How to Read a Book


Part One: The Dimensions of Reading

Chapter 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

There are two modes of reading: active and passive. Passive reading of course is not completely passive, but active reading refers to being completely engaged with the subject. Later parts of the book will apparently return to this topic.

The Goals of Reading: Reading for Information and Reading for Understanding

Reading for information is to read material that is immediately understandable. You may (or may not) learn new things this but there is no deep inequality in understanding between the author and the reader.

Reading for entertainment doesn’t really imply any useful information gain.

Reading for understanding is when the material is not immediately understandable, and we use the material to try to build understanding. This can only happen when the author understands the material better than the reader. This book is about reading for understanding.

Reading as Learning: The Difference Between Learning by Instruction and Learning by Discovery

Learning by Instruction is summarized as learning from books, other writing, lectures, etc., where an instructor is attempting to share knowledge; whereas learning by discovery is learning topics from nature directly.

Present and Absent Teachers

Books can’t answer questions.

Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading

Four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary Reading
    Understanding sentence structure, “what does this sentence say?”
  2. Inspectional Reading
    Taking an overview of a book to get a general idea of its contents. Pre-reading, skimming, etc.
  3. Analytical Reading
    Deeply engaging with the contents of the book to understand it fully
  4. Syntopical Reading
    Reading many related books to understand the themes around which they all revolve.

Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading

Various methods of teaching children to read are described. This book was written in the 1970s and is super Americentric.

Stages of Learning to Read

  1. Reading Readiness
    Physically and psychologically capable of learning to read
  2. Learning to read very simple materials
    Sentence at a time
  3. Rapid vocabulary building
    and unlocking unfamiliar words through contextual clues
  4. Refinement
    And enhancement of skills previously learned

Stages and Levels

The four stages are elements of the first level.

Higher Levels of Reading and Higher Education

Formal education should but does not teach reading. University graduates should be competent syntopical readers but that skill is generally not developed until graduate school, if at all.

Reading and the Democratic Ideal of Education

Reading is important. We should teach it better.

Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

In order to use inspectional reading on a book, one must be able to read it at an elementary level – i.e. be able to make sense of it on a granular level.

Inspectional reading is divided into two separate activities, which are performed simultaneously but discussed separately here.

Inspectional Reading 1: Systematic Skimming or Pre-Reading

This is a method of building a broad conceptual framework to hang the rest of the book’s contents on.

  1. Look at the title page and preface
    These often explicitly lay out the structure and purpose of the book.
  2. Study the Table of Contents
    This gives a strong intuition for the structure of the book.
  3. Skim the Index
    Look for any terms with loads of references that seem important, and thumb through a few of those references. This helps to identify crucial terms in the work.
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb if the book has one
    Sometimes it’s useless, but sometimes it’s not.
  5. Look for chapters that seem pivotal to the central message
    If these have opening or closing summaries, read those.
  6. Flip through the book, reading a paragraph or two here and there
    Be on the lookout for signs of the main theme or argument. Definitely read the last few pages, where authors frequently summarize the entire contents.

Inspectional Reading 2: Superficial Reading

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

Trying too hard to understand the minutiae initially can make it easy to miss a fairly apparently general theme. It’s productive to learn the parts that are accessible before putting in effort to fully understand everything. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

On Reading Speeds

Every book contains filler material that can be read more quickly, and every good book contains difficult material that should be read more slowly. Inspectional reading generally means faster reading than analytical. Speed-reading is kind of important but more important is varying reading speed to suit the desired level of comprehension.

Fixations and Regressions

Fixation is a point where eyes halt on a word; regression is skipping back to something previously read. Both are wasteful habits in terms of reading speed and can be trained away by practicing speed-reading.

The Problem of Comprehension

One can’t speed-read a complex passage and comprehend it sufficiently. This book is about improving comprehension.

Summary of Inspectional Reading

Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with enjoyment and comprehension.

Always skim/pre-read a book.

Do not try to understand everything on the first read through.

Race to the end of even the hardest book, and be prepared to dwell more carefully on the second pass.

