How to Read Well
There is a fair amount of irony in me giving advice about reading because it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I actually read a book cover to cover.
In school, I never read any assigned reading, which caused me to fail some classes. And I was in special classes until the end of middle school because my reading ability kept me behind my peers. But today I’m almost never seen without a book. I read at least a few books a month. You can’t have a conversation with me without getting a book recommendation. I’m known as an avid reader by family, friends, and colleagues.
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And I want to share with you just how I made that drastic change possible.
Read What You Love Until You Love to Read
Naval Raviankt is an interesting character. His Twitter account has over a million subscribers. He follows no one. And his display picture is a face without the eyes drawn on yet. In one of his many viral tweet storms (an undescriptive term for thread), he gives advice for becoming a reader, with the maxim “Read what you love until you love to read”.
It seems like simple advice, but it directly ties into one of the four laws of habit change James Clear discusses in his multimillion dollar, best-selling book, Atomic Habits, which is to “make it easy”. Reading something you love will make it that much easier for you to pick up a book instead of your smartphone. And you better believe the book needs all the help it can get.
Reading what you're interested in or curious about is the best way to make the act of reading satisfying enough to become a habit. Just read because you enjoy it and the habit will begin to take root.
Eventually, you’ll love reading as well as what you read.
Just Twenty-Five Pages a Day
Let’s say you read 25 pages a day for a year, that’s 9,125 pages. And the most masterful works are only 500-1,000 pages. Even if you take weekends and holidays off you’d still be able to knock out 5-6 classics a year.
That’s the power of a daily habit. Money compounds with time, but habits compound with consistency. Reading what you love gets you started. But if you’re to make reading a part of who you are, you need to make the act of reading a daily habit. Stop, before you go and install a habit tracking app, let me offer an alternative. I call it the two bookmark method.
Instead of programming an unforgiving and shaming app with your new daily habit of reading, simply find two bookmarks. Use the first bookmark to save your current reading position. Then place the second bookmark 25 pages ahead of where you currently are. Now as you read, you’ll see and feel the progress you’re making towards your goal. More importantly, this method is forgiving. If you only read 15 pages, that’s not a problem. Tomorrow just reset the bookmark 25 pages out from where you got to yesterday. Your stretch goal remains the same, but you’re not shamed for missing a day. You read and that’s what actually matters.
It also doesn’t have to be 25 pages. It could be 20, or even 10.
How to Make a Book Your Own
The passive act of reading is made active by engaging with the material, both mentally and physically. Mentally, you engage with a text by asking questions. Physically, you engage with it by marking it up.
Highlighting gets a bad rap. In Jordan B Peterson’s essay writing guide, he says “When taking notes, don’t bother doing stupid things like highlighting or underlining.” People such as Nicolas Luhman, the creator of the Zettelkasten note-taking method follow Jordan’s advice. Instead of highlighting or underlining he writes reminders to himself about what he found most valuable in the text on a separate note card.
On the other hand, you have legendary and prolific authors like Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday that use almost every annotation available to them while reading and note-taking. With so many contrasting opinions on the subject, it’s difficult to know which intellectual practice to follow. Luckily Mortimer Adler offers a practical set of annotation rules that resolve the conflict.
Underline: Use for major points, interesting and/or forceful statements.
Vertical lines: Same use as underlines, but for longer passages.
Star, asterisk, page fold, or doodad: Use to emphasize the 10 or so important passages or statements in a book. Such as the author’s key propositions.
Number in the margin: Use to indicate a sequence of points toward an argument or a series of steps an author is instructing you towards.
Number of other pages in the margin: Backlinks to other pages that are relevant or supportive of the current page.
Circling keywords or phrases: Same purpose as underlining, but can be used to call specific emphasis to a particular passage.
Write in the margins: Use to record questions, answers, or insights that come into your mind while reading. Reduce complicated discussions to simple statements and maxims to synthesize ideas. Or record a sequence of major points given throughout the book.
Front and End pages: Use *endpapers to create a personal index of the author’s points in the order he presents them.* And *use the front pages to record your own thinking*. After reading the entire book, write an outline of the book as you’ve come to understand it, not in accordance with what the author laid it out to be.
Following these rules transforms your reading practice from passive to active. While at the same time giving you an index for the book’s most valuable ideas.
Create an Invaluable Word List
As you mark up the books you read, you’ll be collecting annotations that make invaluable reference material. An example of one of many potential reference materials is a word list.
Every community has its own codes, a set of words, that they use to communicate value. You must be able to identify and use them to communicate with the communities using those words. And the easiest way to do that is to create an invaluable word list by circling every word that creates value in the articles you read in any given area of study, which you’ve already done if you have been marking up your books while actively reading.
Tempting as it might be, avoid complex note-taking systems at the beginning. Use a simple text or word document to begin collecting the keywords within the similar text. As you do that you’ll become increasingly familiar with the language used by that group.
And if you so choose, you’ll know what words to use in your writing that bring the most value to the reader.
Rethink How You Read
Most people have a single approach to reading, what I call textbook reading. What I mean by that is when you pick up a book that isn’t for entertainment you approach it as you did a textbook in school, methodically reading chapter by chapter, stopping when you don’t understand, and pushing yourself through to the end even when you’re bored. In short, you treat the book as if it’s required reading for a course or class.
It’s no wonder why most people use this approach, it’s likely the only one they were taught. Few people know this, but there are actually several different ways to read. Unfortunately, learning these different styles of reading isn’t taught in school, except at the highest levels of academia.
