Tag: Reading

The Art of Reading: How to be a Demanding Reader

In order to improve our reading, we need to learn to ask the right questions in the right order.

Don’t forget, reading a book, for any reason other than entertainment, is essentially an effort on your part to ask the book questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability).

There are four main questions you must ask about any book, found in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:

1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.

2. What is being said in detail and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking

How to Make a Book Your Own

Asking a book questions as you read makes you a better reader. But you must do more. You must attempt to answer the questions you are asking. While you could do this in your mind, Adler argues that it’s much easier to do with a pencil in your hand. “The pencil,” he argues, “becomes the sign of your alertness while you read.”

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

Adler goes on to argue that there are many ways to mark a book. He recommends you underline major points, draw vertical lines at the margin to emphasize a passage too long to be underlined, place a star, asterisk, or other “doodad” in the margin to emphasize the most important statements in the book, place numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points made in the natural development of an argument, place page numbers of other pages in the margin to remind you where else in the book the author makes the same points, circle keywords or phrases, and write your questions (and perhaps answers) in the margin (or at the top or bottom of the pages).

When you are giving a book an inspectional reading, you won’t have much time to make notes. Yet you, as a demanding reader, are still asking questions about the book. Primarily 1) what kind of book is it? 2) what is it about as a whole? and 3) what is the blueprint the author lays down to develop our understanding of the subject matter?

These answers should be recorded when they are fresh in your mind.

At this point your notes primarily concern the structure of the book and not its contents or the strength of its argument. You know the general idea and the blueprint.

The best way to start reading better is to form the habit of reading well. Setting aside time to read help makes you smarter.

Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.

This is the third part in the how to read a book series.

“Speed Reading” That Works: How to Intelligently Skim a Book

“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

This article is part of our series on how to read a book.

The second level of reading concerns inspectional reading, a concept from The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler.

Inspectional Reading

There are two types of inspectional reading: systematic skimming, also known as pre-reading or intelligent skimming, and superficial reading.

Intelligently Skimming

The first type of inspectional reading is systematic skimming, which you can easily put into practice today. Here’s how you start:

Read the cover and preface. Start with a quick read of the cover, publishers blurb, and the preface to get a feel for the scope of the work. This will not only prime your brain for what you might read in its entirety, but it will help you mentally place the book in a category.

Read the table of contents, which will give you a feel for the map of the book. Where is the book taking you? How are you getting There? It’s amazing how many people just dive in reading without even glancing at the table of contents and yet, the author spends considerable time coming up with the table of contents (as that’s the spine of the book). With non-fiction books you often can’t sell them without having a detailed table of contents.

Understand the language of the book. This means skimming the index. Not only will this give you an idea for the range of topics covered but it will also tell you the other people the book connects to and the jargon used in the book.

Identify the pivotal points. At this point, you have an overview of the jargon and the journey the author is taking you on. It should be relatively easy to identify the pivotal chapter to the argument. Dive into these reading bits and pieces. How are they structured? How connected is it to the rest of the book? Is this a place you want to end up? Turn the pages and dive in here and there with a few paragraphs or even pages.

Read the end. Authors generally do a good job summarizing their work in the last few pages. This where they sum up what they think is most important about their work.

Listen to an interview. While this has nothing to do with the actual book, interviews can be a great way to get the gist of a book in 30m or so. Authors do so much promotion now that its relatively easy to find interviews. And of course, they use the best examples from the book in these interviews.

Deciding to Read a Book

That’s how you intelligently skim a book. Once you get some practice, it should take at most, an hour.

Skimming helps you reach a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention? Why?

Unless you’re reading for entertainment, if you can’t answer that question, you can toss the book.

Mastering intelligent skimming will:

  • save you a lot of time because most books are not worth reading
  • offer knowledge of the book’s blueprint and contents so you know where to find stuff if you need it in the future
  • and improve retention, if you decide to read the book in its entirety because you’ve primed your brain with the contents.

Superficial Reading

The second part of inspectional reading is superficial reading. This is used when you’re tacking a book that’s notably above your level. Most of us stop when we’re confused and ponder what’s being said but a superficial reading means that you quickly read start to finish without stopping to ponder the things you don’t understand. The reason this works is that by reading the book start to finish, you’ll have a great overview of what’s going on. You might only understand 25% of what’s going on but that’s better than nothing. Should you decide to go back and re-read the book, a lot of the things that gave you pause the first time would have been resolved. If you stop and go over everything you don’t understand on your first reading, you get lost. Sure you finish the book but you’ve lost sight of where you’ve been and where you’ve come.

