I’m sure if I had been tested when I was younger, I would have been diagnosed with both dyslexia and also attention deficit disorder. I always had trouble reading and paying attention. More than the average boy, I think. It’s still a problem. But not a huge one.
Because reading was such a challenge for me, I’ve spent a fair amount of time teaching myself how to become a better and faster reader. A major influence was How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. I read it years ago – the original version, published in 1940. And just last week, I spotted it on my bookshelf and decided to read it again. I was curious to see if it was as eye-opening as I remember it being.
Well… some of what Adler had to say does seem a bit dated now. But the core message is still true and useful.
If you don’t know who Mortimer Adler was, you should get acquainted. He was a philosopher and educator that wrote some of the most helpful books I have ever read on several topics. (10 Philosophical Mistakesis probably my favorite.)
Adler argued that the educational system of his day (mid 20thcentury) had failed to teach students the art of reading. Being poor readers, they were poor learners. Being poor learners, they were less likely to be successful in life.
To become a good reader, Adler argued, you must first understand that there are many ways of reading. Reading poetry is very different from reading a novel. And reading a history book is very different from reading a self-help book – for example, a book on the art of reading.
If you are reading a novel, you should give yourself permission to read it any way you like. You can skim it or read it word for word. You can speed-read it or read it slowly out loud. Reading fiction is about enjoyment and (in some cases) broadening the imagination. It’s not about learning per se. If learning is your aim, non-fiction is usually a better tool.
Adler’s interest was in non-fiction. Specifically, how to improve both the efficiency of reading it and the capacity to learn from it.
His method was based on years of observation and experimentation and common sense. Like Aristotle, his philosophical hero, Adler’s advice on reading, as on other topics, is eminently sensible.
To become a proficient reader of non-fiction writing, he says, you must approach the text in three stages and approach each stage differently.
Stage 1. Structural Reading
Before reading the first paragraph of chapter one, take a careful look at the book from a structural perspective. Look at its size and its layout. Read the cover copy and the text on the back and inside flaps. Look at the title page and the table of contents, the title chapters and the index. If it has a preface or postscript, read that.
In this stage, you are figuring out what the book is trying to do. You are basically inspecting it to answer several questions: Is it trying to teach you how to do something? Is it trying to persuade you of a theory or give you a perspective on the world? What arguments is it seeking to make?
Stage 2. Interpretive Reading
The second stage is where you dive into the book, looking for the answers to those questions.
How you read the book – in terms of whether you read it quickly or slowly, making notes, or even skimming – doesn’t matter. What matters is that you come to understand the author’s ideas and opinions. If, for example, the book is a biography, you read not only to understand key facts about the subject’s life, but the author’s view of him. His strengths and weaknesses. His struggles. His place in history, etc.
Stage 3. Critical Reading
The third stage is the process of evaluating the author’s ideas and arguments.
Go through the book again, reminding yourself of what the author was trying to do. Ask yourself if you agree with his view of the subject matter. His research, his logic, and his propositions. What are his core ideas? Did he present them well? If so, how? If not, how?
Making Sense of All This on a Personal Level
I’ve written other essays on the importance of reading and on my particular method for reading non-fiction. Now, having just re-read Adler’s How to Read a Book, I realize that this is where much of my method must have come from.
Here’s what I do…
I read the preface of the book (if there is one) word for word, since the preface often lays out the core argument. Then I read the first paragraph of every chapter and the first line of every paragraph. I read more only when I feel compelled to. Either because I need a better understanding of one of the bits I just read or because it has drawn me in.
Think of the process this way:
Reading non-fiction is for self-improvement, so do not feel compelled to read a non-fiction book cover to cover, word for word. Identify what it is that you seek to learn from the book and read it with that specific objective in mind.
Remind yourself that you can’t possibly remember every detail. Studies show that most people forget more than 90% of what they’ve read within a matter of weeks, if not days. So don’t even try. Narrow your focus to a half-dozen or (as I do) to a single big and worthy idea. Delve into that. Understand it deeply. Form your own opinion of it.
And then move on to the next book.
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