Notes from ‘How to read a book’


Why is this book timely and relevant?
Unlimited educational opportunity that is limited only by individual desire, ability, and need is the most valuable service that society can provide for its members.
In the last 30 years, a larger population has become literate, and there has been a shift of interest from the reading of fiction to the reading of nonfiction. Additionally, a greater number of adults have been taking up speed-reading courses that promise to increase their comprehension and speed while reading. The book proposes variable-speed-reading as the solution – the objective being to be able to read better, sometimes faster and sometimes slower. Unfortunately, there has been a failure to carry instruction in reading beyond the elementary level.
To all intents and purposes, an average high school student remains a sixth-grader reader till well along in college.
As a result, even though he can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it, he is at a loss when put up against a closely written exposition, economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration.
Even though we know more about the world than we used to, our ability to understand has not improved despite an increase in knowledge. 
The ability of radio to give us information while we are engaged in doing other things – for instance, driving a car – is remarkable, and a great saving of time. However, it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.
The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements – all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics – to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum difficulty and effort. However, the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.
Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to help people gain increased understanding. 
Any old book contains facts that are somewhat surprising because they are different from what we know. But when you are reading for understanding it is not that kind of novelty that you are seeking. Your interest in the author himself, or in his language, or in the world in which he wrote, is one thing; your concern to understand his ideas is quite another. The rules mentioned in this book will help you satisfy this concern, not your curiosity about other matters.
What is the art of reading? 
The art of reading is a process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. The skilled operations that cause this to happen are the various acts that constitute the  art of reading.
A piece of writing can be received more or less entirely depending on the amount of activity a reader puts into the process including the skills with which he executes the different mental acts involved.
It is impossible to give any book an inspectional reading without being alert, without having all of one’s faculties awake and working. Given the same thing to read, one person reads it better than another, first, by reading it more actively, and second, by performing each of the acts involved more skillfully.
Concentration is another name for what we have called activity in reading. The good reader reads actively, with concentration.
One of the practices involved in the art of reading is reading the titles and tables of contents. The title can give a reader essential information about the book before the act of reading itself. The practice of reading the table of contents has been suffering decline lately since publishers feel that a less revealing table of contents is more seductive than an entirely open one. They believe that readers will be attracted to a book if there is an element of mystery.
A good reader should be like a detective looking for clues to a book’s general idea, signs for anything that will make it clearer.
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be prepared to read it well the second time. Systematic skimming, in other words, anticipates the comprehension of a book’s structure.
At the same time, no book should be or can be read entirely and completely in isolation. This process is called extrinsic reading – reading a book in the light of other books.
Thus, speed is a vital element in the art of reading. Varying the rate of reading by the complexity and nature of the material is important.
The primary task is to correct the fixations and regressions that slow so many readers along. Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.
While reading, it is necessary to be a demanding reader. The trained ability to ask questions while reading and answering them precisely and accurately is what differentiates a demanding reader from an undemanding one.
Reading a book on any level beyond the elementary is essentially an effort on your part to ask it questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability). People go to sleep over good books not because they are unwilling to make the effort, but because they do not know how to make it.
The reciprocal acts of reading and writing
Just like teaching and being taught, writing and reading are reciprocal. While the author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up, the reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. Great writers have always been great readers. They don’t necessarily read all the books but, whatever few books they read, they read them well.
In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a great reader becomes an author. Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.
One of the ways this reciprocity is seen when the reader comes to terms with the author – a primary achievement toward which a writer and reader should strive.
A term is the basic element of communicable knowledge and terms is a skilled use of words for the sake of communicating knowledge.
Here is another instance where the reciprocity is evident.
“Listen, then make up your mind,” Gay Talese famously said about the secret of writing. It’s only logical that this should be inverted when it comes to reading: “Make up your mind, then listen.”
From a reader’s point of view, the most important words and sentences are those that give you trouble and require an effort of interpretation. You understand well enough to know there is more to understand. Sometimes, these words are important for the writer as well. From the author’s point of view, the important sentences are those that express the judgments on which his whole argument lies.