Superficial reading is the first step towards analytical reading – that is, understanding and interpreting a book’s contents.

Inspectional reading should be able to answer the questions, what kind of book is it? what is it about? and what is the structure, or blueprint, of the book “whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?”

The Four Levels of Reading: Improve Skills One Level At A Time

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot. My Hero, Charlie Munger, said it best “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Picking up a book and reading the words is the easy part. Reading to understand is much harder.

The key is not simply to read more but rather be selective about what we reading and how we are reading.

This article, the first in a multi-part series on improving our reading skills, outlines the four levels of reading.

“Books give delisght to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join us in a living and intense intimacy.” — Petrarch

Mortimer Adler originally published How To Read A Book in 1940. It immediately became a bestseller. Since that time the book has been updated and recast many times, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

Active Reading

There is no such thing as passive reading. All reading, to some degree, is active reading. The only difference is that some reading is more active than others. And when it comes to reading to learn something or reading for information something the more active your reading habits the better.

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

Success in reading is determined to the extent that you receive what the writer intended to communicate. That doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you understood them.

Reading For Understanding or Information

Assuming we’re not reading for entertainment, there are two things we generally want to get from reading. We can read to acquire information and facts or we can read to learn something new and improve our understanding.

Reading for entertainment is self-explanatory.

Reading for information is the one in which we read media or anything else that’s easily digestible. These things give us more information but don’t improve our understanding. There is no shock, no moment of … that doesn’t make sense.

Alternatively, we can try to read something by someone who knows more about the subject than we do. After reading works by authors who know more about a subject than we do, our understanding is changed … it may be the case that we better understand something or perhaps we understand that our understanding was incomplete. Either way, our understanding has changed.

The easiest way to improve our understanding is from people who understand more about the subject than we do.

So half the battle of reading for understanding is to identify and select works from someone (or a group of people) who know more about a subject than we do. The internet and Amazon have made this much easier with ratings and book reviews.

And if you can read for understanding, you need not worry about reading for information or entertainment as, being less demanding, they will take care of themselves.

Instruction or Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This is the difference between being knowing the name of something and knowing something.

… if you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You can’t be enlightened unless you are informed, however you can be informed but not enlightened.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”

The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.

The Greeks had a name for people who have read too widely and not well, sophomores.

Being widely read and well-read are not the same thing. Adler argues that to avoid this error we must distinguish between how we learn into instruction and discovery.

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

The 4 Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines the best way to read the material in question. If we’re reading for entertainment, we’re going to read a lot differently than if we’re reading to build a rocket ship.

A thorough understanding of the levels of reading is necessary before we can improve our reading skills.

There are four levels of reading. They are thought of as levels because you can’t reach the higher levels without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

1. Elementary Reading

The first level of reading is elementary reading, which is what we learned to do in elementary school. Most of us never get beyond this level.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

2. Inspectional Reading

The second level of reading is inspectional reading, which can be thought of us intelligently skimming a book in a limited amount of time. Not only does this prime our brain with the material in the book, but it helps us determine if we want to read the entire book.

Adler writes:

[A]nother name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

The point of inspectional reading is to examine the “surface” of the book.

Adler guides us:

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Inspectional reading is underappreciated by a lot of readers because they see it as a waste of time.

A lot of people like to read linearly. They pick up a book, turn to page one, and plow steadily through it without ever reading so much as the table of contents. “They are,” writes Adler, “thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it.” This makes reading more difficult, not less.

3. Analytical Reading

The third level of reading is called analytical reading, which goes deeper than inspectional reading. If your goal in reading is entertainment or acquiring information, analytical reading is not necessary. However, if you are reading to improve understanding, analytical reading is entirely necessary.

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. … Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … [A]nalytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Francis Bacon remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Think of analytical reading as chewing and digesting.

4. Syntopical Reading

The fourth and most difficult level of reading is syntopical reading.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. … With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on how to improve our reading skills.

The Buffett Formula: Going to Bed Smarter Than When You Woke Up

Most people go through life not really getting any smarter. Why? They simply won’t do the work required.

