How to Read a Book

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Reading for information vs reading for understanding

If you understand everything perfectly as you read a book, you could not have expanded your understanding.

Enlightenment is when you understand not only what the author says but what he means by it and why he says it

Guided discovery (instruction, or having a teacher) vs unguided discovery. Reading a book is like unguided discovery, requires the same skills.

Levels of reading:

  1. Elementary (only trying to understand words on the page)
  2. Inspectional (the best reading you can do given limited time. Systematic skimming, or pre-reading. Very much unappreciated)
    • Trying to read a book without an inspection is trying to build new knowledge at the same time as trying to understand what it’s about
  3. Analytical (the best reading you can do given unlimited time. Thorough understanding, grasping the book and making it your own)
  4. Syntopical (comparative reading – analyzing multiple books and synthesizing something not present in any of the books. Very demanding)

Well read vs widely read.


Skimming/pre-reading. This is always useful, and particularly if you don’t know if a book is worth your time reading. Read the table of contents, the text on book’s dust cover, and then jump to what you think are the most important places in the book to read the opening/closing statements, which often summarize the point of a chapter. Sometimes this is all the reading a book deserves. And even if it deserves more, it gives you the basic understanding of the book’s main point and its structure. Preface

Superficial reading. This is worth doing with difficult books. Instead of trying to understand all of it the first time, read a hard book fast the first time. Do not stop to try to understand difficult points, look up the dictionary or other materials… This is about priming, and if you understand 50% of the book, that’s great. Then, if it’s worth it, you can read it the second time analytically and understand a lot more.

Speed reading. Always read at the APPROPRIATE speed. The only thing speed reading is good for is reading things which are not worthy of more thorough reading. Read at a variable rate – slow down when reading something important, speed up to go through the filler.

Speed reading courses claim to improve comprehension as well but it’s only true in the elementary sense, not in the sense of broadening your understanding of the subject.

Stop not on the sentences that interest you, but on those that puzzle you.

Being a demanding reader

Ask these questions as you read a book, and seek to answer them:

Write between the lines – that’s how you make a book truly yours. Marginalia are nice (but need a different method for ebooks and audiobooks). Take notes. Structural notes (usually inspectional reading), conceptual notes (usually analytical reading)

Develop the habit of reading (knowing the rules != being in habit)


Finding out what the book is about

  1. Figure out what kind of book it is. Classify

Fiction vs expository. Practical vs theoretical (what is the case, how to do something)

Kinds of theoretical books: historical (what happened, storytelling), scientific (what is; difficult to observe in ordinary life), philosophical (what is, but in a way you can observe in yourself)

X-ray the book (figure out its structure).

  1. Figure out what the book is about (what the main point)

If you can’t put it to words, you don’t really understand it.

  1. Explain the structure of the book – what are its parts and arguments

Be able to outline its main points in order and relation. Outline, because the main points might be complex and have a structure of their own.

  1. Find the questions the author was trying to answer. Define the problem/problems the author is trying to solve

Two. Interpret the books contents

  1. Come to terms with the author

Notice terms - the words of unambiguous meaning, that he uses in a specific way. Technical words

  1. Understand the author’s proposition

Proposition - a declaration of fact or truth.

If you can’t say something in your own words, you don’t really understand it. There’s a strain of verbalism – focusing too much on the words, and not their meaning.

A good test is translating to another language.

  1. Understand the arguments

Tie together the important propositions to form a coherent argument of what the author is trying to prove.

  1. Find the problems and whether he author solved them.

Three. criticize.

  1. Don’t make judgements (agreeing/disagreeing/suspending judgement) before you understand the book

Once you understand the book, you are lifted to a level of understand close to that of the author; in that moment, you earn the right, and the duty to talk back, and make up your own mind.

Don’t argue contentiously. Assume your disagreement might be caused by misunderstanding or ignorance first, before jumping to conclusions.

Discern the difference between knowledge and a mere personal opinion, unsupported by information.

Honest disagreement can only build on understanding the author’s point of view. (Unless the book itself is bad, and you can show it.)

To the author: 1. You’re uninformed. 2. You’re misinformed. 3. You’re illogical. 4. Your analysis is incomplete.

Every book is incomplete, but some miss crucial pieces that change the conclusion.

You don’t have to read all books this way. But approximate.

Truth vs significance. Is it true? Vs what of it?

External tools

Outside help should be used when the book remains unintelligible to you, not as a crutch at all times.

Relevant experience. If you can make a concrete example to an abstract point given by the author, your experience is relevant.

Other books. They build on each other. Chronology matters.

Abstracts and commentaries. Unlike reading of the author’s preface And TOC, you should only read them AFTER reading the book. Reading before can distort your understanding. Reading after can help you remember the contents (if you haven’t written yourself), answer questions. Also helpful in picking books for syntopical reading

Reference books. Know what you want to know (dark spot surrounded by light), what reference book to find it in, how to find it there, and what’s considered knowable. We have Google and Wikipedia though.

Approaches for different kinds of books

Practical books. Cookbooks and Principles that generate rules.

For practical books, finding authors questions becomes finding out what he wants you to do….

If a practical book convinces you of its arguments, you must take action, otherwise the agreement isn’t real

Reading history. Theres always a point of view, you should read multiple accounts. Biographies – same. Definitive, authorized.


Social sciences. Easy to read, because the words used permeate popular culture. Therein lies the danger, though. The fake familiarity might mask very specific usage of words. Also, we tend to have preexisting opinions in many fields of social sciences which makes learning more difficult

Syntopical Reading

First, inspect all titles that may be relevant. Filter down to a smaller subset that’s worth reading syntopically

Remember that with stntopical reading, the books are there for you, your particular research problem, they have to bend to fit you, not eye other way around.

  1. Find relevant passages. Reading analytically all of every book is a waste of time for syntopical reading. Find passages that are relevant to you first
  2. Bring authors to terms. They will use different terminology for the same idea. For syntopical reading, you have to create your own system that makes sense and then translate other authors to fit it
  3. Find the questions. Establish all the common propositions. Find out about the character of the phenomenon, how it manifests itself, and consequences of it – and anything else that’s relevant in your context.
  4. Define The issues, analyze the discussion, ordering the issues.
  5. Stay objective when analyzing

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