I spend quite a lot of time reading books. Ergo, it's not surprising that finding out more about the act of reading itself interests me. Nevertheless, I didn't look for this book... it found me, during one of my random browsing sessions of Amazon. When I saw the title I immediately got intrigued - you don't see much books about books. When I read the description, editorial's review and a few users' comments, I immediately felt it's a "must have", and added it to my wishlist, buying it after a couple of months.

With this in mind, my expectations from "How to read a book" were quite high, on one hand. On the other hand, what can someone teach me about reading ? I mean, reading is the basic art of following with your eyes a few pages (or a few hundred pages), trying to understand what the author means. Sometimes it's for entertainment, and sometimes it's for education.

Well, it appears that there is something to learn about reading, but the authors of "How to read" don't even pretend to teach you about the reading you think of when you think of "reading". The authors divide the activity of reading to four categories:

Elementary - this is the reading we all think of, mostly for entertainment - read the book once, cover to cover, put it back on the shelf. If the book's bad, not much to do. If it's good, in the worst case you gained a few hours of entertainment, in the best case you also learned something. The authors don't talk much about this kind of reading, because we all know how to do it.

Inspectional - you have a book in your hands, and you should decide whether you want to read it. The book is 800 pages long, and you have 30 minutes to decide. What do you do ? This is not a completely fictitious scenario. Consider taking a stroll through a bookstore, picking up a book from the shelf and deciding whether to buy it. Consider going to the library, finding some book on the topic you need, and deciding whether you really want to read this book. You are faced with the challenge of Inspectional reading - inspecting the book in a limited time. So what do you do ? This, "How to read a book" tries to teach. (Read front cover, foreword, back cover, go through the table of contents, last few pages, last pages of chapters, index, etc...)

Analytical - this type of reading the authors develop the most, devoting a big part of the book to it. This is reading a serious book, seriously. By serious I mean not just for entertainment, because there Elementary reading would suffice. I mean reading a book that it over your head - in order to learn something new. Here lays the most important lesson from "How to read a book", by the way. The authors (rightfully) claim that if you really want to expand your thinking and "grow your mind", you should read books that are over your capacity, not under it. By reading easy books you won't gain much. You will, however, gain a lot by reading works that are hard to you, that you find hard to understand. The act of (analytically - using methods the authors teach during this chapter) reading this book and understanding it is some kind of enlightment - you have expanded your thinking - you can now grasp something you could not grasp before. It's a very good lesson from this book, in my opinion. So, Analytical reading is the act of reading such books - how to understand the important story line, the author's questions, his problems, solutions to these problems, understanding where the author comes from, (dis)agreeing with the author, et cetera.

The last type of reading the authors present is Syntopical reading. This is the reading of several books on the same subject, trying to gain from them something that's not in any single book. The subject must be something relatively vague - something which isn't clearly defined and agreed on by everyone. Different authors should have a different opinion on the subject, and by syntopically reading their books, you can form an opinion of your own, which is possibly not the opinion of any of the authors you've read. This is discovery and mind expansion in its purest sense. Hence, IMHO, is more for the researchers, as Syntopical reading takes a very long time, but its benefits are probably formulating some new ideas about complicated subjects.

The book is concluded with a recommended reading list, of books that are "over most people's heads", and a few exercises in reading (with questions), which at first I wanted to skip, but eventually went through them and enjoyed quite a bit.

All in all, I liked this book. It didn't stand to my original expectation, but could it ? I'm not sure. It taught me other things, however. The most important lesson I gained is that one should read hard books, but good ones - for becoming smarter. I guess I'm on the right way trying to get through the best classics of the past two centuries (a list I mentioned before in this journal, which has many similarities with the recommended reading list of this book). For now, I'm at 17 out of 110, so there's still a long way to go :-) I hope that "How to read a book" will help me tackle some of the trickier works on this list.


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