It’s easy to come home, sit on the couch, watch TV, and zone out until bedtime rolls around. But that’s not going to help you get smarter.

Sure, you can go into the office the next day and discuss the details of last night’s episode of Mad Men or Game of Thrones. And yes, you know what happened on Survivor. But that’s not knowledge accumulation; that’s a mind-numbing sedative.

You can acquire knowledge if you want it. In fact, there is a simple formula, which if followed is almost certain to make you smarter over time. Simple but not easy.

It involves a lot of hard work.

“The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being know more.”

— Charlie Munger

We’ll call it the Buffett formula, named after Warren Buffett and his longtime business partner at Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger. These two are an extraordinary combination of minds. They are also learning machines.

“I can see, he can hear. We make a great combination.”
—Warren Buffett, speaking of his partner and friend, Charlie Munger.

We can learn a lot from them. They didn’t get smart because they are both billionaires. They became billionaires, in part, because they are smart. More importantly, they keep getting smarter. And it turns out that they have a lot to say on the subject.

How to Get Smarter

Read. A lot.

Warren Buffett says, “I just sit in my office and read all day.”

What does that mean? He estimates that he spends 80% of his working day reading and thinking.

“You could hardly find a partnership in which two people settle on reading more hours of the day than in ours,” Charlie Munger commented.

When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every week. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

All of us can build our knowledge, but most of us won’t put in the effort.

“Go to bed smarter than when you woke up.”

— Charlie Munger

One person who took Buffett’s advice, Todd Combs, now works for the legendary investor. After hearing Buffett talk, he started keeping track of what he read and how many pages he was reading.

The Omaha World-Herald writes:

Eventually finding and reading productive material became second nature, a habit. As he began his investing career, he would read even more, hitting 600, 750, even 1,000 pages a day.

Combs discovered that Buffett’s formula worked, giving him more knowledge that helped him with what became his primary job—seeking the truth about potential investments.

But how you read matters, too.

You need to be critical and always thinking. You need to do the mental work required to hold an opinion.

In Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed, Buffett comments to author Michael Eisner:

Look, my job is essentially just corralling more and more and more facts and information, and occasionally seeing whether that leads to some action. And Charlie—his children call him a book with legs.

Continuous Learning

Eisner continues:

Maybe that’s why both men agree it’s better that they never lived in the same city, or worked in the same office. They would have wanted to talk all the time, leaving no time for the reading, which Munger describes as part of an essential continuing education program for the men who run one of the largest conglomerates in the world.

“I don’t think any other twosome in business was better at continuous learning than we were,” he says, talking in the past tense but not really meaning it. “And if we hadn’t been continuous learners, the record wouldn’t have been as good. And we were so extreme about it that we both spent the better part of our days reading, so we could learn more, which is not a common pattern in business.”

It Doesn’t Work How You Think It Works

If you’re thinking that they sit in front of a computer all day obsessing over numbers and figures, you’d be dead wrong.

“No,” says Warren. “We don’t read other people’s opinions. We want to get the facts, and then think.” And when it gets to the thinking part, for Buffett and Munger, there’s no one better to think with than their partners. “Charlie can’t encounter a problem without thinking of an answer,” posits Warren. “He has the best thirty-second mind I’ve ever seen. I’ll call him up, and within thirty seconds, he’ll grasp it. He just sees things immediately.”

Munger sees his knowledge accumulation as an acquired, rather than natural, genius. And he’d give all the credit to the studying he does.

“Neither Warren nor I is smart enough to make the decisions with no time to think,” Munger once told a reporter. “We make actual decisions very rapidly, but that’s because we’ve spent so much time preparing ourselves by quietly sitting and reading and thinking.”

How Can You Find Time to Read?

Finding the time to read is easier than you think. One way to help make that happen is to carve an hour out of your day just for yourself.

In an interview he gave for his authorized biography The Snowball, Buffett told this story:

Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, “Who’s my most valuable client?” And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.

It’s important to think about the opportunity cost of this hour. On one hand, you can check Twitter, read some online news, and reply to a few emails while pretending to finish the memo that is supposed to be the focus of your attention. On the other hand, you can dedicate the time to improving yourself. In the short term, you’re better off with the dopamine-laced rush of email and Twitter while multitasking. In the long term, the investment in learning something new and improving yourself goes further.

