How to Read a Book – Overview

Learning Longform


Because books are so obviously important to this site, I thought it might be worth going through the how of reading. That is how do you read a book? (Effectively is implied, though worth saying once.) This will be a series of posts that have their roots in How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler, perhaps the most important book I’ve read.

If all you’d like is a primer, this blog post on Farnam Street is great. This post by Ryan Holiday is helpful, too. As a matter of fact, this topic is widely covered. Still, except for the Farnam Street primer, none of them go deep on the subject. My recommendation is:

  1. If you have the time and inclination, skip all the posts and just read the book.
  2. If you have inclination but need something now, the series of posts on Farnam Street is the best route.
  3. If you would like to read what I have to say, welcome! This will take a while.

I’ll be going into each section deeply and highlighting some helpful strategies. Later on, I’ll also be going into specific topics i.e. How to Read a Work of History. This series of posts will be structured as such:

  1. The first three posts will cover the different levels of reading & how to excel at them. These are broken into Elementary & Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical.
  2. The fourth post will cover strategies for taking notes (digitally and analog). This is one of the best ways to turn information into knowledge and goes hand in hand with reading.
  3. The fifth – ∞ posts will cover different topics, genres, and methods. How to Read a Work of History is one, as noted above, but also Philosophy, Science, Poetry, Law, Allegory, Blogs, and more. These have no order and will be published once I’m certain they’re worth your time. They’re topics I’ll have to consult with experts on, so you’ll get those interviews as well.

I’ll provide some tools that may be useful at different stages of reading, as well as practices I’ve found helpful, but there are no tricks or hacks. To really get at a book, you just need to read it and, if you come across something difficult, work through it.

Everyone approaches a book from a different point of view, and it’s not a good idea to approach every book with the same rigor as you would, say, a guide to the MCAT while you’re studying for the tests. But paying a little more attention can lead to great benefits, from connecting with the book better and adding a tool to your mental arsenal to profoundly changing how you see the world. If you’re reading multiple works on a topic, you’ll be able to construct a better way to think about it than you would by reading a single book.

One thing I want to note that other articles do not is that it is unwise to scoff at the lessons, information, or knowledge a work of fiction holds. People love & enjoy stories, and they’ve shaped our culture for thousands of years. Our impressions of good and bad, great and terrible, right and wrong, epic and banal, just and unjust, are shaped and pinned to fiction. If you’ve read a work of fiction and thought “I wish I could be more like this character” or “I wish I was there now”, you’ve been impacted by it. It’s a damn poor mind that finds fiction to be a waste of time. And so I will be covering fiction later on.

Why Read?

What’s the point of reading? Don’t we have all the world’s information at our fingertips? Why can’t I just look for the information I need when I need it? All fair questions. But there’s a difference between action and reaction, or being able to do something confidently or haphazardly. What if you don’t know what information you need?

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones. – Donald Rumsfeld

Reading helps take care of that last problem – “unknown unknowns”. That is, by the act of reading, you reduce the number of things that you don’t know you don’t know, as well as things you know you don’t know. You add to your mental store of information and are in a position to incorporate what you’ve learned into your life.

Incorporation is not always an active process – sometimes, you ruminate or let the information sit there until it’s needed. But if we relied on being able to search for the answer in every instance, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. The act itself has limitations baked in. I’m able to write this because, over time, I’ve learned how to read & write and have been able to incorporate that into my daily life. It’s the same for you; you may need to look up a new word here and there, but you don’t do that for every thing you write. Imagine if you did. How would you even begin, without knowing how to phrase what you’re looking for?

Incorporation (or processing) of information into knowledge happens consciously and subconsciously. If you’re working on a hard problem, you’ll take information from different places and try to incorporate it into a single, cohesive unit. Or, as is the case for so many people, you might accrue information and let it sit (this happens all the time to me; what I read might not be of use at that particular moment in time, but it might come in handy tomorrow or next year). Then, while you’re on a walk or driving or just waking up, bam!, a lightbulb goes off and you’ve made a breakthrough. That kind of breakthrough happens after you’ve done enough reading (or experienced enough). It’s a process that takes time to occur and is unlikely to happen at the moment of a search.

None of this is to denigrate searching for information. If I’m in the process of building something and need an answer immediately, I can search for it. But I know what I’m looking for: “How do I do x?” Having information easily accessible is one of the greatest breakthroughs the world has experienced. But it is another tool in the toolbelt, and like all tools, it has its purposes.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

We don’t need to be making use of a tool every second; that takes things to the extreme. Rather, the goal is to find a happy medium – a situation where you can rely on a long-term store of knowledge in your mind and fill in the gaps with new information as the need arises. To forswear one at the cost of the other is just nonsensical. Go for the hammer when you need it; go for the screwdriver when you need it. But don’t try to accomplish the job of one with the other.

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sidebar: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler was first published in 1940, before being revised and republished in 1972 with Charles Van Doren. The goal of the book is to give readers an overview of what Adler considers to be the four levels of reading, how to conduct each properly, and how to approach different genres & works. He goes into other topics in the preamble of the book, including speed reading, active reading, the importance of reading, and more.

The levels start at the elementary level, which is being able to understand words, sentences, and paragraphs – structural elements, essentially. He then moves onto inspectional reading, which consists of systematic skimming and superficial reading. A lot of readers will stop here, which is fine. Why? Because the third level – analytical reading – is not for every book you read. It’s for books that you really want to understand. It’s demanding, and so ought to be selectively applied.

Syntopical reading is the fourth level, and it requires reading widely on a particular topic instead of just a single book. If you’re trying to understand the Civil War, you may begin with Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. But you’d scour its bibliography and references, or find others, and begin reading through those books, too. Intense focus, a system of taking notes, methodical review, and more is required for a successful syntopical read.

We’ll go through each level and aspect of the book in detail over the next month or so before moving on to specifics of genre & topic.

Finding Books

There are probably thousands of sites where you can get books for free. Knowing that, I’ve limited myself to five (and am excluding Librecron). Don’t overdo it, though; better to have a few books you’ll read as opposed to a ton you won’t.

  1. Project Gutenberg
  2. Standard Ebooks
  3. Manybooks
  4. Directory of Open Access Books
  5. MIT Press

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