How to Read a Book

Is this title a bit condescending? After all, one thing we’ve in common at the Kill Zone is we’re avid readers. We enthusiastically read books, ergo: All writers are readers, but not all readers are writers. Right? (said in a mock-condescending tone) “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. Simple as that.”  ~Stephen King in On Writing.

I’m not sure where, but I recently stumbled across a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It was published in 1940 and remained in print ever since. That speaks for itself, so I bought a Kindle version to see what the fuss was all about. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:

With half a million copies in print, How to Read a Book is the best and most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader, completely rewritten and updated with new material.

A CNN Book of the Week: “Explains not just why we should read books, but how we should read them. It’s masterfully done.” –Farheed Zakaria

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests you can use measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension, and speed.

What I found was a compressed guide to improving reading skills and getting maximum value from any publication, whether that be fiction or non-fiction. It’s a timeless resource for anyone seeking efficiency and thoughtfulness in their reading approach. The authors emphasize reading should be an active process that demands full engagement and critical thinking where a reader should be aware of their methodology which they break into these four categories:

Elementary Reading — This level is the most basic skill where readers grasp the primary surface content and simple meaning of the book. (Fun)

Inspectional Reading — This level allows readers to scan the material, particularly the preface, index, and chapter openings/closings to assess the book’s structure and main ideas. (Curiosity)

Analytical Reading — This level engages a deeper examination of the book’s core content such as the author’s arguments, key concepts, and presented evidence to support the book’s point. (Research)

Syntopical Reading — This level is the highest reading form where multiple books are read so the reader can fully understand the entire subject matter delivered from multiple sources across the knowledgeable spectrum. (Eggheadism)

So far, I’ve done a Level One go-over on How to Read a Book. It intrigues me enough that I’m going straight to Level Three and understand this information, but I thought I’d share my new find with folks at the Kill Zone. So, let’s discuss how we read books. Fiction and non-fiction.

Do you have a process that’s similar to these four methods, maybe a combination, or possibly an entirely novel approach (don’t excuse the novel pun) to reading? What’s your way of enjoying, comprehending, and retaining stuff in the books you read?

30 thoughts on “How to Read a Book

  1. “Retaining” what I’ve read has become more difficult over the years. In the sense that we have so much information flying at us in so many forms. The only fail-safe for me in retention is writing notes of the key take-aways.

    The process or levels that you describe in this post are why I actually prefer reading non-fiction to fiction. Generally speaking, I’m reading non-fiction to learn something new, which means not just assessing what that particular book is saying and evaluating their sources, but doing further research on the topic to gain that broader understanding.

    With fiction that doesn’t happen as much, generally speaking. Most fiction is a one-and-done read. Sometimes it may bring up a subject or allude to a fact that I follow up on in other research or readings, but the majority of the time you just read through and are done.

    But your post reminds me of a childhood dream come true: reading the right fiction raises your curiosity & can change a life. I grew up in a flat and featureless east coast town. But reading about the vast expanses of the western U.S. and it’s mountainous regions in fiction caused me to spend a lot of time studying the geography of the west as a kid–the mountains, the national parks, etc. And one day the west became my home.

    How cool is that? That a work of fiction can impact a life by instilling a dream? And to your post’s point, if a novel has gotten a hold of the reader in that way, they did more than a level 1 reading.

    • Good morning, Brenda, from another easterner who became a westerner because of reading. We’re on the same page about noting key takeaways in non-fiction. Recently, I’ve been cheating on some books by going to Chat and asking it to write a synopsis of a particular book and having the bot list the takeaways. As they say, whatever works. Enjoy your day!

  2. I’m all for fun these days. Heck, I have no retention of my own writing, but if I’m entertained for a while, that’s enough. Reading for research is more Level 3, but what I’ve read only stays with me as long as I need it to. Once it’s down in the wip, it’s gone.

    • I read far more non-fiction than fiction, Terry – mostly through Kindle because of the cost and convenience. I still prefer print and going through it with a red pen and a yellow highlighter but I always take hand notes because my 66-y-o brain has little retention anymore.

  3. Thanks for introducing us to this book, Garry. It is now on my list to buy and study.

    I approach fiction and nonfiction differently, using #2 and #4 for nonfiction, and usually #1 for fiction. I am starting to look for ways to better analyze fiction (? #3 ?). I’m eager to see what I can glean on that subject from this book.


  4. I definitely look at the chapter names and headings (aka, read the table of contents). But I’ve always hated scanning. Sure, in my high school science textbook that was easy to do (just skip to the bolded words), but otherwise I want the full experience. Needless to say, I got yelled at a lot in school for “reading too slow” accompanied by the “if you don’t do x, you’ll epically fail in life and no one will take you seriously.” Are there any othe millenials here who had to go through that?

    • Hi Azali. I spent a few years writing commercial web content and scanning is how that stuff is consumed so I had to adjust my writing style to the market. BTW, what’s a millennial? 🙂

  5. Thanks for the book tip, Garry!

    I’m a “start at page one and then go straight on til morning…”. Oh, wait, that last bit was Peter Pan, right? Oh well…

    I’ve decided I’ve got to get this book. It sounds intriguing. Maybe I’ll remember more of what I read.

    Now, I wonder if I can get my husband, who does not read books (gulp!) to read this one.


    • You’re most welcome, Deb. I’m half way through the book now and I found myself skimming while making notes. So far, the authors make a lot of sense but haven’t made any suggestion (yet) on how to get a non-reader reading.

