It’s easy to take for granted what you have or how you go about doing something. So it is with books and reading. To compound matters, even when we do have good intentions for reading the reality is that our actions don’t match them. Is it our lack of motivation that limits our progress? Or, could it have to do with how we are going about the task?
I’ve always been a “good” reader by most standards. However, I realized that if something didn’t change in my reading approach, my kids were going to find a long list and stack of unread books when I died. More importantly, I also realized these were books that could help me grow in a transformational way, allow me to get to know the some of the most interesting people who ever walked the planet, and get a taste of the wisdom of the ages.
That’s when I decided to get serious and read Mortimer Adler’s classic book “How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading”. For me, I came to the conclusion that how I was reading had a lot more to do with my progress (or lack thereof) in this area than did motivation. What follows are my main take aways from the book.
Of course there is the overall “Big A” why for your reading…and that’s to grow and become more. How you want to grow and in what areas will be different for each person so it’s up to you to figure that out
The other “Little a” agenda relates to each book you read and your purpose for doing so. There are three primary ones: for information, understanding or transformation. Do you need to know more, understand better, or become more as a person? Determine which it is before you start.
Know What you want to read
The primary distinction is between works of fiction and works conveying knowledge, or expository works. Both have their place and purpose, depending on your “Why” for reading. Among expository works, know whether your interest is theoretical or practical. Sometimes all you’re interested in is the former, sometimes all you need is the latter and sometimes you need both in order to get what you want.
My guess is that readers of this blog are primarily interested in expository works. Because of that, I’ll include a reminder here to not forget the works of fiction as they have their own way of informing and enriching. And because I’ll be a hypocrite if I say anything further about reading fiction, I’ll stop :).
Know How to read it
An overarching principle is to read actively. Too often we approach our reading passively, as if we are looking for the bottom-line to drop to us much like a package from UPS would. Active reading, on the other hand, is more like trying to catch a ball; you have to keep your eye on it the entire time and adjust until you have it firmly in hand.
The other important principal is knowing how you’re going to go about reading the book. Adler describes the following four general types of reading:
- Elementary- This is simply being able to consume printed content in an effective an efficient way. This level is most often addressed by speed reading courses that help you overcome poor habits of sub-vocalization, regression and other bad habits that can hamper your reading.
- Inspectional- The emphasis here is time. The goal is to get the most you possibly can out of the book in a limited amount of time with a superficial level of reading, which can be quite a bit. That’s right, you can learn a LOT from a book simply by skimming or even superficially reading a book. The key is to look for themes, key content and become familiar with the structure. You want to avoid getting derailed by trying to understand the finer detail…which can cause you to lose the bigger picture. There are no “book police” that will harass you for not reading a book in detail. You have permission to skim (and skimp); enjoy it!
- Analytical- The goal of analytical reading is thorough understanding. While inspectional reading seeks to maximize limited time, analytical reading will ignore time in order to maximize your understanding. Unfortunately, most people think they have to read everything in an analytical way and that is not the case.
- Synoptical or Comparative- This is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It’s also the most rewarding because it allows you to come up with insights and concepts from many books that aren’t contained in any single book. Because this type of reading makes heavy demands on the reader even with simple books, it’s also the kind of reading some won’t want or even need to do.
Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” The bottom line: know what you want and then partake accordingly.
We have so much information at our fingertips today it’s easy to get faked-out. Just because you expend energy reading letters on a page doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished your purpose for reading.
And while knowing the Why, What and How of reading can move your toward your real purpose for reading a particular book, you still have to actually do it. In other words, you have to “eat the broccoli”. And to really grow, a haphazard or random approach to reading just won’t do. There just aren’t enough rainy-book-reading-days or enough spare time to get it done. That’s why it’s important to have a reading system…..which is another topic for another time.
For now, the question is “How does the way you currently read need to change so you can get the maximum out of your reading?”
Please leave a comment, I’d love to know.