I decided to pick up Mortimer J. Adler’s classic guide, ‘How to read a book’ after a friend gifted it to me. They knew 7 years ago it was going to be one of the most important reads before starting my degree.
You may think, what tips could I possibly learn, I read a lot anyway?
The truth is we all have a blind spot when it comes to self growth, and this is where Mortimer comes in. He reveals the facts all the facts we didn't know we needed to read better.
But first, why is reading important?
Because our minds outlive our body for decades and continues to grow, shape and transform our entire experience of life. And books aren’t just for the literary freaks, I mean geeks. They’re for everyone! They’re limitless well of flash frozen wisdom from mankind’s best thinkers and doers. And the best part? Reading is a skill you can develop, like anything in life, it can be practised and mastered!
So, grab yourself a pen and let's get down to it… A few tips so you're reading like a pro the next time you open a book!
How to Read a Book summary
Reading can be either for
Understanding being the hardest as they force us into new realities and perspectives. To close your understanding gap, you need to ask yourself the following:
1. What is their book about as a whole?
2. What is being said in detail, and how?
3. Is their book true, in whole or in part? and
4. What of it?
The more active your reading, the better it is and the better you can answer those questions above.
The four levels of reading are:
1. Elementary reading - Turning symbols into information
2. Inspectional reading - Getting the most from a book in a given time
3. Analytical reading - Thorough and complete reading for understanding
4. Synoptic reading - Exploring a subject through wide reading.
You should inspect every book you are thinking of reading before reading it.
Why? Doing so helps in two ways:
1. It primes you with an overall framework of the book; and
2. It tells you if and how you should read it.
PART I: SYSTEMATIC SKIMMING
Takes: Ten minutes to an hour. Answers: What kind of book is it? What’s it about? How is it structured? Is it worth reading?
To begin your systematic skimming, first study the:
· Title – Take a moment to read it aloud. What does it tell you to expect?
· Contents – How has the author structured their work? How does it flow? What are the pivotal chapters?
· Index – What terms are most frequently referenced? Do any surprise you?
· Publisher’s blurb – What does the publisher think is important? How have they synthesised the work? and
· Author’s preface – What does the author want you to take away? How do they want you to read?
At this stage, try to avoid other people’s syntheses, commentaries and reviews as these will bias your ability to come to your own conclusions.
The next step is turning the pages, as you do so:
· Read titles, sub-titles, figures and tables;
· Read a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages – Never more;
· Skim pivotal chapters in full – Especially opening and summary statements); and
· Read the last two or three pages in the main part of the book.
Third, pencil some brief, structural notes (blank front pages are a great place to do this):
· Classify the book – is it:
o Non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, fiction?
o Prose, verse, theatre, other or a mix?
o History, science or philosophy?
o Theoretical or practical?
· Write a short synthesis of its contents – One to three sentences at most; and
· Bullet its high-level structure.
The goal of analytical reading is to close the gap in understanding between you and an author. By the end of the process, you should be able to explain what the author said, what they meant and why they said it. You should also be able to clearly state your position on their work with specific reasons for any criticisms.
PART II: WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL AND HOW?
The next 4 sub-steps in analytical reading will help you clarify exactly what the author is saying and how they’re saying it:
5. Spot all the keywords and understand what the author means by them;
6. Distil the key propositions from the author’s most important sentences;
7. Find or build the author’s arguments from sequences of sentences; and
8. Decide which problems the author has, hasn’t and knew they couldn’t solve.
Where part I of analytical reading is top-down, part II tackles the task bottom-up.
Just as writing uses words to build sentences and paragraphs, so logic uses terms to build propositions and arguments. Your task is to find and relate these back to part I.
COMING TO TERMS
First, make a list of, then define all the unfamiliar or important keywords in the book – technical, antiquated and otherwise. Use the title, headings, figures, glossary and formatting to help spot them. Once listed, make sure you understand exactly how the author is using these words; be sure you understand what they mean.
Glossaries, dictionaries and reference books can help (especially for technical jargon). But the most important clue here is context. What do the words around the keywords say about how the author is using them? What about the rest of the book? The combination of keywords and the specific way an author uses them are the author’s terms.
