How to (Really) Read a Book

We’ve been reading books passively our entire lives, leading to low retention rates and a general lack of understanding. How do you read a book properly?

How do you really read a book?We’ve all spent hours at the library, aimlessly trying to stuff our brains with information from a textbook that just doesn’t seem to stick. A lot of us don’t like reading books for leisure because we know we won’t remember any of the details of the content within a few days anyway. Some of us might even see how many books successful people read and feel like there’s no way we could possibly keep up with them. All of these things have consistently driven students away from reading and ultimately understanding books.

Mortimer J. Adler (and Charles Van Doren through his revisions) argues in his book “How to Read a Book” that these things happen because we’ve been reading wrong our whole lives. Essentially, Adler says that the level of reading that the majority of the population engages in is no better than that which we engaged in during middle school.

This type of reading is characterized by a passive reading, in which we simply accept packaged information as we would with a judgment from a court hearing. We then “playback” this knowledge whenever we think it is relevant to a question on a test or a conversation with a friend. Memorizing details like this is difficult because this information really isn’t based on our own thoughts.

True understanding of a book, and therefore real retention, is only obtained through active reading. Think of active reading as a conversation between the author and the reader, where the reader has an obligation to form opinions and respond to the author. This involves taking extensive notes on the analysis of an author’s structure and argument, even if the author is supposed to be teaching YOU.  After all, “such communication between unequals must be possible, or else one person could never learn from another.”

I know, this seems like a lot of work. And to be honest, it is. But the more active and demanding your reading actually is, the better a reader you will become in terms of actual understanding. If you think about it, that means less time going over the same information pointlessly over and over again to memorize it. The faster we learn how to really read, the faster we can improve our retention and understanding of every text we will ever read in the future.

The Levels of Reading

Adler breaks down reading into four different levels over the course of the book, providing rules for each level and breaking stereotypes of reading along the way. Importantly, he states that the highest levels of reading are not necessary for every sort of text. There is, of course, only so much time we can give to reading over the course of our lives and not every book is equal in its knowledge.

The four levels of reading are:

Elementary: This level of reading is the one that we all know how to read at. In the simplest sense, this kind of reading makes us ask “What does the sentence say?” For most people, this passive reading is where their reading stops.

Inspectional: This level of reading deals with understanding the outline of the author’s text through skimming. Here, you learn about the essence of the book in the least amount of time possible. Effective inspectional reading is necessary in determining whether a thorough analytical reading of a book is worth it.

Analytical: This level of reading is extremely active and is necessary for reading with the goal of understanding. Heavy emphasis at this level is placed on the actual content of the work. Here, readers analyze the truth and significance of the book. In contrast to inspectional reading, analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.

Syntopical: This level of reading is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all of the levels. Think of syntopical reading as comparative reading. It involves using multiple similar texts revolving around one subject to construct analyses that may not even be present in any of the underlying books. Syntopical reading clearly needs high levels of understanding and is extremely demanding.

As I said, we all know how to read at an elementary level. Syntopical reading is extremely intensive, and I don’t believe it is relevant to the majority of common readers. Inspectional and analytical reading, however, are extremely pertinent to students.

How to read at the inspectional and analytical levels is described below.  Crucially, I believe that the below steps can either be used on a whole book or only on the chapters that are applicable to you.

Inspectional Reading of a Book

While you may have been told that skimming isn’t really reading a book, engaging at this level properly is more than sufficient for many texts. There are two sublevels involved for a successful inspectional reading, if time permits:

1) Systematic Skimming: Adler says that you can get the quickest sense of a book by at least reading the preface, inspecting the table of contents, examining the index, and reading the inside jacket (if there is one). He also states that the majority of authors cannot resist summing up their work in the last few pages. You can additionally read a couple paragraphs here and there, but never more than that, as this level of reading is characterized by a lack of time.

2) Superficial Reading: This sublevel involves simply reading a book that you cannot understand without stopping to consider what you don’t follow. Adler states, “Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these. Keep on in this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you.” If you choose to do an analytical reading after, you know the parts which you must now focus on. If you never return to the book, you’ve clearly at least understood the parts relevant to you.

Analytical Reading of a Book

A demanding, active reader must ask certain questions of the texts they read. The four main questions that characterize a thorough analytical reading are:

  • What is the book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail, and how?
  • Is the book true, in whole or part?
  • What of it?

If you analyze these questions you will see that really, they’re not very difficult to grasp. You must first understand the themes of the book, then the main ideas and assertions of the author, then form an opinion of the book’s content before finally asking yourself about the significance of the text.

The real difficulty of these questions is actually taking the time to ask them. Adler states, “And that is why there is all the difference in the world between the demanding and the undemanding reader. The latter asks no questions—and gets no answers.”

I believe merely asking yourself the main questions above will set you down a path of demanding reading. Being able to start answering these questions means you’re truly beginning to understand a text.

However, “How to Read a Book” goes into much greater detail about a variety of rules that one must follow to answer each of the above questions. Importantly, these rules prevent you from answering these questions without proper thought. For example, Adler clearly describes how we must ensure we’re not misinterpreting anything an author says before forming an opinion. While I will not reiterate them here, I highly recommended that you pick up the book purely to go through these rules.

Overall Review and Conclusion

After reading “How to Read a Book”, I honestly feel like I’ve been wasting my time by reading incorrectly all these years. The book was an easy read and has managed to stay relevant despite being published in 1972.

It’s not a book that you have to read all of (as I said, I don’t see syntopical reading as significant to everyone), but I do believe that the section on analytical reading is extremely important for all readers. In fact, that section in particular should be required reading in high school so everyone can get past the elementary reading level before reading college level textbooks.

The book has given me the confidence to take on a lot of texts in my free time that I never would have read before because of how difficult I thought they would be to understand. One such example is “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a series of private notes by the Roman Emperor (161 – 180 AD) to himself that detail fundamental Stoic philosophies.

I can proudly say that the rules I’ve learnt from “How to Read a Book” have noticeably improved my ability to understand Aurelius’ wisdom, despite the fact that the text is from many, many years ago. “The Intelligent Investor” and “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” are a couple more from the reading list that I hope to use these techniques on in the coming months!

Overall, everyone should read “How to Read a Book”. I see it as a relevant text that can help students both with reading textbooks as well as reading for leisure. Personally, analytical reading has changed the way I view books, and is absolutely something that I think you should learn about as early on in life as possible.

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