How to Read a Book

1. Introduction: Is this material for you?

If you’ve been literate since elementary school, you already know how to read a book. But can you read well?

Elementary literacy alone is not enough. After all, a functional illiterate can read, decipher letters and words, and read sentences aloud. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the functional illiterate can read, they can’t understand the information that has been read.

Congratulations to you for being here with us. You’re interested in improving the way you read. Most people do not even question the quality of their reading. It’s important that we improve our reading and comprehension skills. The strategy we use in reading will make all the difference in acquiring knowledge.

Learning to read better is important because books are a valuable source of wisdom, given to us by the best thinkers and achievers of humanity.

When two people are reading a book, they’re apparently doing the same activity. However, depending on the strategy they use, one of the people will have acquired great knowledge … while the other won’t have the same benefit. What’s the difference between them? One is using active reading instead of passive reading.

With active reading, we can enjoy the books as if they were teachers at our side. Books can teach us something even when the authors may not be among us. That’s great news, because that means we have access to the greatest minds in the history of civilisation!

So, for those of you who want to read books quickly and efficiently, I am pleased to offer you this Arata Academy Summary of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. It’s a classic written in 1940 and revised in 1972 with Charles Van Doren. It provides us with guidelines for critical reading of quality books (I’ll explain to you shortly what a quality book is).

With this Arata Academy Summary, our intention is to make the material even more current, because with the Internet, social media and technology, there are even more recent techniques that you need to learn.

You’ll learn how to spend less time on books that aren’t that useful to you and spend more time on quality books that will increase your knowledge.

Now, maybe you’re thinking, “A book about how to read a book? What nonsense! Will I need a book to read the book on how to read a book?”

The reason for this initial strangeness is that you might believe you don’t need to learn how to read a book. You might even read a lot … but there are probably many points where you can improve.

Unfortunately, just like most people think that they’re better drivers than other, average drivers, there’s a good chance that you don’t know your own weaknesses.

To improve reading, you need to avoid being a passive reader and expecting all relevant information to fall on your lap. You should investigate. Getting what you want from a book requires work.

Reading is an active task and requires skill. Reading is an activity. Therefore, reading should be active, not passive. Because it’s an active task, it requires skill. Today, you’ll learn how to develop this valuable skill.

As a practical result of this Arata Academy summary, you will learn exactly what to do to develop your reading ability. Let’s start with some general tips, and then we’ll go for more specific and advanced tips.

2. General reading tips

To read well is to ask the right questions in the right order and seek answers.

There are four main questions you need to ask in each book:

1 – What is this book about?

2 – What is being said in detail and how?

3 – Is this book true in whole or in part?

4 – So what?

Always remember that your amount of time is limited. You should always try to save time by avoiding reading unnecessary material. This is what abstracts are for: to save you time.

Obviously, a summary isn’t intended to replace the reading of a book. The role of the summary is to save you time, delivering the maximum amount of information in the shortest time possible.

Keep in mind that each type of book contains different structures and motivations. With experience, you’ll be able to sort the books and make the appropriate adaptations in reading.

In some cases, just reading the book won’t be enough to understand the content. You’ll need to consult other books for support and reference. This is how you’ll acquire the necessary basis of preparation to be able to truly absorb the knowledge.

In the case of reading books written by great authors, it might be interesting to look at the order in which their books were written. The reason for this is that they can develop their ideas throughout different published works.

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2.1 Make notes

Remember that we said that active reading allows you to dialogue with the author? It’s by making notes that you’ll have this interaction with the book. Don’t be afraid to make notes on the page, obviously as long as the book is yours!

Make notes and add references on the pages.

In addition to making notes, use other ways to highlight useful information, such as underlining, circling, and folding the pages.

Write on the margins, at the top and bottom of the pages.

Rewrite the key points of the book in your own words. This is the best exercise you can do to prove that you understood the information.

2.2 Make an effort to truly understand the content of the book

To raise our level of knowledge and gain benefits from reading, we must read quality books, which are above our current capacity.

Quality books deserve our time and attention. Quality books deserve to be read more than once. The more effort, the better.

Actively reading quality books will involve effort as we will ask questions, notes, summaries and criticisms. The goal is to grow our level of knowledge to the author’s level.

