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How to read a book [four techniques]

By Sam Instone - March 16, 2023

'Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.'

I bet you already know how to read a book.

But do you know how to read well?

You soon will...

I'm fascinated by this area because many of us generate our future wealth and prosperity through our knowledge and skills.

But many people navigate life without getting any smarter.

They just don't (or won't) do the work needed to improve.

Research indicates they often don't read enough...or in the right way.

Like me, you probably haven’t given much thought to exactly how you read the words on the page...

Because this is allegedly what makes a massive difference to knowledge accumulation and improvement.

Reading for understanding vs. information

A lot of people confuse remembering something they read, with understanding. 

While great for exercising your memory, regurgitating facts without understanding them, doesn't do much in the real world.

It’s unlikely to help you professionally, or personally. 

Learning something insightful is uncomfortable and hard work. 

If it isn't, you’re not learning.

The four levels of reading

A great place to learn how to read, is How To Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.

They share four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary reading
  2. Inspectional reading
  3. Analytical reading
  4. Comparative reading

These levels are cumulative: you can't move up the ladder without mastering the one before:

1. Elementary reading

If you’re reading this blog, you know this already. This is what's taught in school. 

2. Inspectional reading

With inspectional reading, you can look at the author's main idea, and decide if you want to read deeper (or not).

There are two sub-types of inspectional reading:

  • Systematic skimming — check the book quickly. Read the preface and the table of contents. Read the index and the inside jacket. This should give you enough information to understand what chapters make up the author’s argument. Read paragraphs at a time, scattered throughout the book.
Eventually you'll decide if the book deserves more of your time or not.
  • Superficial reading — just read the words. Don’t think about the argument, don’t research more, don’t scribble notes in the margins. If you don’t understand something, just move on. You can go back later and put more effort in.

Inspectional reading gives you the gist. Eventually, you'll decide if you really want to understand it.

3. Analytical reading

This is doing the (thorough) work.

Inspectional reading is the best you can do if you're short on time. 

Analytical reading is the best you can do if you have time. 

Many use 'marginalia', scribbling notes or comments in the margins of a book, when reading analytically -

Adler and Van Doren proposed four rules for analytical reading:

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter (e.g., fiction, history, science)
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity (in a single sentence or phrase)
  3. Enumerate its major parts in order and relation, and outline them as you've outlined the whole (break the book down)
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve (this can help you engage with the author's ideas more deeply)

Simple, but not easy.

Luckily, you've mastered inspectional reading, so are ready for the challenge.

4. Comparative reading

Also known as syntopical reading, this involves comparing and contrasting multiple books or sources on a particular subject or topic.

It's the most demanding of all.

It focuses on analysing the similarities and differences between works, rather than just understanding each work on its own...

Taking a set of relevant books or sources, and then reading them selectively and critically, with the aim of identifying common themes, ideas, and arguments across the different works.

The goal is to understand the broad subject (not a book on it's own).


To read effectively, it's important to ask the right questions in the right order and actively search for answers.

Next time you pick up a book, ask the following if you want to gain a deep understanding of it:

  1. What's this book about?
  2. What's being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is this book true in whole or in part?
  4. So what?

If all of this sounds like hard work, that's because it is.

Most people won’t do it.

The ones who want to grow and flourish, will. 

'If you want to change the world, start with yourself first.'

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