The two phases of Inspectional Reading are anticipations of Analytical Reading.

Chapter 5: How to be a Demanding Reader

Sounds like this chapter will describe strategies to concentrate and focus on reading.

The Essence of Active Reading: The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks

Ask yourself four main questions about a book as you read it:

  1. What is this book about as a whole?
    Form a high-level concept of the book
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
    Understand each section
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
    Think critically. Is is bullshit?
  4. What of it?
    What will I do with this information?

Much of part 2 will deal with these questions. 4 is particularly relevant to syntopical reading.

Falling asleep reading a good book is an indication that you’re not engaging with the content at the level demanded.

How to Make a Book Your Own

Have a conversation with the book. Mark it up with a pencil (or highlight things on kindle I guess)

Author suggests all sorts of specific kinds of annotations, but basically:

The Three Kinds of Note-making

  1. Structural
    What kind of book is it, etc.; generally the output of inspectional reading.
  2. Conceptual
    Relating to the specific concepts in the book; generally the output of analytical reading.
  3. Dialectical
    Observing the landscape of several books; generally the output of syntopical reading.o

Forming the Habit of Reading

Do it I guess? This seemed content-free.

From Many Rules to One Habit

Reading effectively is a complex act with many subordinate parts. Much like skiing, it is awkward at first, but graceful with enough practice.

Part Two: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

Chapter 6: Pigeonholing a Book

We focus on books because they’re more challenging than other writings, being the longest common form.

The Importance of Classifying Books

Rule 1 of Analytical Reading
You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

It’s not always obvious. Plenty of examples are given of novels with historical, scientific, etc. components.

Expository books are written primarily to convey knowledge.

What You Can Learn from the Title of a Book

Lots. Whatever.

Practical vs. Theoretical Books

This all seems fairly obvious. Practical books impart knowledge meant to be put into action; theoretical books just try to expound a topic. It’s a gradient, but it’s worth thinking about what positions a book at a given point on this spectrum.

Kinds of Theoretical Books

The traditional subdivision of theoretical books is:

is a cool word. Chronos = time; topos = place; ∴ pertaining to a given time and place.

Again, this all seems obvious.

Chapter 7: X-Raying a Book

Rule 2 of Analytical Reading
State the unity of a whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

If this can’t be stated in a sentence or two, you don’t understand the overarching goal of the book.

Rule 3 of Analytical Reading
Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

Of Plots and Plans: Stating the Unity of a Book

Understanding the central thrust of the book greatly helps to put into context the more episodic parts.

Mastering the Multiplicity: The Art of Outlining a Book

Yeah, outlining is helpful, ok.

The Reciprocal Acts of Reading and Writing

An outline by itself isn’t useful to read. The flesh on the skeleton is as important to a good book as it is to an animal.

Discovering the Author’s Intentions

Rule 4 of Analytical Reading
Find out what the author’s problems were.

The First Stage of Analytical Reading

These four rules comprise the first stage of analytical reading, where an understanding of the structure and purpose of the book is deepened. Briefly restated, these are:

  1. Classify;
  2. State the central subject;
  3. Outline;
  4. Understand the purpose.

Chapter 8: Coming to Terms with an Author

Words vs. Terms

Rule 5
Find the important terms and through them, come to terms with the author.

Finding the Key Words

Often the difficult words, or the ones enlisted into somewhat unconventional use.

Technical Words and Special Vocabularies

Difficult words aren’t necessarily keywords, they can just be the grist of technical literature.

Finding the Meanings

Words. Terms. Understand through context. K.

Chapter 9: Determining an Author’s Message

The series of propositions and supporting arguments throughout a book form a separate structural scheme from an outline, but are also important.

Sentences vs. Propositions

Propositions are the answers to questions

Rule 6
Mark the most important sentences and discover the propositions they contain
Rule 7
Locate or construct the basic arguments

Finding the Key Sentences

Finding the Propositions

Finding the Arguments

Finding the Solutions

Rule 8
Find out what the author’s solutions are

i.e. the solutions to the problems identified in rule 4.

Chapter 10: Criticizing a Book Fairly