“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”
— Edgar Allen Poe
I bet you already know how to read a book. You were taught in elementary school.
But do you know how to read well?
There is a difference between reading for understanding and reading for information.
If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t given much thought to how you read. And how you read makes a huge difference to knowledge accumulation.
A lot of people confuse knowing the name of something with understanding. While great for exercising your memory, the regurgitation of facts without understanding and context gains you little in the real world.
A good heuristic: Anything easily digested is reading for information.
Consider the newspaper, are you truly learning anything new? Do you consider the writer your superior when it comes to knowledge in the subject? Odds are probably not. That means you’re reading for information. It means you’re likely to parrot an opinion that isn’t yours as if you had done the work.
There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how most people read. But you’re not really learning anything new. It’s not going to give you an edge or make you better at your job.
Reading alone isn’t enough to improve your knowledge. Learning something insightful requires work. You have to read something above your current level. You need to find writers who are more knowledgeable on a particular subject than yourself. This is how you get smarter.
Reading for understanding narrows the gap between reader and writer.
The goal of reading determines how you read.
Reading the latest Danielle Steel novel is not the same as reading Plato. If you’re reading for entertainment or information, you’re going to read a lot differently (and likely different material) than reading to increase understanding. While many people are proficient in reading for information and entertainment, few improve their ability to read for knowledge.
Before we can improve our reading skills, we need to understand the differences in the reading levels.
They are thought of as levels because you can’t move to a higher level without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.How to Read a Book
This is the level of reading taught in our elementary schools. You already know how to do this.
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.
There are two sub-types of inspectional reading:
Inspectional reading gives you the gist of things.
Sometimes that’s all we want or need. But sometimes we want more. Sometimes we want to understand.
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.
Analytical reading is a thorough reading.
If inspectional reading is the best you can do quickly, this is the best reading you can do given time.
At this point, you start to engage your mind and dig into the work required to understand what’s being said. I highly recommend you use marginalia to converse with the author.
There are four rules to Analytical Reading
You’ll probably notice that while those sound pretty easy, they involve a lot of work. Luckily the inspectional reading you’ve already done has primed you for this.
After an inspectional read, you will understand the book and the author’s views.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand the broader subject. To do that you need to use comparative reading to synthesize knowledge from several books on the same subject.
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 the 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 you and filling in your knowledge gaps.
There are five steps to syntopical reading:
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:
If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.
If you want to dig deeper, check out our online course on how to read more effectively.
Originally published at www.farnamstreetblog.com