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How To Read A Book

Authors: Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

General Insightsโ€‹

  • I think this book does a good job up front about defining the scope of what Adler and Van Doren want to cover. The purpose of this book is to teach people how to read to increase your understanding of a topic. It also notes that reading for entertainment purposes is a valid reason to read, but is outside the scope of this; I appreciate that itโ€™s not looked down on.

Part One: The Dimensions of Readingโ€‹

The Goals of Reading: Reading for Information and Reading for Understandingโ€‹

  • Reading can mean two different things; it can mean to increase your understanding, or to increase how much information you know.
  • In the latter, you may already understand something, but are simply gathering more information on the topic. More understanding is not gained from that reading, only more information. What you read is something you already understand.
  • In the former however, you are reading about a topic of which you do not completely understand. The goal of this reading is to understand more, not to know more. You are building up the ability to comprehend more information in the future, not specifically retain more information.
  • Both of these constitute learning, but in different forms.

There are four different levels of reading:

  1. Elementary reading. Can you recognize the letters and words on the page? What does the sentence say? (See: Learning To Read)

  2. Inspectional reading. The goal with this style is to skim the book as fast as possible, and get a feel for high-level questions about the text. What is the structure of the book? What kind of book is it? Much of this information can be gained simply by looking at the table of contents.

    See: Skimming

  3. Analytical reading. Thorough reading, with an unlimited amount of time. This is very active reading, and is the minimum level required to understand the contents of what youโ€™re reading. The previous two levels simply arenโ€™t active enough to provide any sufficient understanding.

  4. Syntopical reading. This involves reading multiple books about the same topic, and then comparing and contrasting what you have learned and understood to then construct an analysis of the topic. That analysis may or may not be in any of the books, but you have understood enough to be able to produce a new take on things.

Any level of reading above elementary reading requires active reading; without active reading, we will never achieve the other levels. This active reading can be facilitated with pencil in-hand, writing in the book. Underline, ask questions, reference other pages, and so on.