Updated on 11.04.07

Review: How to Read a Book

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

readWhen I was in the eighth grade, one caring teacher of mine showed me several little techniques for how to get the most possible out of a book. He told me to keep a notebook nearby when I was reading so I could jot down notes, and that I should try to figure out what the main idea of every paragraph was. It seemed awfully boring at the time, but I decided to consciously give it a try anyway.

It didn’t take long before I started reading a book that would completely change how I thought about the written word, and I don’t believe I would have been that gobsmacked if it weren’t for the little techniques he showed me. I kept applying them over the years, until eventually I came up with a lot of little techniques for really reading a book.

I also came to eventually learn that there were a lot of different kinds of reading. There’s reading for fun, which is what I do when I read a Harry Potter book or a Stephen King novel. There’s reading to learn new things, which is what I do when I read personal finance books. There’s also reading to understand and to grow, which is easily the hardest of the three – and the most rewarding. That last kind of reading can take a piece of literature or a nonfiction book that you might read for simple pleasure and transform it into something life altering, something that causes you to question a lot of your deeply-held ideas and beliefs.

How to Read a Book really focuses on the latter two: books that you read to learn about a topic or to learn a skill (like a personal finance book), and books that you read to learn about yourself (like a work of classic literature). If you think that either one is a complete waste of time, then it’s likely that How to Read a Book will also be a waste of time for you. But if you’ve ever been drawn to read to really improve yourself, this book is well worth the time to read (even if it’s a bit dry at times).

Let’s dig in.

Taking a Trip Through How to Read a Book

Part One – The Dimensions of Reading

1. The Activity and Art of Reading
How to Read a Book opens by making a very clear distinction between reading strictly for pleasure and reading in order to gain knowledge or understanding. The truth is that they require different skills – you might read an enjoyable novel just before bed, but you’re not really learning anything from it. On the other hand, you might read some dense literature or nonfiction in order to learn about yourself as well as gain additional knowledge. The latter is significantly harder – and it’s something that a lot of people simply don’t do. Yet, time and time again, I find myself reading in this fashion – and I almost always feel as though it was an exceptionally good use of my time.

2. The Levels of Reading
Adler and van Doren propose that there are four different levels of reading. Elementary reading, the first level, is mostly grammar and the ability to figure out in the most basic way what a sentence says. The second level, inspectional reading, amounts to skimming – it’s the ability to extract the basic facts and ideas from a document. When we read for fun, most of us read at that second level. The third level, analytical reading, basically refers to tearing apart a book to unearth as much of the knowledge inside as you can. The fourth level, syntopical reading, refers to performing analytical reading on several books and then using that to develop ideas not explicitly stated in any book. How to Read a Book walks through each of these levels, but primarily focuses on the third level.

3. The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
Here, the book discusses the need for functional literacy. This is a very simple chapter that mostly discusses the history of language education in the United States. If you actually need help with basic grammar and learning how to read and appreciate the English language, the best book I’ve found is The Little, Brown Handbook – teaching grammar and basic reading is well outside the scope of How to Read a Book

4. The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
Inspectional reading is basically speed reading, or skimming. This is the skill most of us used to get through school and the skill that most adults who read for enjoyment use. We read to follow the plot and get the big ideas, but we don’t worry too much about digging up some of the underlying pieces. I often use this approach for more enjoyable reading, but when I’m actually trying to learn something, I use different approaches. Not reading just before falling asleep, for example.

5. How to Be a Demanding Reader
How to Read a Book offers several suggestions on how to take the next step and move from inspectional reading to analytical reading. The only problem is that some of these suggestions make people uncomfortable – but they really work. The best one, and the one that really has transformed my reading, is taking notes constantly throughout a book and making markings of words, phrases, and sentences in a book. The only catch is that you do this so you can go back and study those pieces in depth – look up the meanings of words and phrases you don’t know, track down the details of a specific idea or cultural reference, and so on.