“I have always wanted to improve what I do,” Munger comments, “even if it reduces my income in any given year. And I always set aside time so I can play my own self-amusement and improvement game.”

Reading Is Only Part of the Equation

But reading isn’t enough. Charlie Munger offers:

We read a lot. I don’t know anyone who’s wise who doesn’t read a lot. But that’s not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things. Most people don’t grab the right ideas or don’t know what to do with them.

Commenting on what it means to have knowledge, in How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler writes: “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

Can you explain what you know to someone else? Try it. Pick an idea you think you have a grasp of and write it out on a sheet of paper as if you were explaining it to someone else. (See The Feynman Technique and here if you want to improve retention.)

Nature or Nurture?

Another way to get smarter, outside of reading, is to surround yourself with people who are not afraid to challenge your ideas.

“Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.”

— Charlie Munger

Haruki Murakami on Reading What Everyone Else is Reading

We’ve all been there. At the bookstore looking for a book to read.

On one side of the store is the safe bet. The best-selling books that everyone else is reading. These are (generally) the mediocre books that time hasn’t yet filtered for us. When time casts its shadow, most of these will fall away into the night. And yet we read them anyway. Why? Because one of the six principles of persuasion is social proof. Not only does this often waste time and money but it gums our brains. If we’re reading what everyone else is reading it’s harder to think differently about problems, decisions, or life.

This excerpt form Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami perfectly encapsulates a core truth about reading.

And so we became friends. This happened in October.

The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of strange people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than I, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least thirty years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short.”

“What kind of authors do you like?” I asked, speaking in respectful tones to this man two years my senior. “Balzac, Dante, Joseph Conrad, Dickens,” he answered without hesitation.

“Not exactly fashionable.”

“That’s why I read them. If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven’t you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in the dorm. The other guys are crap.”

This took me off guard. “How can you say that?”

“’ Cause it’s true. I know. I can see it. It’s like we have marks on our foreheads. …”

Reading is a great way to give yourself an advantage but only if you’re smart about it. Reading the words is the easy part.  Thinking about what you’re reading and how you’re reading, that’s where the edge comes from.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

A lot of people think that reading, especially critical reading, is on the decline. The thinking goes that we spend too much time distracted on devices. And when we turn the devices off long enough to read a book, we read the intellectual equivalent of junk food.

Author Alan Jacobs takes the opposite point of view in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He argues that not only is reading alive and well in America, but we suffer from confidence issues: we wonder whether we read well, with proper focus and attentiveness, and with genuine discernment.

Jacobs’ message is simple. “Read what gives you delight, and do so without shame, whether it be Stephen King or the King James Version of the Bible.”

Jacobs’ book is in contrast to the “more methodical and directive approach of Mortimer Adler’s classic on how to read intelligently.

So this is what I say to my petitioners: For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “cosmical and ethical hygiene.”

Great Books

On Great books, Jacobs writes:

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.

He is not alone in that thinking. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote:

When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

The Pleasure of Books

What should you do if you’re reading a book that fails to delight you?

For if this particular book is not giving me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. Maybe it’s just starting slowly but will pick up speed; maybe I haven’t fully grasped the idiom it’s working in but eventually will figure it out; maybe the problem is not with the book but with my own powers of concentration because I slept fitfully last night. …

Many maybes. But in any case, I have to decide whether to persevere, and for a long time my default position was to continue. Indeed, I was twenty years old before I failed to finish a book I had started: it was The Recognitions, a novel by William Gaddis, and I gave up, after an extended period of moral paralysis, at page 666. That day I grieved, feeling that I had been forced from some noble pedestal; but I work up the next morning with my soul singing. After all, though I would never get back the hours I had devoted to those 666 pages, the hours I would have spent ploughing through the remaining four hundred were mine to spend as I could. I had been granted time as a pure and sweet gift.

Reading Guides

On How to read a book and similar guides, Jacobs writes:

And one of the primary reasons I am so suspicious of How to Read a Book and similar guides is that they promise to help us offload accountability for our reading: they say, implicitly, that self-knowledge and discernment aren’t needful because experts can take care of that for us.

For more on the subject, I highly recommend reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in conjunction with How to Read a Book. Those of you interested in better understanding how technology affects reading—Jacobs is a fan of the Kindle—should add The Shallows, and Cognitive Surplus to this list. Make no mistake, these books won’t agree with one another, but they will expose you to different points of view.