The heart of his communication lies in the major affirmations and denials he is making, and the reasons he gives for doing so.
However, there is a paradox related to this.
You cannot locate the key words without making an effort to understand the passage in which they occur. If you do understand the passage, you will, of course, know which words in it are the most important. If you do not fully understand the passage, it is probably because you do not know the way the author is using certain words.
Since language is an imperfect medium for conveying knowledge, it serves as a hindrance to communication. Interpretive reading can help overcoming this hindrance. 
Goals of reading – Understanding, information, and entertainment. 
Newspapers and magazines may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding because ‘our understanding was equal to them before we started’.
Sometimes, a person may read something that he does not completely understand at first. It means the thing to be read is initially either better or higher than the reader. Reading for understanding takes place when there is initial inequality in understanding (the writer must be ‘superior’ to the reader in understanding) and when the reader overcomes this inequality in some degree.
Reading for entertainment is the least demanding reading as it needs the least amount of effort. That said,
Any book that can be read for understanding or information can probably be read for entertainment as well, just as a book that is capable of increasing our understanding can also be read purely for the information it contains. This proposition cannot be reversed: it is not true that every book that can be read for entertainment can also be read for understanding.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. – Francis Bacon
The above quote applies to analytical reading where the goal is to chew and digest, that is, for the sake of understanding.
The art of analytical reading applies to the reading of a single book when understanding of that book is the aim in view.
This is followed by syntopical reading, also called comparative reading – reading different books on the same topic. The reader will be able to come up with his analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. To read syntopically, the reader must know that more than one book is relevant to a particular question and which books should be read, in a general way.
In syntopical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read. You do not want to lose sight of the fact that you are reading it for an ulterior purpose – namely, for the light it may throw on your problem – not for its sake. The books that are read serve you, not the other way around. Also, we are faced with the task of establishing a set of neutral propositions as well. The best way to do this is to frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem and to which each of our authors gives answers. The solution to the problem can consist in rather in the ordered discussion itself than in any set of propositions or assertions about it.
Your task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may be very far from the author’s own purpose in writing it. Thus, the special quality that a syntopical analysis tried to achieve can indeed be summarized in the two words ‘dialectical objectivity’. The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. He must constantly refer to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over. This necessity remains, and when summaries of an author’s argument are presented to a wider audience, they must be presented in that language and not the author’s. However, the author’s words, carefully quoted so as not to wrench them out of context, must accompany the summary, so that the reader can judge for himself whether the interpretation of the author is correct.
The rules I follow for articles/content based on annotational reading in my blogs (Sou’s Voice, Sou’s Career Journal, Sou’s Musings, and The Cocoknot Theori) are as follows:
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. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated. Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.
The above method is also, somewhat similar to the Cornell note-taking system, which says: [Had I known these learning strategies in school and college, I would have always been in the category of A-lister]
1. Record: During the lecture, use the note-taking column to record the lecture using telegraphic sentences.
2. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate questions based on the notes in the right-hand column. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for examstudying later.
3. Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the question and cue column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue-words.
4. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
5. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use, as well as, for the exam.
6. Summary: After class, use this space at the bottom of each page to summarize the notes on that page.
However, there is a curious paradox associated with syntopical reading.
Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it. In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works before you could decide what you were reading about. Moreover, when you had done that, you might have to conclude that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.
This is the fundamental problem of syntopical reading: if you do not know where to start, you cannot read syntopically; and even if you have a rough idea of where to begin, the time required to find the relevant books and relevant passages in those books may exceed the time required to take all of the other steps combined.
Despite knowing how to differentiate between profit and pleasure, that is, between understanding and entertainment or mere satisfaction of curiosity, many readers fail to carry out their reading plans mainly because they are not active, demanding readers – making their minds do the work without which no profit can be earned.
When we read books for knowledge, they help us carry out intelligent actions.