Part Two – Analytical Reading

6. Pigeonholing a Book
The first step in analytical reading is to know what kind of book you’re reading. Is it a novel? Is it historical? Is it science? Does it ride the fine line between genres? Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it isn’t – for example, is The Grapes of Wrath solely a work of fiction, or does it have elements of history in how it describes agrarian society in the Great Depression? Before you start, it’s a good idea to at least have some idea of what you’re getting into, by reading the title, the back cover or dust jacket, and maybe leafing through it a bit.

7. X-raying a Book
The next step is to figure out the basic structure of what a book is saying. Almost always, this can be uncovered through reading and just stating the main idea of each paragraph or section of a book. When you assemble all of these together, it reveals the basic structure of what’s being said – the real idea underneath it all. This can be applied to anything you read – just consider the main idea of every piece of a book and they’ll eventually add up to what the book is really all about.

8. Coming to Terms with an Author
Even in the most straightforward of nonfiction books – and in every other kind of book – the author is bringing a certain perspective to the table. Is the author critical of the main subject, or do they like it? What exactly can you figure out about the author from reading the book, or from additional investigation? Almost always, you’ll find that understanding where the author is coming from will vastly increase your understanding of a book. For example, it’s fairly clear that the authors of How to Read a Book are book lovers, fairly well-read, and tend toward pontification. That generally means that there will be passionate discussion on behalf of books, some allusions to a lot of literature, and also some passages that tend to ramble on and on. It gets more interesting when you look at political books or philosophy books – reading Ayn Rand’s novels, for example, becomes much clearer when you are aware of who she is and what her philosophies are.

9. Determining an Author’s Message
Furthermore, you can usually determine the exact take that an author has on a topic by focusing in on how exactly specific pieces are described. When you read a biography, do you feel negatively or positively towards the person? This is usually the reflection that the author puts on the subject. See if you can find specific places where the author tries to put a particular twist on events – is this intended to make you think positively or negatively about the subject? The book offers a lot of examples of this.

10. Criticizing a Book Fairly
This is the most important point in the book, and one that I wish many more people followed when discussing things. Namely, you must understand something strongly before being able to say that you agree or that you disagree. Take, for example, politics – I’ve read a big pile of articles from various political journals as well as Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism, yet I still don’t adequately understand the philosophy behind the neoconservatives. Meanwhile, I read flaming critiques of it online from people who obviously haven’t read anything at all about the philosophy, even though almost all of the behavior of the Bush administration makes sense in the context of the idea. I can’t really say whether I agree or disagree with it or not – I lean in one direction, but I don’t advocate that direction because I don’t have the knowledge and understanding to back it up. All it does is make me deeply concerned about the future of political discourse when people can make snap decisions and issue flaming rhetoric without really understanding what the other person is doing.

11. Agreeing or Disagreeeing with an Author
So, how about that agreement or disagreement? Those aren’t necessarily the only two opinions you can take from reading a book – it’s also reasonable to say that you don’t understand an argument, either. In any of these cases, though, you need to be able to state why you feel that way in concrete terms, usually by using the facts dealt with in the book. For example, you could read Dutch (Edmund Morris’s controversial book about Ronald Reagan) and draw any number of agreeable or disagreeable conclusions. You could agree with Morris’s take on Reagan – and you could also strongly disagree with the fictionalization of portions of the book. In either case, all of the ammunition you need for your opinion should be within the covers of the book.

12. Aids to Reading
When you’re reading, you’re bound to come across words and ideas that you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t just keep plowing on. Stop and research it – or at least make a note of it and research it very soon. Wikipedia is a good place to start, as is Dictionary.com. If those both fail, start Googling. You usually don’t need to have a full understanding of a topic in order to continue with the book you’re reading – just enough of an understanding so that the meaning of the word or the idea is relevant.

Part Three – Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading Matter

This section is quite clearly the weakest in the book. It is merely a series of seven short chapters on how to apply the techniques of the previous section to specific types of books, which basically makes Part Three nothing more than a rehash of Part Two. Disappointing, but fairly short.