Second, find, highlight and dissect the sentences whose meaning is either not immediately obvious or that are clear declarations of knowledge or opinion. These are the author’s propositions, the foundations that support their main arguments. A good way to spot these is to look for high concentrations of the terms that you gathered above.
Once you’ve found them, puzzle away at these propositions until you can re-state them clearly in your own words. Alternatively, challenge yourself to exemplify the general truth they imply with a specific personal example. Both exercises will challenge you to show true understanding.
Third, find or piece together the collections of sentences or paragraphs in the book that connect one or more propositions in support of a particular conclusion. These chains of logic are the author’s main arguments.
To spot them, look for things the author states they must assume, can prove or need not prove because they are self-evident; look for conclusions where you find reasons (and vice versa).
Finally, relate your analysis back to your observations from part I. What problems has the author solved? Which have they missed? Where did they know that they failed?
Following this rigorous process of deconstruction will put you in an excellent place to tackle…
PART III: IS THE BOOK TRUE, IN WHOLE OR IN PART?
When deciding how much truth an author has touched on (or failed to touch on) in a book, you’ll find it helpful to start with some…
PART A: GENERAL MAXIMS OF INTELLECTUAL ETIQUETTE
9. Understand before you “agree”, “disagree” or “abstain”;
10. Be open-minded and collaborative, even when you disagree; and
11. Be specific in any criticisms you make.
A general rule for criticism is to always approach a book like a light-hearted and constructive problem-solving session with a friend.
Begin with an open and collaborative mind, assume benign intent and be able to state the other person’s position better than they can before weighing in with your own.
Remember that both you and the author are (usually) just as curious about and interested in finding the truth. Focussing on that, and not who is right or who is wrong, will help you get more from your reading.
Where you do disagree, monitor your emotions. Remember, just because you don’t like someone’s arguments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong.
Always criticise with an eye towards resolution and keep your own propositions and arguments to the same standards as you hold the author’s.
And remember, there’s a very good chance that it’s you that may misunderstand or be ignorant on some important point.
The best way to keep yourself logical and honest is to…
PART B: MAKE YOUR CRITICISMS SPECIFIC AND DETAILED
An author and their arguments can fall short by being:
12. Uninformed – The author does not know something important;
13. Misinformed – The author states something that is incorrect;
14. Illogical – The author’s arguments are inconsistent or don’t follow; or
15. Incomplete – One or more important additional conclusions omitted.
One or all of these may be true, but only for specific parts of a book.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks,” Adler and van Doren remind us.
So when you criticise, make sure you can clearly explain where your criticism applies, what kind of shortcoming you’ve spotted and (for extra points) how you might improve or rewrite the argument. If you can’t, be as suspicious of yourself as you would of someone else criticising your work whose best explanation is “a general sense of unease”.
And remember, until you can level at least one of the first three points at a work, you cannot (logically) disagree with its conclusions, even though you may dislike them.
Synoptic reading is the art of exploring a question or subject by reading widely. It’s not about reaching conclusions. Instead, it’s about putting together a really good map. It’s about discovering and noting the landmarks, the sights and the hazards so that when you do set out on the journey, you’re the best-informed traveller on the road.
By now, you should have a solid idea of:
· The subject you’re tackling;
· The angle you’re tackling it from;
· The sources that have something important to say about it; and
· Roughly what side of each question those sources fall on.
So with your mission and short-list in hand, it’s time to start…
General reading tips
The first general active-reading tip is so important, we’ve mentioned it already and will come back to it at the end. Always approach reading as a conversation with the author. Approach every book with an open mind and remember that books are the imperfect creations of imperfect creatures.
Don’t treat everything you read as inflexible statements of fact. Do question and challenge. But do also make sure you understand what you’ve read before criticising. Active-reading is like active-listening. If you can’t restate the author’s position better than they can, you don’t know it well enough to help fix it.
The second active-reading tip is this – make every book you read your own. To do so, use:
· Highlighting – underline, circle, star, asterisk and fold pages;
· Linking – number arguments on the page, reference other pages or sections; and
· Synthesising – write in the margins, top and bottoms of pages and front and endpapers.
Don’t just settle for average.
Become a good reader.
Heck, become a great reader.
Because doing so won’t just make the next book you read a more interesting, valuable and meaningful experience.
It will elevate your mind to the level of humanity’s greatest thinkers and doers.