The key to absorbing and understanding texts is to apply the direct and simple techniques that involve active reading that you’re learning here.

Instead of blindly accepting all the ideas proposed by the author, question them. This is what it means to be an active reader. Active reading allows us to analyse and evaluate information intelligently.

On the other hand, passive reading only allows us to memorise without understanding. We don’t want to just regurgitate facts without understanding them. We want true knowledge.

When there’s no effort to read actively, it means that we’re simply reading information. This is how most people read. But most people don’t learning anything new.

3. The four levels of reading

To read better, we need to master the four levels of reading. There’s no way to progress to a higher level without mastering the most basic levels.

1 – The first level is elementary reading, which turns symbols into information;

2 – The second level is inspectional reading, in which we obtain the maximum information from a book in a short period of time;

3 – The third level is analytical reading. In it, we will try to understand the content; and

4 – The fourth level is syntopical reading, in which we explore a subject through wide reading.

3.1 Elementary Reading

Elementary reading is the ability to turn symbols into information. It’s this ability that differentiates the literate from the illiterate. However, just being literate doesn’t mean much, because many people are functionally illiterate: despite being able to read words, they can’t understand what they’ve read.

To master the first level of elementary reading, you just need to know how to understand how letters form syllables. And how syllables form words. It doesn’t require great intellectual capacity.

The basis of elementary reading is usually acquired in our childhood during the literacy process.

Although this stage is the most basic of all, we all have room to evolve in it. For example, we can increase our reading speed. We must improve understanding, interpret context differences, expand our vocabulary. We should always improve even our elementary reading.

About speed reading.

One important improvement we can all make is to read at an appropriate speed. Most of the speed reading courses focus on two tricks:

Reducing fixations – The number of jumps your eye makes. We don’t read by continuously moving our eyes along lines of text. The eyes fix the focus on a part of the line, as if they were taking a photograph. This fixation usually lasts less than half a second. Soon, we jump to the next piece where we will make the next fixation. To read faster, we have to reduce the number of jumps and also make them faster.

Reducing regressions – The time we spend rereading because we didn’t understand the content the first time round. 

The solution to both is as simple as passing a pencil by the page while you read at a slightly faster pace than you feel comfortable.

With practice, this will help you reduce bad habits and increase your reading speed.

For a detailed lesson on multiplying your reading speed by up to four times, click here for full access to the How to Learn Faster course.

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3.2 inspectional reading

Remember that your amount of time is limited. Therefore, you should use inspectional reading to absorb the fundamentals of a book in a short space of time. We want to quickly understand what kind of book we have before us.

We do the inspectional reading to increase productivity.

The inspectional reading allows us to decide if the book in front of us is worth our time.

If the inspectional reading shows us that it isn’t a quality book, or that it’s a book that doesn’t suit our needs, we should look for other books. Don’t waste time on things that aren’t worth it.

You may have heard criticisms about how people don’t read content in detail. In Internet texts, this is called “skimming / scanning” or “vertical reading”, where we just look quickly at the main points of an article. This isn’t necessarily a bad habit: when we skim a text, we can decide whether it pays to read the material more closely. So, leave the prejudice aside and be thoughtful about which books you want to add to your reading list.

If you’re faced with a quality book, you’ll want to do a second reading. This first inspectional reading allows you to have a vision of the whole, which will help in understanding the next, more in-depth readings.

inspectional reading can be done in two steps: pre-reading and superficial reading.

3.2.1 Pre-reading

Pre-reading is a quick check of the book, reading the preface, studying the index and the first pages. This should give you enough knowledge to understand the chapters of the book that are crucial to the author’s argument.

Use these tips for pre-reading:

1 – Read the title of the pages and the preface to understand what to expect from reading. Study the table of contents and summary for a general sense of the structure of the book;

2 – Search for the key passages in the book;

3 – Read the editor’s notes to understand the context;

4 – Skip through the entire book, reading a few paragraphs and pages through the book, with special focus at the end of each chapter, searching for the main theses and arguments;

5 – Ask organised questions about what you are reading;

6 – Read the last pages of each chapter, because few authors are able to resist the temptation of summarising what they consider new and important in their work in these pages.

Pre-reading will help you get a view of the whole and also put the book into a category. Read the index, which will give you an idea of ​​the structure of the book. Where does the book go?