Part Four – The Ultimate Goals of Reading

20. The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading
Here, the book finally gets around to the fourth level, syntopical reading. In other words, this is all about doing analytical reading of a lot of books and coming up with ideas that combine elements of the different books but aren’t expressly stated in any of them. This is a great approach to take when you’re trying to really deeply understand a topic. Take, for example, Theodore Roosevelt (my favorite historical figure). I might be content to just read Nathan Miller’s excellent single volume biography, but I would only be getting one view of the man. So, instead, I’ve read a pile of books about Roosevelt and have come to several conclusions about the man that aren’t directly expressed in any of the books, at least not in any great fashion. For example, I think that he was actually an introvert who put on a great deal of bluster – and also that his status as a great conservationist is somewhat overblown. I have a very detailed portrait of Roosevelt in my mind – and it doesn’t exactly match the one in any biography you might find.

21. Reading and the Growth of the Mind
The book concludes with a passionate argument about the value of reading truly great books, even if they challenge you. Why? If a book is truly great, it can make you think in new ways, examine your world in a different light, and leave you with a fresh set of ideas. I can certainly agree with that – I love books that truly and deeply challenge me.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

If you enjoy reading purely for fun, or don’t enjoy reading at all, this book is a waste of your time. Instead, this book is really intended for those who read to be enlightened and to grow in the mind. If that describes you, How to Read a Book is worth reading, even if it’s just a bit on the dry side.

What it comes down to, really, is whether or not you’re willing to dig deeper into a book than just reading it to extract a few surface facts or to ride the wave of a plot. Are you looking for deeper meanings, deeper ideas, or a deeper understanding of who you are and your place in the world? If that’s where you want to go, it’s worth the effort to read this book and really dig into some subjects that interest you (like I did a while back with Teddy Roosevelt).

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  1. Lisa says:

    Good stuff here. I once studied for the LSAT. Didn’t end up going to law school, but the quick structure diagrams of written pieces required for doing the Reading Comprehension test has served me well.

    Just a hint for Googling definitions like Trent suggests: type “define pontificate” (or whatever word you need). The search results will all be for definitions of your word.

  2. Peggy says:

    I read this nearly 20 years ago now, and just recently picked it up again. I’m looking forward to re-reading and applying what the book has to say.

    Thanks for sharing this review!

  3. This one was recommended on several occasions while I was in seminary. It should definitely be on people’s ‘to read’ list.

  4. Argonautica says:

    It was not until a couple years into college that I really learned many of the things discussed in this book and I wished I had learned them earlier. I find I go back and read things now with a whole different understanding, although I suppose much of that is just experience and a broader worldview.

    I do try to work in discussions with my daughter about the books she reads to hopefully lead her to think about the bigger themes behind what she is reading.

  5. Lisa says:

    Another book (which is out of print) but that is very, very good on this subject is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. Basically, it covers all that stuff about symbolism that you were too busy to pay attention to in high school and too sleepy to pay attention to college. A fun, insightful read.

  6. Kelly says:

    I just couldn’t get through this book. I like to read all kinds of different material and thought it would be helpful to increase my understanding, but it was just too dry. Even reading just a few pages a night didn’t work for me.

  7. rebolyte says:

    Wow, that book looks fantastic. I’ll definitely be checking that one out.

    Thanks for the great article!

  8. Bjorn says:

    I bought this book for my wife a while back. This is a good motivator to actually read it now. Thanks

  9. david sellers says:

    I loved the article and have read the book twice before but have to disagree about your conclusion to buy “If you enjoy reading purely for fun, or don’t enjoy reading at all, this book is a waste of your time. Instead, this book is really intended for those who read to be enlightened and to grow in the mind. If that describes you, How to Read a Book is worth reading, even if it’s just a bit on the dry side.”

    I would say, “If you don’t enjoy reading at all, this book is a waste of your time, but if you love to read for fun this is definitely for you.” My first passion is reading and have read many books but sometimes I have had difficulty retaining, applying or analyzing what I’ve read until I discovered this book, which has greatly heightened my experience of reading for fun and even helped me to appreciate those boring business and finance books.

  10. Ekaterin says:

    This sounds interesting. But you have also recommended ‘The Well Educated Mind’ which also focuses on reading books. How much does ‘How to read a book’ add to that one?

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