Do you know How to Read a Book?

- reading

Reading something without writing about it or discussing it - helpful proxies for ensuring that you understood what you read and have assessed it independently - is like swallowing your food without having chewed it, first.

Perhaps you have read a book and excitedly started telling a friend about it, only to struggle to distill what it was about and what it said, or to realize that you didn’t understand or believe the argument as much as you thought you did. Perhaps you read a book cover-to-cover, and later realized that it wasn’t worth it.

Or, perhaps you’ve shared an opinion that wasn’t really yours - you’d just heard it somewhere, it sounded plausible and smart, and allowed you to join in a conversation.

Enter, How to Read a Book.

Our understanding of the world is often built on a house of cards. It doesn’t have to be this way. How to Read a Book will teach you to read actively so as to actually increase your understanding, appreciation, and competence. What doing a proper barbell training program is for your athletic performance or physical appearance, How to Read a Book is for your intellectual life. No more spinning your wheels.

This is a more intense, and at first probably a more time-consuming, way of reading. But if you read it, you’ll be convinced that there isn’t really a choice between “quality” and “quantity” of reading. There is actually just a choice between “quality”…and nothing at all.

It joined a league with only one other member - Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle - for its importance to my intellectual and knowledge-work endeavors. Nothing else comes particularly close. There is also a good degree of overlap between the two, and reading both gives you a nice dose of spaced repetition on a critical muscle for your thinking life.

My most important takeaways

Annotated Rules from How to Read a Book

The bulk of the book explains the importance and application of the four levels of reading necessary to understand a book or a topic. Each subsequent level builds on the previous levels.

These levels are:

  1. Elementary reading entails primarily basic reading comprehension of sentences (not emphasized in HTRB).
  2. Inspectional reading entails getting the most out of a book in a short period / setting yourself for effective analytical reading (see below). Think of yourself as a scout. Two aspects:
    1. Skim / Pre-reading
      1. Title page / Preface (great for what problem the book is solving)
      2. ToC (gives you a roadmap/skeleton that helps you to contextualize/assimilate what you’ll read later)
      3. Index (range of topics covered)
      4. Publisher’s blurb (helps to grasp main points)
      5. Based ToC, identify pivotal chapters; read opening/closing sentences, paragraphs, pages
      6. Dip in briefly, here and there
    2. Superficial reading helps you to grasp the big picture, and you can fill it in later with closer reading
      1. Read through the whole thing w/o ever stopping to chew on things you don’t understand
  3. Analytical reading means working towards a clear understanding of what the book is about, what it actually says, whether it’s true, and why it matters.
    1. Stage 1: Structural. What is the book about as a whole?
      1. Classify the book.
      2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity (i.e. the main point).
      3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you’ve outlined the whole.
      4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.
    2. Stage 2: Interpretive. What is being said in detail, and how?
      1. Identify and interpret key terms
        1. Term: the basic element of communicable knowledge. Which words are laden with significance, most important for communicating the point? Which words introduce confusion or friction? They are likely important.
      2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions (main premises or conclusions) by dealing with the most important sentences
        1. Which sentences do you have the most difficulty with? When you get perplexed or experience wonder, follow your nose.
        2. State them in your own words.
      3. Know the author’s arguments (premises, reasons, conclusions), by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
        1. Note what kind of reasoning is being employed (inductive: facts -> generalization (e.g. by experiment); deductive: general statements -> further generalization (e.g. by reasoning))
        2. Note what he says must be assumed, what can be proved, what is self-evident
      4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide with the author knew he had failed to solve
    3. Stage 3: Critical. Is it true, how so, how not? What of it?
      1. To disagree properly:
        1. Understand before you disagree. Ensure you have an adequate source of disagreement, likely one of:
          1. Uninformed
          2. Misinformed
          3. Illogical
          4. Analysis/account is incomplete
  4. Syntopical (i.e. comparative) reading, entails identifying how different books on a subject “talk to each other” so as to refine and answer your questions on that subject.
    1. Inspect readings in your tentative bibliography to see what’s actually germane to your subject and to refine your conception of the subject or question
    2. Inspect to find most relevant passages (you’re not reading the book, you’re using it)
    3. Find umbrella terms (when others use different terms to discuss the same important underlying thing)
    4. Define or construct the issues or questions or “vectors” that various authors are speaking to
    5. Analyze the discussion, position the authors with/against each other by vector, see what insights arise.

There is a separate section on specific applications and modifications of these rules for literature, practical books, philosophy, history, science and mathematics, but I’ll save that for you to peruse at your leisure.