Knowledge can be used in many ways, not only for controlling nature and inventing useful machines or instruments but also for directing human conduct and regulating man’s operations in various fields of skill.
That said, we must also keep in mind that:
An author’s propositions are nothing but expressions of opinion unless they are supported by reasons.
An active reader must know
not merely what the author’s propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.
The best test to know whether we have understood the author’s propositions is when we state them in our words.
If all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations on their order, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words. This is the vice of ‘verbalism’.
There is another level of reading called the inspectional reading. It involves inspecting all the books on your list of bibliography, before even beginning to read analytically. This is to zero in on the subject matter of your syntopical reading project. Additionally; it also involves discovering whether the book says something important about the subject in hand.
This level of reading is particularly, useful for graduate and research students as it helps them to get to the meat of a book, to make reasonably intelligent statements about it, and to fit it into a plot or plan of their subject matter. Even though it will not acquaint you with all the intricacies of the subject matter or all the insights the authors can provide, it will give you a clear enough idea of your subject that your analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. It will also, allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size.
Learning from reading
Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.
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. They are bookful blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well. The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all sophomores.
If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are. – Thomas Hobbes
It is a common error to assume widely read as well read. To avoid this error, we must understand different types of learning. Learning with the help of an instructor can lead to ‘aided discovery’ while ‘unaided discovery’ also, called as just discovery is the art of reading the world or nature. Many people associate ‘thinking’ with research and unaided discovery instead of being taught mainly because they suppose reading and listening to be relatively effortless.
Listening is learning from a teacher who is present – a living teacher – while reading is learning from one who is absent. For those of us who are no longer in school, if we want to go on learning, then we must know how to learn from books, which are absent teachers.
A book is more like the world or nature. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself.
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.
Thus, teaching is a unique art just like agriculture and medicine. That is, even though a teacher may help his student in several ways, the student must still do the learning himself. If learning has to take place, knowledge must grow in the student’s mind.
What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business. It is an activity of the mind that is essential to education, the central aim of which has always been recognized, from Socrates’ day down to our own, as the freeing of the mind through the discipline of wonder.
To become a better reader, we must read books that are beyond us and that are over our head. Only such books will make us stretch our minds and then only; we will learn. Reading for amusement or information merely informs us of the facts that we did not know without adding to our understanding of those facts. It does not stretch our minds; it may seem as though it does, but, we are merely feeling fuller of facts. Only a quantitative change takes place in this case, and there is no stretching of minds and hence, no improvement in our skill.
When the material you have read is itself primarily informational, you are challenged to go further and seek enlightenment. Even when you have been somewhat enlightened by what you have read, you are called upon to continue the search for significance.
A bad book is not only difficult to read but, it also doesn’t reward for our efforts of trying. A good book, on the other hand, rewards us for trying to read it. They can be challenging to read regarding stretching our minds but, they can teach us about the world, life and ourselves thereby making us more deeply aware of the enduring truths of human life.
We all face the challenge of finding the resources within ourselves to live a good human life. Unlike our bodies, there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. Only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence, does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.
However, the mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used. This is a mortal disease and is a reason so many busy people die so soon after retirement. TV, radio and all the sources of amusement and information are also artificial props that give us an impression that our minds are active, but they are like drugs. We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them. Eventually, they have little or no effect. If we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Moreover, when we cease to grow, we begin to die.
Therefore, reading well can not only advance our work and career but also, can keep our minds alive and thriving.
[Reading] habits maketh a man
When we speak of a man as skilled in any ways, we do not mean that he knows the rules of making or doing something, but that he possesses the habit of making or doing it. Those rules an artist must have followed, or else he could not have made the thing he has made. No matter how original an artist’s final production is, no matter how little it seems to obey the ‘rules’ of art as they have been traditionally understood, he must be skilled to produce it.
A good artist must learn to forget the separate rules to portray all of them, and indeed any of them, well. However, to forget them as separate rules, he must learn them first as separate rules. Similarly, learning to read is complex, and it is hard to form the habit because of the multiplicity of rules involved in reading.
