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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
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“This is a book for readers and for those who wish to become readers,” Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren write in the introduction to “How to Read a Book.” “Particularly, it is for readers of books. Even more particularly, it is for those whose main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.” If you are one of them – get ready to discover the essence of active reading and learn how to master its four levels!
In the opinion of most people – and especially when contrasted to writing and speaking – reading and listening are passive activities. The writer or speaker must put out some effort: they are actively engaged in giving or sending information; by comparison, no work needs to be done by the reader or listener, because they are mere receivers of data.
“The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgment from the court,” Adler and Van Doren remark. “On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball.” In other words, reading requires just as much active effort as writing.
Of course, this is not always true as sometimes we read for more superficial reasons than personal development. That’s why it’s important to make a distinction between the three most common goals of reading: entertainment, information, and understanding.
The goal readers seek determines the way they read and the effort they put into reading. If your goal is seeing the world anew, then the general rule is the more effort the better – “at least in the case of books that are initially beyond our powers as readers and are therefore capable of raising us from a condition of understanding less to one of understanding more.”
In essence, the art of active reading consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order. There are four main questions you must ask about any book:
These four questions appear at all but the first of the four levels of reading – which, though distinct, are also cumulative. So, think of them as ladders: only after mastering the first one, you can move on to the second one and so on. According to Mortimer and Van Doren, there are four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. So, let us discover what each of them entails and how to master them one by one.
The first level of reading is elementary – or rudimentary – reading. If you’re reading this, then you’ve already mastered it: you have learned the rudiments of the art of reading and have acquired initial reading skills. Simply put, elementary reading is what elementary school trained you to do.
At this level of reading, none of the four main questions of active reading matters; instead, they give way to a far more basic question: “What does the sentence say?” Of course, you can answer it correctly only if you know all the words in the sentence and the way they connect to each other. Sometimes, this isn’t easy at all, as, for example, when you come upon something written in a foreign language. But even then, the difficulties are mechanical – nothing that a good dictionary and a useful grammar can’t conquer.
Most speed-reading courses concentrate on elementary reading. They tend to help readers overcome some basic mechanical difficulties, such as subvocalization, eye fixations, or reading regressions. In some cases, this is detrimental because, when you read for understanding, you often need to reread things; however, in many other cases, speed-reading is not bad, because not every text deserves to be read actively and with a lot of effort. “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension,” write Adler and Van Doren.
The second level of reading is inspectional reading. As the name suggests, it aims to get the most out of a book within a given time, usually relatively short. An even better name for this level – and certainly more comprehensible – might be prereading or even skimming, because, in essence, “inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.”
It doesn’t take too much time to acquire the habit of systematic skimming. Just stick to the following six steps:
When you read inspectionally, you are basically a detective, “looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea, alert for anything that will make it clearer.” When the book is very difficult, think about reading it twice: the first time superficially, without stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. This is also inspectional reading.
Analytical reading is methodical, demanding, and is done preeminently for the sake of understanding. “If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time,” observe Adler and Van Doren, “then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.” It encompasses three stages, each one coming with its own set of rules.
The goal of the first stage is to find what the book is about. You’ll have mastered it once you are able to:
The fourth and highest level of reading is syntopical reading. It is the most active and effortful kind of reading, highly complex, and systematic by definition. It involves a skillful combination of all other levels of reading, and – perhaps more importantly – more than the book in question. “When reading syntopically,” write Adler and Van Doren, “the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve.” That’s why another name for this level might be comparative reading.
There are two stages of syntopical reading. The first one is preparatory and involves creating a tentative bibliography of your subject and inspectionally leafing through it. The second one is the actual reading, which consists of five steps:
With half a million copies in print, “How to Read a Book” is undoubtedly the most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader.
It is also, arguably, the best: not many people would consider this an exaggeration. And that already says a lot.
Look for books that will challenge your way of thinking. It’s the best way to break your “echo chamber” and grow.
Charles Van Doren is an American academic and writer, a longtime vice president and editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of “A History of Knowledge.” Early in his life, he became infamous due to his involvement in the 19... (Read more)
Mortimer Jerome Adler was a renowned American philosopher and educator. A longtime professor at Columbia University, he is perhaps best known today for his informal introduction to Aristotle, “Aristotle for Everybody... (Read more)
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