One of the influential books I have ever read was a book called How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. By the time I read this book I was a sophomore in college so I already had an understanding of how to read. My initial reaction to this book was less than enthusiastic. But my professor insisted on making it a mandatory text for our class, so reluctantly, I began reading.
Little did I know what was waiting for me between the pages of my tattered copy of the book. What I found was an intensely in-depth guide to absorbing the content of a book, instead of simply reading the words on the page. I can’t go through everything I learned from the book here, but one thing that stood out to me was Adler and Doren’s 4 levels of reading.
1. Elementary Reading
This is the most basic of the basic. This is your foundation as a reader. Before you tackle any project you must first understand the basics of grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. The book does not teach you any of these things. Instead, the authors expect that you have already achieved this level of reading if you have gotten this far into the text.
2. Inspectional Reading
This next level, also known as skim reading, requires a bit more concentration. Inspectional reading is about learning as much as you possibly can from a book within 10-15 minutes. This means, reading the table of contents, reading the first chapter, and maybe even the last chapter. After an inspectional reading, you will have a much better idea of whether or not you’re willing to invest to read the entire book.
3. Analytical Reading
Analytic reading is where the rubber meets the road. Here they talk about fully absorbing what the author is trying to communicate to the reader. However, not all books are created equal, in the words of Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” In theory, after an analytical reading of a book, you should have a good idea about how you are going to consume your current book.
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4. Syntopical Reading
And here it is, the 4th and final step to mastering the art of reading: syntopical reading. Perhaps it is not fair to apply this to all readers because it is mainly focused on those who are doing research on something and simply reading for fun. Syntopical reading is about reading many books at the same time that cover a similar subject.
For example, if you wanted to learn about the concept of love, you would pull a bunch of the most read books on the subject and begin reading them all at the same time. I know this sounds crazy, but if you follow the steps above it’s not so bad. You take the 10 books you picked and analyze them. You determine which books are more important than others, and what chapters are more important than others. You slowly widdle the information down to only the necessary information, then you begin chewing and digesting the most important information from the books.
If you are a veracious reader, and apply these steps, there is no limit to what you could learn. If you are at a loss of some really good texts to read, How to Read a Book has a legendary recommended book list in its final pages.
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