One of the great benefits of reading is that it allows you to master the best of what other people have already figured out. This is only true, however, if you can remember and apply the lessons and insights from what you read.
Mortimer Adler wrote, “How to Read a Book” in 1972 which sold more than half a million copies in print. Adler identifies four levels of reading:
1. Elementary Reading
This is the level of reading taught in our elementary schools. If you’re reading this post, you already know how to do this.
2. Inspectional Reading
We’ve been taught that skimming and superficial reading are bad for understanding. That is not necessarily the case. Using these tools effectively can increase understanding. Inspectional reading allows us to look at the author’s blueprint and evaluate the merits of a deeper reading experience.
Skimming helps you reach a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention? If not, you put it down.
3. Analytical Reading
Francis Bacon once remarked, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
You can think of analytical reading as doing that chewing and digesting. This is doing the work.
4. Syntopical Reading
This is also known as comparative reading, and it represents the most demanding and difficult reading of all. Syntopical Reading involves reading many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting ideas, vocabulary, and arguments.
This task is undertaken by identifying relevant passages, translating the terminology, framing and ordering the questions that need answering, defining the issues, and having a conversation with the responses.
The goal is not to achieve an overall understanding of any particular book, but rather to understand the subject and develop a deep fluency.
This is all about identifying and filling in your knowledge gaps.
Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.
There are four main questions you need to ask of every book:
What is this book about?
What is being said in detail, and how?
Is this book true in whole or in part?
What of it?
If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.