Four Steps to Reading

Mortimer Adler has outlined four distinct steps that describe how exactly we should read in order to derive the most benefit from it. If you’re reading this, you’ve already completed the first step, which is learning how to read. Following that, you need to learn how to identify resources worth reading. This can be done by skimming through parts of a book and seeing whether it appeals to our interests. Once we find some suitable books, we utilize analytical reading, wherein you closely analyze what it is that you’re reading. Figure out the main thesis of your book, what genre or category it falls under, the historical context of the author’s arguments, etc. Lastly, read several different books on the same subject and compare the arguments they present in what is known as syntopical reading.

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Four steps to reading

While tips and tricks from billionaires can help you read more, these might well prove to be useless if you don’t know how to read in the first place. The thought of someone not knowing how to read words might sound absurd, but many of us do read in ways that are either inefficient or ineffective for retaining information for long periods of time.

To aid us in this endeavor, Adler outlined four cumulative stages to reading. They are cumulative because each builds on the next—you cannot skip a stage.

Stage 1: Elementary reading (or, How to read)

This is the basic skill of understanding that the squiggles on the page mean something, and deciphering that meaning. This is the level of merely knowing what the words in front of you literally say; it’s what we worked from as schoolchildren and return to if learning another language.

The nuts and bolts of language are understood and used practically at this level. Here you learn how grammar, spelling, the alphabet and various rules of vocabulary and syntax work. If you’ve managed to make it thus far in this book, you’ve already successfully completed this step.

Stage 2: Inspectional reading (or, Should I read this?)

When you scan a text superficially, you are doing inspectional reading to get an idea of the overall content and type of information to be found in that text. What kind of a novel is it? What is this blog post about and is it relevant or interesting to you? Is this the kind of thing that you want to (or indeed can) read? Skimming and scanning answers these questions for you.

● Are you reading for pleasure or for information?
● What information do you want to gain, and how does this text support your goals?
● What are you hoping to have gained by the time you finish reading?

Look at the subtitle, and blurbs on the front and back cover or inner flaps for summaries or info about the author. Decide what genre it falls into. Flip to the table of contents and look at both the chapter titles and the overall book structure. Flip through the book and look at any diagrams, the index or glossary at the back.

Can you see what other books the same author has written? If you want to, read the intro, prologue or the first few paragraphs of each chapter to get an idea of the style, tone and general arguments the author will be making. Flip through the book and read any sections that stand out to you—are they relevant, interesting or useful?

Now, don’t just dive in and start reading. Depending on what you discover, decide whether you’ll read the book at all, when, why, and how. You might decide to put it on a waiting list for the time being, or simply read the introduction and final chapters to get a flavor. You may instead choose to read something else before embarking on this book, or forego it entirely for something more relevant, appropriate or interesting.

For difficult texts, you may benefit from first conducting a superficial read, where you move quickly without pausing to try to understand unknown words or concepts. Read through from start to finish, understand what you can, and pass over what you can’t. You can dig in with dictionaries or use external resources later; first just get a general grasp of the material, and your familiarity with it.

This method primes your brain by beginning with what you can grasp, and using that to build on and understand any new material. Consulting outside resources too early or picking slowly through a dense text can slow you down or worse, have you feeling bogged down and overwhelmed.

It’s a great skill to read in an attempt to tease out the general argument in a text, even if you’re not familiar with all with the details of each individual premise. Finally, avoid reading other people’s opinions or commentaries about the text before you’ve given yourself the chance to get a sense of it on your own.

“Should I write in my books or dog ear the corners?”

Yes! Adler thoroughly believed that you need to make a book your own. A book is not a sacred object that sits pristine on a shelf and decrees immutable laws from within its pages. Make a book a part of your life by writing thoughts or questions in the margins, bookmarking important passages or highlighting and underling crucial paragraphs.

Use asterisks, shorthand symbols, colors, links to other chapters, your own opinions and arguments, and more—this makes your reading a dynamic dialogue, and not a passively received sermon! We’ll look closely at note-taking skills and techniques in a later chapter.

Stage 3: Analytical reading (or, What am I really reading?)

This stage entails thoroughly picking apart your reading for the sake of deep insight and understanding of its content. Properly digesting and analyzing a book takes time and patience—and it’s an active process that requires you to constantly engage with what you’re reading, how it’s presented, the underlying arguments, and so on.

We can break this stage down into three separate steps. The first step is an attempt to answer the question, “What is this book generally about?” in the least amount of words as possible. This is the step where we classify and outline the book in a broad sense, to get a rough overview into which we can then embed the details we’ll learn later. Doing so also gives us a clue on this book’s position relative to other books.

