The Art of Reading: How to Read A Book

“Books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy”
Petrarch

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot.

But reading is not enough.

Knowledge cannot build unless we comprehend what we’re reading.

We need to read with the aim of increasing our understanding: we need to read above our level.

To do that, we need to think about how we read.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on how to improve our reading skills.

How To Read A Book

Mortimer Adler originally published How To Read A Book in 1940. It immediately became a bestseller. Since that time the book has been updated and recast many time, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

With so much changing recently with how we read and what we read, a keen observer would ask what we can learn from such an ancient book?

One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different— appropriate— speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed.

As Pascal observed long ago, “When we read too slowly, we understand nothing.”

Another thing that hasn’t really changed much is the failure to continue to learn how to read beyond the instruction we receive in elementary school. We think of reading in binary terms – you can either read or you can’t. But the truth is that reading is a skill along continuum. We can improve our skill with knowledge and practice.

In 1939, professor James Mursell of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Failure of the Schools.”

Do pupils in school learn to read their mother tongue effectively? Yes and no. Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level. This is not because a person arrives at his natural limit of efficiency when he reaches the sixth grade, for it has been shown again and again that with special tuition much older children, and also adults, can make enormous improvement. Nor does it mean that most sixth-graders read well enough for all practical purposes. A great many pupils do poorly in high school because of sheer ineptitude in getting meaning from the printed page. They can improve; they need to improve; but they don’t.

The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of reading, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. (Note that this holds true of the average student, not the person who is a subject for special remedial treatment.) He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college.

In today’s information obsessed world, it would seem we need to understand how we read more than ever. Despite the abundance of media, we still gain a large share of our understanding about the world through the written word.

“There is a sense in which we moderns,” Adler writes, “are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding. One of the reasons for this situation is that … media … are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary.”

* * *

The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day.

But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

* * *

Active reading

Passive reading is impossible, thus all reading, to some degree is active reading. Some reading, however, is more active than others and the more active the better.

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

Success in reading is determined to the extent that you receive what the writer intended to communicate.

There are two senses of the word “reading.” One is reading for information and another is reading for understanding. (We can, of course, also read for entertainment.)

Reading for information is the one in which we read

…newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth— that is, if we were both alert and honest.

Alternatively we can try to read something we do not completely understand.

Here the thing to be read is initially better or higher than the reader. The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader’s understanding. Such communication between unequals must be possible, or else one person could never learn from another, either through speech or writing.

In short, we can only improve our understanding, from people who understand more than we do. Our goal as a reader, then, is to identify who they are and how to learn from them.

Everyone who can read has some skill. No doubt all of us, however, can learn to read better over time through reading and practice.

If you learn to read to increase understanding the theory is that reading for information and entertainment will take care of themselves, as this is the least demanding kind of reading.

* * *

The Difference Between Learning by Instruction and Learning by Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This is the difference between being able to remember something and being able to explain it.

… if you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You can’t be enlightened unless you are informed, however you can be informed but not enlightened.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”

The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.

The Greeks had a name for people who have read too widely and not well, sophomores.

Being widely read and well-read are not the same thing. Adler argues that to avoid this error we must distinguish between how we learn into instruction and discovery.

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

* * *

The Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines how you read. If you’re reading for entertainment, you’re going to read a lot differently (and likely different material) than if you’re reading to increase understanding.

To some extent, how effective we are at reading is a function of how much effort we put into it: the more, the better.

Adler argues the “difference between the levels (of reading) must be understood before any effective improvement in reading skills can occur.”

There are four levels of reading. They are thought of as levels because as you can’t get to the higher levels without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

The first level of reading is elementary reading.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

This is the level of reading so frequently taught in our elementary schools.

The second level of reading is inspectional reading.

It is characterized by its special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading.

[A]nother name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

The point of inspectional reading is to examine the “surface” of the book.

Adler guides us:

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Inspectional reading is underappreciated by a lot of readers. A lot of people like to read linearly. They pick up a book, turn to page one, and plow steadily through it without ever reading so much as the table of contents. “They are,” writes Adler, “thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it.” This makes reading more difficult, not less.

The third level of reading is called analytical reading.

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. … Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … [A]nalytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Francis Bacon remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Think of analytical reading as chewing and digesting.

analytical reading is hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.

The fourth, and highest, level of reading is syntopical reading.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, 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. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. … With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.