That said,
A person can be skilled in an art without being the ideal artist. He can be a good practitioner if he merely approximates the rule.
Similarly, a reader’s degree of approximation varies with the character of the book and his purpose in reading it. The rule remains the same irrespective of this variability. A reader must know how to follow it, whether he follows it closely or in a rough manner.
Types of books and what they teach us
Books can be theoretical and practical. Theoretical ones raise questions about the validity of something while the practical ones raise questions about the end of anything. A theoretical book is a scientific work when it emphasizes things that lie outside the scope of our normal, routine, daily experience. When it emphasizes things that lie within the scope of our normal, routine, daily experience, it is a philosophical work.
Hence, the method of teaching these subjects are also, different. A philosopher usually finds it easier to teach his students who have not been previously taught by his colleagues but, a scientist prefers a student whom his colleagues have already prepared. A philosopher refers to our common sense and common experience of mankind whereas a scientist focuses on experiences of the special kind. That said,
Common experience does not have to shared by everyone to be common. Common is not the same as universal.
Similarly, depending on the kinds of knowledge the books have to communicate, they go on to instruct us differently and therefore, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner. For example, reference books cannot cure total ignorance and cannot do the thinking for you. They are useless to people who know nothing. A good encyclopedia’s index reveals the arrangement of knowledge that the work reflects.
The purpose of imaginative literature is to please and not to instruct. Even though it is much easier to be pleased than taught, it is hard to know why one is pleased since beauty is more difficult to analyze than truth. Fiction is in fact, necessary to human beings as it satisfies many unconscious and conscious needs. Plays such as those of Shakespeare’s are meant to be to acted and not intended to be read, and they contain some of the deepest and richest insights men have ever expressed in words. While reading tragedies, we must remember that the essence of tragedy is time, or rather the lack of it. Decisions and choices have to be made in a moment, and there is not time to think and weigh the consequences, and it is easy for us to see what should have been done.
Reading history is not only about learning what happened at a particular time and place in the past but also, about learning the way men act in all times and places, especially now. History books tell us the story of what led up to now. We can learn something about the future from a historian since the future will be partly determined by the present. However, we must read more than one history of an event or period of interest and must be read well because:
History suggests the possible, for it describes things that have already been done. If they can be done, perhaps they can be done again – or perhaps they can be avoided.
Lastly, reading scientific classics, especially those includes mathematics are to be read to understand the problem and not to become competent in the subject matter. Scientific writers employ mathematics often in their works because it has the qualities of clarity, preciseness, and limitedness. Sometimes the absence of mathematics can cause more trouble while reading certain works.
How to read philosophy?
Philosophy begins in wonder. – Aristotle.
It starts in childhood and for most of us; it stops there as well. As we become adults, our curiosity deteriorates in quality. Perhaps school dulls the mind by the dead weight of rote learning.
The great philosophers have always been able to clear away the complexities and see simple distinctions – simple once they are stated, vastly difficult before. If we are to follow them, we too must be childishly simple in our questions – and maturely wise in our replies.
Since children’s behinds are likely to suffer if they make mistakes, they are more concerned with the difference between good and bad.
According to Plato, conversation about philosophical subjects is perhaps the most important of all human activities. Sometimes, philosophical questions may not have an answer, and all we can do is reflect on the question. Kant says,
Dogmatism is the presumption that the human intellect can arrive at the most important truths by pure thinking, without being aware of its limitations.
However, there may be inconsistencies in a philosopher’s stance throughout his work. As Emerson said,
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Therefore, our responsibility is to just make up our minds. When we read philosophical books, we must judge what is true and what is false.
This article talks about how to talk about books we haven’t read by simply knowing how several books are related to one another.
A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.
To engage with literature — and, by extension, with the world — in meaningful ways, argues Bayard, we need to understand the relationships between works and their position relative to each other within the collective library:

One thought on “Notes from ‘How to read a book’

Comments are closed.