Ask the following questions:

● What is the genre, niche, subject or topic? (e.g. animal behavior)
● Can you state the main theme, thesis or point in one or two sentences? (e.g., It’s about using positive reinforcement to train dogs for police work.)
● What are the parts, elements or pieces that make up the book? (e.g., It has an intro, a history section, then a three-part practical guide before finishing with a conclusion.)
● What problem is the author trying to solve? (e.g., The author wants to give beginner dog trainers a comprehensive manual for K9 theory and practice.)

Though it may seem obvious sometimes, take the time to deliberately answer these questions—a lot of time and effort can be wasted on a book that is not relevant or appropriate for you, i.e. when you thought it was something it wasn’t!

The next step is to ask, “What is the book saying and how is it saying it?” Again, try running through a few questions to help you understand the overall content and style:

● What terms, special vocabulary, jargon or keywords does the author use? See if these can be inferred from context or if there is a glossary. (e.g., you may spot “antecedent stimulus,” “anthropomorphism” and “contiguity” as you scan)
● What are the major premises of the argument? These are the author’s claims or propositions, or the answers they’re supplying to a question. (e.g., Traditional negative reinforcement training doesn’t work. A more subtle approach is needed. There is some evidence to support positive reinforcement techniques, among others.)
● What conclusion does the author come to, and does their reasoning lead here satisfactorily? (e.g., The author claims their method works, and supplies clinical studies and also testimonials from prominent dog trainers, leading you to think the method may very well be a good one.)

The final step is one that some readers may be tempted to do earlier, but should more properly come only once we thoroughly grasp the what and how of a book’s content: our response and opinion. In other words, you need to comprehensively understand what you are looking at before making an opinion or judgment on it!

It’s rude to start arguing with a person before you’ve let them speak, so do the book the same courtesy and listen—really listen—to what it says first. Remember that it’s also perfectly valid to withhold judgment if you feel you don’t have enough information or context to say either way.

● Do you agree with the material? Why or why not? (e.g., I find the author’s argument persuasive—the testimonials seem sincere and irrefutable.)
● Has the author been unaware, misinformed, illogical, incomplete or otherwise biased and unfair?

This step can be the hardest of all. Remember that your main goal is learning—not confirming your own pet theories or getting the satisfaction of being the one to hold the “right” opinion, but learning. This sometimes involves more nuanced thinking, humbleness, or the maturity to say, “I personally don’t like it, but it does make a certain kind of sense.”

Reading to merely confirm our own biases is no better than reading for entertainment or escapism. It may feel fun or vindicating, but will not lead to learning. As we saw in the very first chapter, a growth mindset entails being able to honestly and maturely accept when we don’t understand, or when it’s time to drop a clearly incorrect view.

On the other hand, if you have genuinely and mindfully done your due diligence, do not hesitate to disagree with a book’s premises—even if it’s a “classic” or written by a high-profile or prominent thinker.

Stage four: Syntopical reading (or, What else can I read?)

The previous stages were about taking in and understanding the book in front of us. This last stage is about reading more broadly, beyond the limits of any one single book, to consider many different books on the same topic. If you can read broadly on the same topic you give yourself the opportunity to draw creative, novel links between ideas and theories, and deepen and enrich your insight into the material, far more than if you’d merely stayed within the narrow confines of just one perspective.

Syntopic reading is about actively comparing, contrasting, and drawing a web of connections between different authors’ arguments, not just linearly reading one book after another. You need to be able to assess the quality, relevance, suitability and potential bias in everything you read, and how each text fits into the bigger picture.

Can you identify the top five highest quality resources in your area of interest? What are the current main themes, controversies, unknowns and givens in this area? Who are the major players and what are the major arguments?

● You need to have a good grasp of the essence of each book or text. No single book will give you a comprehensive overview, but can you synthesize a collection of summaries from the top handful of authors?
● What terminology, concepts and ideas are common to all the texts you encounter? How do the authors use language differently, and what does this say about the content itself? Is there a historical or cultural element?
● Revisit a more general query—which questions are the most germane, now that you’ve read more than one perspective? What single question are all the authors answering?
● Can you find any points of disagreement or inconsistency? How have these interdisciplinary issues been resolved so far? This could guide further reading or lead you to input your own theory or interpretation.
● Looking at all the literature as a whole, what bigger patterns can you see emerging in the way the authors write, and why they write? Do you agree with their conclusions? Picture yourself at a table with the key players, having an informed conversation about the most significant themes.