There is a difference between reading for understanding and reading for information.

A lot of people confuse knowing the name of something  with understanding. While great for exercising your memory, the regurgitation of facts without solid understanding and context gains you little in the real world.

A useful heuristic: Anything easily digested is reading for information.

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How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler

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Mortimer Adler literally wrote the book on reading . Adler identifies four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading
  4. Syntopical Reading

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This is the level of reading taught in our elementary schools. If you’re reading this website, you already know how to do this.

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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.

  • Systematic skimming — This is meant to be a quick check of the book by (1) reading the preface; (2) studying the table of contents; (3) checking the index; and (4) reading the inside jacket.
  • Superficial reading — This is when you just read. Don’t ponder the argument, don’t look things up, don’t write in the margins. If you don’t understand something, move on.

Inspectional reading gives you the gist of things.

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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 .

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.

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  • Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  • State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  • Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

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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.

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There are five steps to syntopical reading:

  • Finding the Relevant Passages
  • Bringing the Author to Terms
  • Getting the Questions Clear
  • Defining the Issues — Understanding multiple perspectives within an issue helps you form an intelligent opinion .
  • Analyzing the Discussion

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Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.

  • 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.

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