How To Read To Succeed!

Why The Way You Read Matters

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.

Know Why  you want to read059 AwakeMotivate II

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “How To Read To Succeed!

    • Tim,

      Exactly! I think putting the discipline into a system gives that the legs it needs to become habit.

      The system will vary depending on the person, so it would be good to have an idea of the variety of ways people get this done that is effective for them. Others could then experiment and see what might work for them.

  1. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

    • Max,

      I was surprised to see your comments and pitch here.

      I took a look at the clip….a treasure to actually be able to hear it coming from the source!

      I look forward to viewing the DVD’s, they look like a nice compliment to the book.



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