  6. Garry, thanks for introducing us to this classic. Much of the time reading is so automatic, it’s like breathing. Most people haven’t broken it down into these steps.

    B/c I edit a lot of fiction, most of my reading is analytical, trying to diagnose what isn’t working, why, and how to fix it. That kinda takes the fun out of reading for pleasure but it’s good mental exercise for the old brain.

    I tend to skim nonfiction, picking out facts I need to know b/c it’s usually research either for an article I’m writing or to add authenticity to whatever novel I’m working on.

    As a number of the commenters mentioned above, I don’t retain as well as I used to. Worse, I forget where I read something and can’t find it again when I need it! My brain needs a Google search function.

  7. Good morning, Garry. I just picked up a copy of the book.

    When I was in high school, one of my English classes had an experimental program for reading retention. (Ironically, I don’t remember everything about it, but I believe it was a three-step process.) The idea was to (1) pre-read material (check the table of contents, understand the scope of what you’re going to read), (2) Read it (or whatever parts you’re interested in), and (3) review the material (either through your own thoughts or by discussion with others.) It must have made a big impact on me because that’s basically the way I approach non-fiction.

    Reading fiction is different. I confess that I skim some novels. I’m not quite as bad as Woody Allen who said, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

    Thanks for a great suggestion!

    • I’m sure you’ll get some value from How to Read a Book, Kay. It’s written in 1940s male vernacular, but it’s very clear and informative. Spoiler alert: You’ll never look at the Declaration of Independence the same way again.

  8. There seems to be some misapprehension of scan. Let’s check some definitions:

    Scan, vb., transitive: 1. To look at carefully or thoroughly, especially in search of something; examine.
    2. To look over quickly or read hastily.
    3. To search (stored data) automatically for specific data.
    Note that the primary definition (#1) is to read carefully. Scan, as applied to poetry, means to check syllable by syllable, analyzing for rhythm and rhyme. “It doesn’t scan” means the rhythm is faulty.

    Thus “skimming” is not “scanning,” and vice versa. Best to leave definition #2 for scan out of your vocabulary as misleading.

    Which brings us to novel-gazing, the literary equivalent of navel-gazing. Novels are meant to entertain us. If I find a novel calls attention to its structure or grammar or syntax, either by its awfulness or its excessive cleverness, I may soon abandon it. I want to be carried away by the story, not the words used to tell it. Not only is writing a tale a partnership between myself and my Unconscious, reading is, too.

    Novel-gazing can be useful in learning how to write better, examining someone else’s methods–setup and payoff, maintaining tension, character development, and so on and on. This bookish sort of autopsy can also be fun, but at a different level.

    • You always have great perspective, JGA. Very interesting comparative between “skim” and “scan”. “Novel gazing”. Now that’s a new term to me but I fully understand what you’re saying.

  9. Syntopical Reading doesn’t really fit fiction. I’d be considered a professional fiction reader with all my literary and teaching degrees as well as years as a writing teacher, book doctor, reviewer, and contest judge. (I made money on it, hence professional.)

    I read for fun, these days, but that analytical aspect of my brain is always on and grinding away. I learned how to mainly ignore it back in college then retrieved all the data when I needed it, but the most interesting information floated to the top like whispers.

    With the exception of news and some blogs, I only read nonfiction as a Syntopical Reader. When I’m interested in a subject, I research the sh*t out of it until I move on to another obsession.

    • Thanks for your input, Marilynn. You certainly have the track record to support it. I don’t read much fiction as compared to non-fiction but I agree it’s hard to go through a novel using the syntopical method. Having said that, I can’t help but to read fiction with a writer’s eye.

  10. I do Post-it reading. For non-fiction, lots of Post-its sticking out all sides of the book. If I own it in print, I also add highlighting with markers, too. For fiction, still Post-its, but fewer of them. Mostly for style things I want to note or copy for my own writing.

    When I go to the library to renew books, I always get a laugh from them when they see all the Post-its!

    BTW, Post-its® are the greatest invention of the 20th century.

      • “The library books I saw returned that were festooned with Post-its told me that the borrower had truly engaged with the material”

        Or, was a writer. 😉

    • Great tip, Harald. I recall using a pre-Post-it system back in the police academy which I have to admit was 45 years ago. We had some sort of plastic clips snapped to our text book pages that held color-coded chips. I guess those cumbersome things are long gone. BTW, I read somewhere that the glue used in Post-its came from a failed 3M experiment. Truth, or urban myth?

  11. Love this post, Garry! I’ll have to pick up a copy of that book.
    With fiction, my goal is immersion. With non-fiction, its learning but also immersion in a topic. An excellent military history written by an accomplished writer such as Craig L. Symmonds (the Battle of Midway; Gettysburg) or Stephen L. Sears (Landscape Turned Red: Antietam) will pull me in and immerse me in the subject as much as a novel on the same topic, such as Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (about Gettysburg).

    Depending upon the topic, I’ll do variants of each of the four, though I’m especially found of synoptical reading, and love to read multiple books on a particular topic. My innate history major + librarian + high input personality 🙂

    Thanks for a fun and thought-provoking post!

  12. I can’t skim. I need to totally immerse myself, or I won’t be invested. Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction. I read both the same way. Curious about learning how to read faster, though, unless it involves skimming.

    • See, I managed to show up today, thanks to you 🙂 Curious – when you read point-form blog posts, do you still immerse or do you skim/scan? By the way, I liked JGA’s definition of scan and skim.

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