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Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Read a Book (book review)

You'd think I already know how to read with all the book reviews I’ve written, so why did I read a book title How To Read A Book? I did love the irony of the title--it could have been the world's most unhelpful book. If you can’t read, how does a book on reading help? :)

Thankfully, it turned out to be a very useful book. This book has been in continuous print since the 1940’s and I see why.

Adler describes four levels of reading. The first level, what he calls elementary reading, refers to understanding the words on the page. But that was a short section because that’s not what this book is about. 

The second level he calls introductory--basically skimming a book to get the basic idea. This is where many of the modern speed reading techniques get applied. But it was more than speed reading. It was how to get a general understanding of a book by doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter (where good authors summarize everything for you).

The third level is analytical reading. This is deep, slow, and thoughtful reading. Most of us feel that we must read every book at this level. We have school to thank for this, since those are the only two reading approaches we were taught.

But Adler contends that most of our reading should be fun and quick and that we should only spend the effort do read analytically on a small percentage of books. For fiction, just enjoy it. And for learning books, get an overview before you do anything else. Most books, he says, you shouldn’t do any more—after skimming you’re done. But a few will stir you, intrigue you, and invite you to go deeper. Only these great books warrant the effort of deep, analytical reading.

Deep reading of a mediocre book is a waste of your time.

The final level is what he calls syntopcial reading. You pick a topic and read many books that revolve around that concept. You analyze each book and also compare and contrast between whole books.

I love his core approach. I give 4 rather than 5 stars because he goes into great depth on different kinds of books and adds all sorts of very interesting but totally unnecessary thoughts on things like how to read encyclopedias and why poetry is important to culture and nature of truth found in fiction. Interesting from a philosophical standpoint, but not necessary to the core message of the book.

Ultimately, I feel really empowered after reading this book. I’ll waste a lot less time on mediocre books, now. Also, I’m going to increase my use of book summaries (also called abstracts)—let someone else do the overview work for me, right?

What books on your reading list should you skim? Maybe you should give yourself permission to skim them all.

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