How to read a book


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I wish I had read this book before I was 20, or at least during the time I was preparing for competitive exams for my MBA. "How to read a book" is a must read for all those people who are interested to improve their reading skills. I picked this book for the new from my antilibrary to be in pace with my new year resolution to read 25 pages every day and am super glad I started the year with this book. I will summarize the key takeaway. Here are few excerpts, 

There are 4 basic questions a demanding reader should ask a book
  • What is the book about as a whole?
  • What is being said in detail,and how?
  • Is this book True, in Whole or Part?
  • What of it?
I am making a point to ask these questions on all the books I would read hereafter. There are four levels of reading we can do,

  1. Elementary reading
  2. Inspectional reading
  3. Analytical reading
  4. Syntopical reading
Elementary reading, is something which all of pick up from our school on how to read letters, words and sentences and make meaning out of it. Which we pick up as we grow up. Inspectional reading on the other hand is trying to get the maximum info about any piece of article or book in a given time. But the focus of the book was on the higher levels of reading mainly analytical and syntopical reading. Analytical reading is truly a way to become a very demanding reader. Analytical reading can be grouped into 3 stages - structural, interpretive and critical. 
Stage 1 : Structural reading
  • Classify the book according to subject matter
  • State what is the whole book about with utmost brevity
  • Enumerate the major parts in their order and relation and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  • Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve
Stage 2 : Interpretive reading
  • Come to terms with the author by interpreting the key words
  • Grasp the leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  • Know the author's arguments by finding them in or constructing the out of sequence of sentences
  • Determine which of the problem the author has solved and which he has not.
Stage 3: Critical reading
  • Do not begin to criticize before completing the book outline and interpretation
  • Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  • Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement you make
  • How to criticize : Show where in the author is uninformed, mis-informed, illogical and author's analysis is incomplete
The author also covered in detail how to read various types of books starting from practical books, novels, plays, history and philosophy and social science.  On the face of it, it may look philosophical books are the best for analytical reading. But, books of the highest class - the books that seem to have grown with you as you read them are that would require us to read analytically. Poor Charlie Almanack, Anti Fragile by Taleb and Letters to shareholders by Buffet are a few books that I read last year which I would read again analytically. 

The highest level of reading is Syntopical reading. This involves reading multiple relevant books on a same subject to understand various arguments by various authors to improve our understanding. It was so coincidental that I was reading  Gary Taubes book on Good calories and Bad calories later this month. Gary Taubes is one of the finest Syntopical reader who read more than 1000+ books , articles and research papers on food and nutrition to write his book. If you have not read that book, it is a must read.  Here are the steps in syntopical reading, 
Stage 1  Surveying the field / prep work
  1. Create a tentative bibliography
  2. Inspect all of them to ascertain which are germane to your subject and also acquire a clearer idea of the subject
You would do the two steps again and again until you have a good list of reads
Stage 2 : Syntopical reading of the list filtered
  • Inspect the books already identified as relevant to the subject in order to find the relevant passages
  • Bring the authors to terms by constructing neutral terminology of the subject that all or great majority of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not
  • Establish a set of neutral propositions for all the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers.
  • Define the issues both major and minor one, by ranging opposing answers by authors to the various questions one side of the an issue or another
  • Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in a such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones , and relation among issues should be clearly indicated. 
For social science topics, syntopical reading works best and especially if you are someone in the path to multi disciplinary thinking advocated by Charlie Munger, you would appreciate this level of reading the most.  Here is the excerpt from the book that I loved so much, 

There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not cotinue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most of people are thirty years old, their bodies are as a good as they will ever be; in fact , many persons' body have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age, only when the brain itself loses its vigor, in senescence , does the mind lose its power to increase in skill and understanding.
 This is one of the most remarkable things about human beings and it may actually be the major difference between homo sapiens and the other animals, which do not seem to grow mentally beyond a certain stage in their development. But the great advantage that man possess carries with it a great peril. The mind can atrophy. Like muscles, if its not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise.
 Television, radio and all the sources of amusement and information that surrounds us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. They are like drugs. We grow used to them and we continuously need to more and more of them. Eventually , they have little or no effect. Then if we lack resources within our selves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally and spriutually. And wehen we cease to grow, we begin to die. Reading well, which means reading actively , is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.

(Emphasis mine). I started to appreciate reading more when I understood the power of compounding and how our brain works. I would like to continue to my reading journey every day with this goal of at-least 25 pages a day. If you want to learn how to read, do read this book How to read a book by Mortime adler without fail. 


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