It’s only at a Ph.D. level that students are indirectly taught the different ways of reading. Students at this level learn to read differently purely out of necessity. Their coursework demands such a high volume and in-depth reading that how they were previously taught to read fails to make them successful, thus giving them a reason to experiment with different approaches.
Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.
Mortimer Adler calls these different reading methods, the four levels of reading. And they’re your ticket to learning to read well.
Learn to Read Fast
Inspectional reading is the second of the four levels of reading. It consists of two separate acts that make up a single skill; superficial reading and systematic skimming. Its goal is to determine if a book is worthwhile and is also useful when there's limited time to understand the gist of the book.
Superficial reading is the act of reading a book all the way through without stopping. No looking up words or pondering what you don't understand. As you read through the book, you focus on what you understand instead of what you do not. On your second time reading the book you’ll use what you were able to grasp to further your understanding. It's comparable to how you listen to an audiobook.
Systematic skimming is a methodical process of effectively scanning a book with the goal of evaluating if a book is worthwhile. Systematic skimming is also useful for reading a book quickly to understand the gist intelligently when time is limited and can be done in as little as a few minutes, but should at most, take an hour.
Rules of Systematic Skimming
1. Quickly read the publisher’s blurb, title page, preface, and/or introduction. Doing so should give you a good idea of the book’s subject.
2. Study the table of contents. Use it to get a general sense of the book’s structure.
3. Check the index. Look at the range of topics covered, then identify the terms that seem important and read the passages cited in the index for those terms.
4. Look up the seemingly pivotal chapters. Read the summary statements contained within the opening and closing pages of the chapters selected.
5. Thumb through the book: Turn to pages, dipping in and out. Reading a paragraph or two, sometimes a few pages at once. Don’t forget to read the last few pages of the book. And always be looking for the main point.
Learn to Read Slow
In the second level of reading, analytical reading, you learn how to get the most from the books you read. It's a three-stage process that picks up where the inspectional reading leaves off.
In the first stage, your goal is to answer the question what is the book about? You answer by pigeonholing the book by classifying it by the subject manager and by x-raying it by stating what the book is as a whole, outlining the major parts, and by identifying the problems the author aims to solve.
Once you understand what a book is about, you move to the second stage which answers the question "what does the book say?" You interpret a book’s contents by coming to terms with the author's keywords, grasping the author’s important sentences, finding the author’s arguments, and determining if those arguments solved the problems identified earlier.
Lastly, in the third and final step, you are obligated to criticize the book as a communication of knowledge by presenting good reasons for your agreeing or disagreeing with the author's arguments. Being capable of reading a book in this manner gives you the ability to bring yourself from a place of less understanding to a place of more understanding.
The Rules for the Three Stages of Analytical Reading
The First Stage of Analytical Reading, rules for finding “what a book is about”.
1. Classify the book according to its kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
Step 1 is referred to as "pigeonholing" a book and steps 3-4 are called "x-raying" a book.
The Second Stage of Analytical Reading, rules for finding what a book says, interpreting its contents.
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his keywords.
6. Grasp the author's leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
7. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.
The Third Stage of Analytical Reading, rules for criticizing a book as a *communication of knowledge.
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment until you can say "I understand.")
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.
Learn to Read Fast then Slow
Syntopical reading is the process of consuming several books at once on a given topic. Its purpose is to allow you to avoid wasting enormous amounts of time by reading some books faster than others by determining their most relevant passages and reading only those passages to their fullest extent and skimming the rest.
In order to read syntopically, you must first compile a list of reading material and then inspect each piece before reading only the relevant passages. Finally, you bring the author’s terms discovered in your research to your own terms.
The Two Stages of Syntopical Reading
Stage 1 - Prepare your research material
1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogs, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.
Stage 2 - Syntopical Reading the amassed research material
3. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
4. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors, can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
5. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
6. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors' views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
7. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject.
The Pyramid of Books
Of the millions, perhaps billions, of books that exist in the world, 99% of them will not make sufficient demands of you to improve your skill in reading. These types of books make up the first class of what Mortimer Adler calls "The Pyramid of Books".
Books within this first-class might be entertaining or interesting, but you should not expect to learn anything of importance from them. And because of that, there is no need to read them analytically, skimming will do.
Within the 1% of books that aren't undemanding, there's a second class of books. It's from these books that you can learn both how to read and live. Books of this nature are one in every thousand or maybe even ten thousand and should be considered to be "good" books. A single and effortful analytical reading should be sufficient to extract every ounce of meaning and wisdom from such a text. Although they may be referred to in the future, using the markings you've made and marginal notes as a guide, you'll never need to reread the entire text because you've grasped the author's message.
Even still, there is a third class of books referred to as the "inexhaustible" books. It's books in this third class that appear to grow with its readers, exposing new insights and wisdom with each subsequent reading.
For every individual, there are probably only a hundred such books that should be kept as life-long companions.
Reading is a rate-determining skill. Your ability to read determines how quickly you process information, make decisions, and learn. It’s the foundational skill which all self-education hinges. By learning to read, and read well, you unlock the ability to educate yourself to the fullest extent possible. And thus, can lead a more fulfilled and prosperous life.
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This post reminds me a lot of Copyblogger's How To Read A Book post, which was written before 2010 if memory serves, but your take includes more guidance on note-taking plus the book pyramid. There doesn't seem to be many new inexhaustible books, unfortunately.
Great post. But I almost think you can leave it at, "Read what you love...."
I think for most people, the notetaking methods are instinctive and personal. It's like being left or right-handed. If you're a highlighter, you're a highlighter. If you're not, you're not. Just keep reading and the rest will sort itself out.