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Reading Well: Harder Than You Think, But So Worth It

In keeping with the idea that “September is a great time to learn a few new things,” I just read the first part of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. And yes, I’ve read about a zillion books in my lifetime, but why not see if there’s more to learn about getting the most from a really great book?

A few notes from reading Section 1…

09-02 How to Read a Book

  • Why read? Basically, we read for entertainment, information, or understanding. This book is all about the art of reading for increased understanding.
  • Reading for understanding requires effort. It’s not the falling-asleep-while-reading-a-novel that we sometimes do to relax.
  • Guess what? There’s more to learn about reading. Most of us don’t learn enough about how to read well in school.
  • Also, it’s possible to misread books: to read widely, but not well. To be a “bookful blockhead.” (Ouch.)
  • How is reading like baseball? The writer throws the ball and the reader catches it (great analogy). Both of these require active participation and skill.
  • Quick overview of the four levels of reading:
    1. Elementary Reading. Beginning literacy. Reading the words.
    2. Inspectional Reading. Skimming & pre-reading with purpose. Even many good readers don’t do this.
    3. Analytical Reading. Intensely active, question-asking, chewing-and-digesting reading for understanding.
    4. Syntopical Reading. Comparing multiple sources and creating a new synthesis from what you’ve read.
  • Inspectional reading sets the stage for taking a deeper dive later. It has two parts:
    1. Systematic Skimming or Pre-Reading. Do I really want to read this book? Is it worth a deeper dive? What’s the general theme? What are the big ideas? What’s the structure of the book? There are 6 steps for this, and they go quickly.
    2. Superficial Reading. Read the book quickly. Don’t stop to look things up or puzzle out difficult concepts. Breeze through. Don’t wrap yourself around the first tree that gets in your way; instead, get a sense of the whole forest.

09-09 Mendocino Redwoods

  • The last chapter in Section 1 is about being a “demanding reader” by asking questions and taking notes.
  • There’s a delightful summary about learning complex skills (like reading well).
  • They also have a motivational section that says:
    • When you want to read for deeper understanding, you’ll find their system for reading well worth it. (They point out the value.)
    • Reading well is likely harder than you think it is. (Not too easy.)
    • You can learn it, step-by-step. (You can use proximal goals to help you.)
    • Even though there’s a lot of effort involved, you can do it! (Not too hard.)

I’m enjoying this book. For me, the section on superficial reading was great. I already do some of what they suggest, but I can see room for improvement. At the same time, I sometimes stop after one quick read even when I’d benefit from a more analytical approach. So I’m looking forward to reading the next section, which is all about Analytical Reading.

What do you think? Do we rush through everything without enough attention? Are there some books (or other writings) that we’d do well to read more thoroughly? Is it worth brushing up on our reading skills?


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  • Tony Moore

    Jeanne, I’m so glad to hear that you’ve discovered this book–although, I suspect that you don’t need it nearly as much as I did when I first found it. It’s a delight to read, and full of quotable text. Here’s one of my favorites:

    “Why a liberal education? Because a liberal education (arts) consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These are the arts of reading and writing and of listening and speaking.

    “The rules of grammar, logic, and rhetoric govern the operations we perform with language in the process of communication.

    “A Bachelor of Arts degree indicates competency in the skills of learning — skills in the use of language and in the use of other symbols.

    “The liberal arts include various skills in dealing with language and in dealing with operations and symbolism of mathematics.

    “Grammar, rhetoric, and logic help you to use language effectively in writing, reading, speaking, and listening.

    “Arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy help you to measure, calculate, and estimate.

    ” ‘Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.’ Bacon.”

    I suspect that I hae ADD. I’ve always had a problem learning, reading, and participating in conversations–I have a terrible time filtering out distractions. This book changed all of that (at least in regards to reading and learning).

    I didn’t know how to learn until I read Adler’s book. Given his procedures and his questions to ask, I found myself getting immersed in non-fiction books, highly resistant to distractions, and able to read for long periods of time (impossible unless I was reading a good novel). Literally, it changed my life.

    Without Adler’s help, I would never have been able to finish Gilbert’s “Human Competence” much less understand it. I am a performance technologist because of Adler (and a pretty good one because of Gilbert, Harless, Rummler, Daniels, et al–with syntopical reading, thanks to Adler and Charles Van Doren).

    Speaking of Doren, he is a scholar in his own right. But, do you know what he’ll be remembered forever?

    As I said, I can’t imagine that you need this book. But, it can’t hurt to brush up on old skills. in the process, you may discover something useful that is new to even you.

    ~ Tony

    • jeannefarrington

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Tony. Someone recommended this book to me years ago… and I thought it would be a great start to my “back to school” reaction that I always have to this time of year.

      Especially with your endorsement, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. There’s always room to do a thing better, even reading, which it might be too easy to take for granted.

      And here’s another thought about reading… If I know I’m going to write about a book (article, etc.), then that is a good way to focus my attention, too.

      It seems very sad about Charles Van Doren’s quiz show scandal. He’s had a long life and done a lot of good, but the scandal stands out.

  • Tony Moore

    Jeanne, just checking in to see if you finished Adler’s book. If so, what is your final assessment? If not, what was it that turned you off?