How to Read a Book Analytically to Build Understanding

How do you read a book?  You know how to read, of course, but have you paid attention to the purpose or the method of your reading?

We read in different ways at different times.  The way we read is influenced both by what we are reading, and why we are reading.  We can read for entertainment, for information, or for understanding. Appreciating the distinction between these modes will allow you to pull more value from the reading material you choose.

The classic text on how to read a book is (funny enough), How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  Adler outlines his goals and methodology in his preface:

How to Read a Book attempts to inculcate skills that are useful for reading anything. These skills, however, are more than merely useful—they are necessary—for the reading of great books, those that are of enduring interest and importance. Although one can read books, magazines, and newspapers of transient interest without these skills, the possession of them enables the reader to read even the transient with greater speed, precision, and discrimination. The art of reading analytically, interpretively, and critically is indispensable only for the kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more, and for reading the few books that are capable of being read with increasing profit over and over again. those few books are the great books—and the rules of reading here set forth are the rules for reading them.

Purposes of Reading

The first question when reading is to understand why you are reading. Adler first divides reading into (1) reading for amusement and (2) reading for knowledge.  Reading for knowledge, in turn, consists of (1) reading for information and (2) reading for understanding.

Let’s break this down.  There are times we read casually or light material – magazines, vacation paperbacks, mystery novels.  In these moments, you are reading for amusement.

You might also casually read for information – a newspaper or weekly periodical, for example.  This requires slightly more attention than reading for entertainment, as you might commit new facts to memory. Reading a newspaper, however, does not require an analytical approach to the text itself.  You read the newspaper for the facts it contains, but rarely for the language or the structure of the piece.

Reading for amusement or for information are perfectly fine.  They are the most common types of reading, and it’s still better than a lot of things on which you could waste your time.  It’s a question of your goals.  If you have a goal of getting better, building skills, gaining a competitive advantage, you need to improve your understanding.

Reading for understanding is reading to learn.  This type of reading requires thinking and analysis on your part, because you’re spending time with the book to find its insights and its essence.  Books present us with the opportunity to improve ourselves and to get smarter.  To do that, however, you need to work. You need to challenge yourself by finding books written by people smarter than you about subjects you don’t fully understand.

Four Types of Reading

Adler defines four types of reading:

1. Elementary – This is basic entry-level reading.  It answers the question, “What does this sentence say?”

2. Inspectional – Inspectional reading is skimming or superficial reading.  It answers the question, “What is the book about?”

3. Analytical – Analytical reading is the beginning of higher-level reading. It answers the question, “What does the book mean?”

4. Syntoptical – This requires a comparison of a book to other texts. It answers the question, “How does the book’s meaning compare to other books?”

Tools of the Active Reader

I particularly like Adler’s focus on the “kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.”  It breaks down a demanding task to an understandable and concrete objective.

How do you read a book inspectionally, analytically, or syntoptically? Adler offers a fantastic list of questions and approaches to help you work through a book.

Inspectional Reading

While inspectional reading may be a superficial skimming of the book, it may also be the initial “pre-read” that paves the way for a deeper second look.  Look at the title page and read the preface to determine what type of book it is.  Study the table of contents and index to gain an understanding of the book’s structure, key terms, and topics.  Reading the opening and closing pages of key chapters can be helpful.

I have always been of the belief that many books should not be finished.  If you’re choosing the right books, this won’t happen very often, I hope.  But if you determine that a book isn’t worth the time it will take to finish, put it down.  There’s plenty of other things to read.  I was glad to see Adler echo this thought, writing that “many books are hardly worth even skimming.”  As for the rest, “some should be read quickly,” and only “a few should be read…quite slow…for complete comprehension.”  As a result, you need to develop different reading speeds.

Analytical Reading

Reading analytically requires work, but the framework is simple and straightforward.  Adler outlines four questions to ask about any book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? (i.e., what is the subject?)

2. What is being said in detail, and how? (i.e., what terms does the book use and how are those terms interpreted?)

3. Is the book true, or partially true? (i.e., how do you evaluate the book?)

4. What of it? (i.e., why does it matter and what is the significance?)

Seizing a Book and Making it Your Own

If you’re reading a book for knowledge and understanding, you should have a pen in your hand.  Adler recommends a list of common-sense actions:

-underline key sentences
-mark key sections with vertical lines
-star in margins
-insert page numbers in margin to parallel or contrasting sections
-note key words, phrases, and terms
-margin notes

You might have notes that are structural, about the content of the subject. The next level of note taking will be conceptual, concerning the truth and significance of the book.  Finally, dialectical notes will mark the shape of argument in the larger context of the topic.

One tool that works particularly well for me is to create my own index of important topics on or near the title page.  The beauty of this type of index is that the topics and entries are entirely up to you.  I try to save these index entries for definitions of the author’s key terms, beautiful quotes, and other important themes.

Remembering What You Read

If you read a book with a pen in your hand, asking yourself Adler’s key questions along the way, you will already be ahead of the game of reading to improve your understanding and knowledge.  Unless you have an encyclopedic steel trap of a memory, however, you’ll pull even more value from books if you have a system for cataloguing and cross-referencing the material you read.  I use a commonplace book.

When I finish a book, I put it and all of my notes, dog-eared pages, and post-its down for at least a week.  Two weeks is preferable.  After that time has passed, I review my marked passages and notes.  Some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme. Themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

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