all are familiar with, and taught in the elementary schools.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

Inspectional Level

We’ve been taught that skimming and superficial reading are bad for understanding. That is not necessarily the case. Using these tools effectively can increase understanding. The point of this level is to examine the book.

It is characterised by its special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading. […]

[..]Another name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterised by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Analytical Reading

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far.[…]Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. […] Analytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Analytical reading is a thorough reading.

Adler further remarks:

[…]analytical reading is hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical is the highest level of reading. The includes reading man books on the specific subject and then compare and contrast the different ideas all those books represents. The aim is not only to achieve an overall understanding of any particular book but to understand and absorb as many amount of knowledge as you can on the subject itself.

Become a Demanding Reader

This might sound hard work but you need to solve your own problems. As Mark Manson remarked in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:

Happiness comes from solving problems. The Keyword here is ‘solving’.

You need to ask yourself questions when reading a book. Of course, you will have your own set of questions. Focus on your problems rather than everyone else’s. Establish your own language and your own terms instead of adapting the author’s language.

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29 thoughts on “How to Read a Book?”

  1. A great post–thank you. I’m frequently reading for work as an indexer, but I really hadn’t though about the “how”. Reblogged this for my indexing friends.

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  2. This is great and reminds me of being at college and having to write papers on economics. Not my favourite subject. I was doing fine until I had to write an essay contrasting Adam Smith with Keynes and Marx. At that point my brain exploded. Now I know why. My Syntopical reading had let me down!

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    1. College time is mostly syntopical to me too even though I never got a chance like you did. My writing went more in writing computer codes which is not that exciting and conflicting than the task you received. 😀

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  3. I think this accounts for the six different kinds of books on my headboard at night. Depending on how tired I am I can go from quantum physics to a novel then to a Chicken Soup short story in one night,. I go to bed VERY early to read and write without distraction. One book gets absorbed in small chunks while the others will take me softly into dreamland. I loved this post. Thank you.

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  4. This is an interesting take on how to read a book. I must say though that reading for entertainment does teach me quite a bit.

    I spent 6 years in college doing enough hard-learning from text books. These days, I learn valuable lessons from reading fiction. I’ve bettered my fiction writing by reading more novels, and also expanded my imagination. This comes in handy both as a novelist and a PR firm owner/manager. Creativity is key in the marketing and PR world.

    Reading older books also helps to expand my vocabulary. Newer pieces are often too busy being “marketable” to the masses to really experiment with language.

    In high school and for my associate’s degree I was a liberal arts student and I remember one teacher in particular completely changed the way I read books. She told me, “If you read a book, and you haven’t written a word in it yourself, you haven’t truly read it.”

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    1. This book puts quite some insight in the way we read which is different from what we are taught (in schools) and differs from person to person. I am glad I read it, and wanted to share my experience.
      You are right though, fiction teaches a lot of values. I must say, there’s a perspective of seeing what a ‘fiction’ book is. Most of the non-fiction books are written with text book style and that’s why they are unfamous. Some of the non-fiction books that are written with fiction elements or plain story telling elements are a success.

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      1. Yes, narrative does make a big difference. But I already live in real life. My creative mind feels trapped in the confines of non-fiction. It doesn’t test boundaries. Whatever happens is believable. There’s not a lot of room to think outside the box. I tire of the box. Not much going on in there these days…

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