Understand the language of the book. What topics are covered? What other reference authors are mentioned? What are the technical terms and jargon that are used? Do you understand them?

Identify the main points. Which chapters present the main theory of the book?

Jump straight to the end. The authors generally summarise their work on the last pages. Remember that you’re faced with a non-fiction book, and therefore you don’t need to be surprised in the reading process. On the contrary: you want to know as quickly as possible what the material’s conclusion is. Use the last chapters of the book, which is where authors tend to summarise the most important ideas of the work.

All of these techniques help you decide if the book deserves your time and attention.

3.2.2 Superficial reading

If you liked what you saw during pre-reading, you can move on to carry out the second part of the inspectional reading: superficial reading.

Superficial reading is used when you’re reading a book that’s above your level. A difficult book. The initial difficulty of understanding is a sign that the content of the book is at a higher level. We want to raise our knowledge through this type of book.

As we are still performing inspectional reading, speed remains important. We tend to be paralysed by confusion. We spend a lot of time reflecting on what’s being said. Don’t do this now! During superficial reading, you should aim to read the book beginning to end without stopping.

Don’t take breaks to reflect on things you don’t understand.

Don’t open your browser to research certain terms.

Don’t look for the meaning of unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

Don’t write on the margins.

All this may end up distracting you from your superficial reading.

If you don’t understand something, just move past it. If the book is of high quality, you can re-read it later to answer any important questions.

Superficial reading will allow you to have a contact with the totality of the work. Superficial reading is the first step towards analytical reading – that is, understanding and interpreting the contents of a book.

3.3 Analytical reading

If you did the inspectional reading correctly and concluded that you are facing a book that is really worth reading with more time and attention, now is the time to do some analytical reading.

The analytical reading is a complete read. When it comes to good books, we want to spend more time reading so we can make the most of them.

We learn that when we read something that we don’t completely understand, it’s a sign that we might be facing knowledge from a higher level.

We also learn that knowledge is gained through the effort we put into active reading.

So, after we make sure that we have a quality book using the techniques described above, we can devote more time and effort to understanding it.

We are faced with a valuable message that the writer is communicating. Analytical reading will help us to increase our understanding. This is how we learn from each other.

Our goal is to overcome this initial inequality of knowledge between our current level and the level of the book.We want to get closer to the writer. We want to know what an author says, what they mean and why they say it.

To perform analytical reading:

1 – Classify the book according to the type and subject;

2 – Write in your own words, and in one paragraph, what the book’s about and what your main ideas are;

3 – List the main parts of the book in their order and relationship, explaining how the ideas are related;

4 – Understand the meaning of the main technical words used in the book;

5 – Define the problem or problems that the author is trying to solve and the problems that weren’t adequately addressed by the author.

You’ll probably notice that although this all sounds easy, it will be a lot of work. That’s why we did the inspectional reading: to be prepared to face the analytical reading.

Do a critical reading. Don’t just disagree with everything though. There’s a difference between true knowledge and mere personal opinion. To disagree, you must present good reasons for any critical judgment you make. If you have criticism, be specific about where the author may be uninformed, illogical or impartial.

Analytical reading is so important that it deserves to be detailed in three parts:

3.3.1 What is the book about?

First, we are going to read the whole book once using the superficial reading. If the book is good, then let’s go ahead doing some analytical reading. Remember how we left doing research and reflection until later? When we did the superficial reading, speed was the main factor. We didn’t stop to reflect or research.

Now, during the analytical reading, is when you should make notes identifying which parts need further study.

Then review the structure of the entire book, identify the main parts of the work.

Finally, make a list of the questions that you think the author is trying to answer.

3.3.2 What is being said in the book?

Identify all keywords and understand what the author means by them. Use the title, headings, figures, glossary and formatting to help understand the message of the book.

Understanding definitions is essential. The author probably made the definitions of the main concepts clear at the beginning of the text.

Without understanding the main terms and concepts of the book, we will not be able to fully understand the book. Take time to decipher the message. Do additional research on the Internet, encyclopedias, technical dictionaries to understand what the keywords mean.

Find out what the author’s’ main arguments are. Which phrases does he repeat and highlight? What phrases do you find difficult to understand?

To make sure you understand what the author is trying to say, you should reformulate these key phrases into your own words.

