How To Read A Book

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

John Green

One of the fruits of my Learning Hour has been finishing How To Read A Book. I picked this book up years ago, but never quite put the time aside to finish it – now however after explicitly putting aside an hour a week to read, I’ve gotten through it quite quickly.

The book essentially is a crash course in critical reading, giving some guidance and rules on how best to inspect a book, the authors point of view, and finally your own. While I’ve semi learned this from my PhD, I think having read this earlier in life would have really paid dividends.

The authors outline some levels of reading (or understanding) of a book, which I’ll paraphrase here:

  1. What type of book is this? A treatise, a reference book, a work of fiction, etc?
  2. State what the book is about in a couple of sentences.
  3. How is the book laid out? What is its structure, what is its overall narrative in terms of chapters, and how are they related to each other?
  4. What is the problem the author is trying to solve?
  5. What are the key sentences or insights that the author has brought to your attention in each section?
  6. What are the important terms used by the author? What key words are repeated often, drawing your attention?
  7. Is the book True? What of it? So you agree? If not, is it due to lack of information by the author, bad use of logic, or an incomplete work?

These rules are then modified for poetry, philosophy, fiction, etc. Its a really nice system for drilling down into a book. Finally they touch on what they call Syntopical Reading, where you read across a bibliography in order to research a topic – and as such you must translate a group of authors’ terms onto common ground – your own.

I found it was an interesting and still incredibly valid perspective even in these days of Wikipedia and indexed research articles. Taking the time to really absorb and think about the information, and to introspect your own decisions about the material.

Discussion Points

  1. Have you disagreed with a book (or point) recently? Which category of disagreement did you land in?
  2. Have you read a book in which you keep returning, trying to tease out the meaning?
  3. Do you still read books?

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