Mortimer Adler had a problem; he saw people reading incorrectly. So he wrote a book about how to read. The book is called How to Read a Book, but his advice can be followed when going through articles in your Pocket list, or the newspaper, or the Instructional Manual that came with your car. For the ultimate goal for all reading is Understanding. To acquire knowledge you did not have beforehand. Adler professes that reading, in a literal sense, is an activity. As in, you have to be active to read.
The Four Levels of Reading
The book it self can be categorized as a Instruction Manual. It wants to teach you the value of reading a book to maximize understanding. And it presents practical tools to help you achieve that goal. The framework used is ‘The Four Levels of Reading’.
This is the early learning stage. This is the early stage of literacy. When children are beginning to understand what sentence is, and what is its literal meaning. This is the type of reading taught is schools during Early Education.
This level can also be called Skimming. However, Adler is adamant that it is not casual skimming that would suffice.
This level require careful examination of a books most salient points in as little a time possible. Inspectional readings are for people short for time. Like students who have to finish a book with in a limited period. Or people who lack the skills for Analytical Reading.
This level of reading requires overcoming a sharp difficulty curve. The majority of the book is made up of teaching you to read in this manner and how to apply it to different types of books. Analytical Reading requires you to pay attention as a reader during the reading and use note-taking to participate in the ‘conversation’. This level of reading asks 4 questions:
- What is the book about as a whole?
- What is being said in detail, and how?
- Is the book true?
- What of it?
You are supposed to the write down the type of book it is, the problem it is trying to solve, summarize it in both in a short format(‘The Unity’), and an Outline with respect to every section(Question 1). You need to also to single out the important Terms, the Propositions & the Questions that the author is trying to answer, the problem you are trying to solve(Question 2).
Criticism is also part of the conversation(Questions 3 and 4). Though there are some caveats that the author wants you to follow:
The tenets of criticisms are:
- Understand before you criticize.
- Be reasonable in disagreement.
- Respect the difference between knowledge and opinion.
- In case of matter of difference in knowledge, you’ll have to show that the author is:
If all of this overwhelming, Mr. Adler and his co-author caps of the section with this:
A fancy way of saying ‘Comparative Reading’. Here you read through multiple books for the specific information relevant to your research goals. This is Inspectional Reading on steroids. This level is the opposite to Analytical reading. Instead of the author asking the questions and setting the problem, it is the reader that sets those goals. Instead of coming to terms with the author and their proposition, it is your job to bring all the authors to your terms. Rather than arriving at a conclusion regarding the truth of someone else’s thesis, you come to the truth using synthesis of the relevant knowledge.
For example, suppose you want to know how the Monguls managed to carve an empire without a hierarchical agrarian society, which was the norm for all other imperial orders? A traditional historian would tell you a list of ‘Great Men’ were responsible, while also recounting the events that happened. A Geographer would tell you about the environment that led to the rise Genghis Khan. An engineer would say that the Monguls had the superior weapons technology, The Compound Bow. You can also ‘consult’ military historians, cultural historians, and many other experts through their books, blogs, Youtube videos or any other medium. Most of these books would include information that is not relevant to answering your question. It is your job to answer your question by synthesizing the relevant ideas presented in all the disparate fields.
Syntopical Reading, as explained by Mr. Adler & co., might be the most important skill in the hyper-media age of today. By the end of 2020, the digital world is supposed to store 44 Zetabytes. Humans have trouble with large numbers, but a zeta byte is a thousand billion Gigabytes of data. That would be the storage in a trillion of the most expensive smartphone on sale today. Humans can’t make sense of all of it, but we need that ability. To synthesize relevant information in this environment is to succeed.
When I came across this book recommendation in a flurry of Hacker News comments, I was curious as to why adults would want to learn how to read a book. Reading it provided me the clarity to satiate that. It is a wonderful book as far instructional manuals go. Even if it is a little esoteric. The skills it gives you are more than useful today. They can not only be used to get the most out of books, but also blogs/articles, videos, audio, and many other media as well. If you are a seeker of knowledge, whether as a matter of curiosity or for practical purposes, this is must read.