What problems is the author trying to solve? What are the main proposals and theories of the author?

3.3.3 Is the book true, in whole or in part?

When analysing a book, you must evaluate its importance and logic. However, you must completely understand the material before agreeing, disagreeing, or refraining.

Be open-minded and collaborative, even when you disagree. Remember that you and the author are usually both curious and interested in finding the truth.

Be specific in any criticism you make.

When you find ideas that you disagree with, monitor your emotions. Remember, just because you don’t like someone’s arguments, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the arguments are wrong.

Be humble and remember that there’s a chance that you haven’t understood important parts of the argument or know other important points. Arrogance can close important doors to knowledge.

An author is only human, and can fail if he is uninformed, outdated, illogical or presents incomplete arguments.

3.4 Syntopical reading

Syntopical reading is also known as comparative reading, and represents the most demanding and difficult type of reading of all. Only proceed with the syntopical reading after mastering the previous levels of reading, especially the criteria of a good analytical reading.

Syntopical reading involves reading many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting ideas, vocabulary, and arguments.

The goal isn’t to achieve an understanding of a particular book. The goal is even greater: to understand the subject and develop a deep fluency in it.

The book in your hands will be just one of several sources of knowledge to achieve this great mission.

Techniques for syntopical reading include:

1 – Establish common terminologies between different books;

2 – Clarify issues and problems through content on the same subject;

3 – Compare different points of view, actively seek conflicting opinions to evaluate the quality of each source’s argument;

4 – Analyse the discussion and point of view of each author to search for the truth.

By reaching this point, you should have a solid idea of ​​the subject you’re addressing and the sources that have something important to say about it. syntopical reading is the fourth reading level because it involves a combination of elemental reading, inspectional, and analysis.

Like any good project, the syntopical reading starts with good planning. Following this six-step process will help you prepare:

1 – Identify the specific subject you want to address;

2 – Realise that it takes more than one book to achieve true knowledge in this area;

3 – Make a long bibliography;

4 – Systematically analyse all the books on your list;

5 – Solidify the subject you’re addressing. List the questions you want to research in more detail;

6 – Shorten your bibliography, keeping only the books that say something important about the questions you asked. Don’t waste time reading all the books in the bibliography analytically. Always use inspectional reading to save time. 

Syntopical reading consists of constructing an analysis of the subject. When you read syntopically, you delve deeper than any of the books individually. We want to achieve a level of knowledge that can only be achieved by consulting various works.

So, how can we learn faster using syntopical reading? We will have to save time through the use of inspectional reading, and carefully selecting the works that deserve an analytical reading.

What is the main difference between syntopical reading and the individual use of analytical reading and inspectional techniques?

When we read syntopically, we have a specific question and we want to find the answer in the middle of all the published works on that subject.

Our goal isn’t to understand a specific, individual book. Our goal is broader.

We want to go further and find the answer to our question. We want to find several different perspectives to form an opinion.

Therefore, forming a complete picture of the whole book is unnecessary. That’s why it’s not an analytical reading. We can get right to the point. Just read the excerpts from the book that are relevant to solving our doubt.

3.4.1 Find the important parts

You need to find the right books and then the passages that are most relevant to fill your needs.

So the first step is an inspectional reading of all the books that you have identified as being relevant. Find and make a note of any important excerpts.

3.4.2 Understand your doubts and goals

Instead of focusing on the author, the focus has to be on you. That means instead of focusing on the problems the author is trying to solve, you need to focus on the questions you have.

We must create our own propositions, clarifying our problems. With these problems in mind, you can begin to look for the answer in the materials produced by the authors that chose in the bibliography survey.

3.4.3 Compare different arguments

If you asked a clear question for which there are multiple answers, the problem has been defined.

Now, you have to understand the different points of view. Understand various perspectives within a problem. Only after knowing the different opinions can you create your own intelligent opinion.

4. Conclusion and next steps

Now you know that there are different levels of reading. Levels should be trained sequentially.

We can only carry out a good syntopical reading after mastering analytic reading. We can only do analytical reading after choosing quality books that have passed our inspectional reading. All of this is only possible after we’ve refined our essential reading ability.

All this is done to save time, so that you can dedicate this precious resource to the materials that really will contribute to improving your knowledge.

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