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Sunday, February 08, 2009

How to Read a Book

I love Mortimer Adler's book How to Read a Book. It gives you several techniques for reading a book:
  • Skimming a book, including reading the table of contents and index. Do this for all books, to decide whether you want to proceed. If the book looks worthwhile, you may want to read it quickly without stopping. You can stop here for most books.
  • Reading the book "analytically" – reserved for the "Great Books". Involves marking up the book, underlining its main arguments, building up an outline. Few books deserve this slow treatment.
  • Reading several books together on the same subject ("synoptically"). Make the books dialogue with one another. The deepest level of reading. I haven't tried this.
To get a taste of Adler's writing, skim his online essays How to Mark a Book and Idling: Why It Is So Important Not To Be


  • I read that book years ago.

    I didn't use any of his techniques as I was reading it, and I remember a line/paragraph in there about how, "You probably wouldn't be reading this if didn't believe it was worth the read."

    I tend to use the "Great Books technique" on most books. For me it's about being selective in what I read.

    11,572 days

    By Blogger Tim McGhee, at 2/09/2009 9:36 AM  

  • "Few books deserve this slow treatment."

    Why even read a book that doesn't deserve this slow treatment? Except for skimming books to see if they deserve slow treatment. And pure entertainment.

    Synoptic reading is great. Now I have a word to describe one of my approaches to reading. It helps you find the authors who really know what they're talking about.

    I think you want to read books like people drill for oil. You do a lot of investigative drilling (skim a lot of books) until you find a lot of oil in one spot and then you go deep (read the good books thoroughly).

    You can determine when you should stop reading a book by measuring how long it has been since you learned something from the book. The conditional probability that you will learn something new goes up with the time since you learned something.

    If you're not marking a book up, you're not really ready for that book. Your mind isn't in a place to get a lot of value from the book. You can keep reading just so you know what's out there. But you will probably have to revisit the book when you're ready.

    When a book fits right in with whatever I'm dealing with in my life, I find that I can't put the book down and I learn a lot from the book — and I apply the learnings.

    By Anonymous Nivi, at 2/09/2009 4:45 PM  

  • Another approach to reading synoptically: go multi-modal.

    Look up videos on YouTube by the authors. Search for their podcasts on iTunes. Find their presentations on SlideShare. Read their blog.

    You can get an overview of a whole book with an hour presentation on YouTube. Or a deck on SlideShare.

    Authors present their thinking differently in different media. You learn differently when exposed to different media.

    By Anonymous Nivi, at 2/10/2009 3:56 PM  

  • Tim - yeah, selectivity is definitely good to practice

    Nivi - love the oil-drilling analogy!

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 2/10/2009 7:27 PM  

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