Bookcover - How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book

by Mortimer Adler

Rating: 7/10


How to Read a Book is a Book about how to retain more from reading texts - it is about reading a book, not for the sake of passing time but for the sake of gaining insights from it. To do that it details 4 different levels of reading.

From level to level one digs deeper into the guts of a book, eventually ending with the "highest" form of reading: Cross comparing and gathering insights across books, articles, and journals to derive a solid, cross referenced opinion on a complicated topic.

This kind of reading is called syntopical reading and it's what people who read for information should aspire to. It involves note taking, a lot of attention and a lot of thinking on the part of the reader. And it shifts the role of the reader towards something very active. It's almost like a diaoluge with authors, if done well. In a way, the book notes for this blog are my shot at level 3 and 4 reading.

Detailed Notes

It starts out by defining why this is important - and why there are certain books that are above our current level of understanding.

There are plenty of books - but finding good ones is hard.

What constitutes a good book? A good book is a book where even after having read it multiple times - when reading it again - it still offers more insights.

In this regard readers grow while they read more - their understanding of things increases and so they discover new facets within a book they have already read.

The book in a way grows together with the reader and offers ever new insights - the further the reader progresses in his own knowledge. Books like these are rare.

And therefore important, since they can offer an invaluable amount of knowledge and wisdom.

To get to this process of learning from a book though is hard. Reading is hard. It is not a trivial task and definitely learning how to read is not complete, when someone knows how letters form words and words form sentences and they understand their obvious meaning.

Reading in the sense that this book describes it is so much more than that.

There are 4 levels of reading - elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading - these levels get progressively harder and contains the other ones. When one is reading syntopically - one therefore also reads analytical, inspectional and elementary.

Reading level 1

This level is the most boring of them. It is about as involved as the thing one learns in school. It is about the basic ability to read a text; to decipher letters into words and words into sentences and then derive meaning from those sentences.

Everybody who went through school should have this level of reading already. This includes all you - which is proven by the fact that you just read this sentence.

Reading level 2

This is reading a book, all at once. Without stopping to think, without taking notes and trying to get the ideas of the author on a deeper level.

But it is also about determining if a book is worth reading more deeply.

Skimming through it and assessing its relative contents and its worth without actually reading it in detail.

It involves reading the preface, looking at the introduction and the summaries found at the end. Flipping through chapters, dipping in at points where it might be interesting and reading a few pages here and there.

Looking at the index and the contents and finding out how the general structure of the book is and determining from there where to dip in and see the most interesting parts and then getting into those.

As well as skimming the most relevant chapters and seeing if the book is actually worth reading on the next level and really commit to it. They call this technique X-Raying a book and devote a whole chapter to it.

The metaphor they use is that every book has a backbone. The bare ideas that run through it that an author has to put flesh and fibers around to make it readable.

The idea behind X-Raying a book is to find this backbone. Crazily enough, not every book has this back bone - only good books do.

So when using these techniques one is able to determine what is worth reading and select overall better books.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

ā€“ Sir Francis Bacon

This quote relates to this idea as well as to the levels of reading described in "How to Read a Book".

Reading level 3

This level is almost like taking a book apart step by step. It is about looking at the guts and gory details of a book in high detail.

It is basically about putting in the work to own a book.

"Owning a book" means understanding what the book is about, why the author might have written it and knowing the central arguments and structure proposed within the book.

When reading at this level one tries to think about what the author said: How the book is structured - how chapters relate to each other and how certain arguments evolve across the length of the book. One has to note the use of different and special words and understand the terms the authors are using.

The authors call this process coming to terms with the author. Terms mean the functional units of understanding.

"Coming to terms with an author" means to put in the effort to make the best guess possible at what the words they use actually mean within the context of the book.

It is about finding the most important and also technical words and having an understanding of what they mean to the author in the context of the book. This prevents misunderstandings.

How To Make A Book Your Own

While reading you should underline and circle important words. Also make references to other pages, add asterisks or stars for the most important parts and numbers to follow the arguments structure and points that are being made. Also, take note of questions and their answers on the top and bottom of the pages.

Being a demanding/analytical reader also involves asking questions to the book.

The 4. questions of a demanding reader are:

  1. What is it about as a whole? Divide the whole into themes - and discover the structure of how those interlock and lead to each other - how they comprise the whole.
  2. What is being said in detail and how? What are the arguments, main ideas, assumptions.
  3. Is the book, or parts of it true? Make up your mind if you believe the author - and why you do so. This connects to the next level of reading as well.
  4. What of it? What is the value of this information, its significance?

An important step in the process of analytical reading is "pigeonholing a book".

It means knowing what category of books a book belongs to.

You can discern that by looking at the title, find some background info on the author and taking the time and having a grasp of what the book is going to be like.

To be able to answer the 4 questions of analytical reading, one needs to know what type of book one reads.

Because different types have different ways of being structured: theoretical vs. practical books; scientific vs. unscientific ones, etc.

This also becomes important later again, for level 4 reading.

You can divide note taking into 3 kinds:

  • Structural
  • Conceptual
  • Dialectical

Structural note taking is about capturing the structure and content of the book itself.

Answering question such as: How is the book built up? and what does the author say?

Conceptual notes are for arguing about the structure and content. They are about figuring out if what the author said is true.

Dialectical notes are about finding out the ongoing theme within books of this type. They are meta notes. Answering and asking questions such as: Why are all these books coming to the same conclusions. What is similar across different arguments? And how did the field of knowledge in this niche change?

The 3 kinds are respectively assigned to the last 3 stages of reading. Structural notes happen during inspectional reading. Conceptual notes during analytical reading and dialectical notes during syntopical reading.

Summary for the first stage of analytical reading:

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

Reading Level 4

Syntopical Reading. The highest form of reading, but also the hardest.

With the work and skills from reading books at level 3 type of detail, one can transition to this level. It's about picking books (or parts of books, or articles or other texts) with insights on specific topics. And then cross-comparing those texts with each other, to decipher what might be capital "T" True.

In other words it's using texts not only to gain new information, but to sit down and check if that information is actually right and correct.

It's reading a lot of books on the same topic with a level 3 focus, but then stopping and thinking about the connections between them and writing the arguments between the books down.

For example you could go and read the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Marcus Aurelius Meditations, and Behave (... and a lot more), to then find out what constitutes the human condition. And what it takes to live a good life. In some sense, this way of reading is about building a deeper understanding. And the more books you add to the mix, the better, more nuanced and detailled this understanding becomes.

Especially if you add books that deal with the same questions in very different ways, across vast stretches of time and space.

And in a way, that's the beauty of reading, that, if you put in this work, you can have these conversations, across time and space, with authors long dead, and still alive, gathered around one table, "discussing" the really hard and tricky questions of life, and inching, even if only slightly, closer to the true answers to them.

And this is what this book was about, showcasing the tools necessary for this type of reading and helping the reader learn how to use them.

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