How to Read Intelligently

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Oct 26, 2013
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“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” ”• Mortimer J. Adler

Surprisingly, most people can’t read or simply don’t know how. I wouldn’t classify anyone here in the latter group, as you take the time to read this and other articles. Chances are you already know how to read, as we were all taught the basics in public school. The question to ask yourself is do you know how to read efficiently, extracting understanding from the context of the information. If you are like the majority of people who read you may have not given the topic much thought. I wouldn’t have thought about it to seriously either if it weren’t for a comment recommending the topic from a reader of a previous article.

I had superficially read “How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading” by Mortimer J. Adlerin the past but had not put much serious thought into the subject until now.

Information Versus Understanding

Do you read for information or do you read for understanding?

Not very many people need to be taught how to read. We all know how.

But do you really know how to read for insightful understanding, not facts and noise?

We have been taught in dogmatic institutions that the way to great grades is memorization and regurgitation, not elaborate second level thinking with original thought, rationale, and connections being made to previous knowledge. When the literature is processed passively without effort, it may be a cue that you are absorbing information not understanding.

Many people read from front to cover, never skipping a page or paragraph in a systematic process. THIS IS THE WRONG APPROACH. Jump ahead, skip-around, read whatever catches your eye and looks interesting. If it does not peak our interest through the discovery phase chances are it will not make a connection and we will lack understanding. If we lack understanding, we won’t remember once the information leaves our sensory and short-term memory,this is where most people memorize facts (albeit short-term) instead of looking for knowledge that may add another layer to our cake of understanding. Our mental filter and memory consolidation process are the guards to our long-term memory; stimuli that cannot cause large concentrations of neurons to fire will be the reason the information, context or knowledge is lost.

Your time is limited and chances are the rest of your life you wont be reading fictional stories that must be read front to back to gain understanding of the stories plot. This leaves you in the reading camp of textbooks, trade journals, academic studies, trade reports, histories, annual reports, manuals and so on.

Learning from Higher Understanding

It is essentially pointless to read literature from someone that has less understanding of a particular topic than you. You must challenge your brain and read literature you do not fully understand. You must find writers who may benefit you due to their abundance of knowledge on particular subjects. (Ideally more than yourself) Reading (and exercising your brain) is like going to the gym to bench press weights. Overtime your chest and arms become noticeably larger to others, much like the wisdom you gain from understanding insightful literature.

Scanning and Pleasure Seeking

It is apparent that people online do not always read or understand the “whole” of an article and instead like to search out interesting information that also entertains. If you have published any kind or work online and received comments demonstrating the reader did not understand the context of the post but rather focuses on a simple set of facts, you know what I mean.

That doesn’t mean that you should read in that particular manner but look to extrapolate an idea that is “whole.” In today’s blogging environment, content is simply reproduced and regurgitated (with most) remaining un-genuine and un-original. Although reading in this particular manner will happen from time to time regardless of how hard we focus our attention, it doesn’t mean that you always should. Consistently reading deeper into your respective niche is where an advantage can be produced. Be a demanding reader.

Summary of Reading Strategies and Techniques

Strategies and TechniquesRationale
Read The Whole Thing Major arguments and evidence matter more than details. Grasping the structure and context of the whole is more important than reading every word.
Decide How Much Time You Will Spend Your time is limited. If you know exactly how long you can spend on reading, you can plan how much time to devote to each item or chapter.
Have a Purpose and a Strategy You'll enjoy reading more, and remember it better, if you know exactly why you're reading, looking for answers.
Read Actively Never rely on the author's structures alone. Move around in the text, following your own goals and strategy. Invert “whole” ideas, viewing the alternative. Question the authors thinking and compare their ideas with similar industry related reading you may have done.
Read It Three Times The first time for overview and discovery. The second time for detail and understanding.

The third time taking notes in your own words.
Focus on Parts With High Information Content Tables of contents, pictures, charts, headings, bolds and italics, appendixes, and other areas of interest that jump out.
Use Personal Text Markup Language Mark up your books with your own notes. This helps you learn and also helps you find important references in the future.
Know the Author’s and the Organization Authors have prejudices and biases. They work in organizations that give them context. Like all of us, they are likely driven by incentives.
Know the Intellectual Context Most academic writing is an ongoing conversation, with debates, key figures, and new concepts refuting previously accepted ideas.
Use Your Unconscious Mind Leave time between reading sessions for your mind to process the material. Think about what you have read that day while laying in bed (or whenever you chose to reflect on the day)
Rehearse, Use Multiple Modes Talking, visualizing, or writing about what you've read helps you remember it. This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing and if you don’t already, keep a personal reading journal.

Four Levels of Reading (From Mortimer J. Adler)

1. Elementary

2. Inspectional

3. Analytical

4. Syntopical

Each level is cumulative to the next and cannot be reached without first understanding and mastering the level below. The goals and strategy of our reading will determine what we gain from it. Understanding each level to the process of reading will help us become better readers and hopefully, more knowledgeable. There is a large difference between reading the Harry Potter series and reading Wealth of Nations, although both are great authors the outcomes of understanding produce stark differences.


This is what we are taught in elementary school, although sadly we are re-taught in high school as well as in college/university to simply maintain our reading levels. I would love to see more advanced reading classes taught at the elementary and secondary school levels.


This process contains two major components, skimming and superficially reading. Both are sometimes frowned upon, I simply smile as an attempt to understand is being made. This is a crucial building block to understanding what you will read by mapping out the important items of focus before you commence.

Skimming: This is the process where you examine the table of contents, titles, book jacket, preface, index and appendixes. Will this be worth my time to read further is the question you are trying to answer.

Superficial Reading: I do not completely agree with this process but it is where you just simply read. You do not stop to think about arguments, ideas or metaphors, you do not look up unknown words, and you just keep reading. Very little is to be gained here but at least you are reading. This is supposed to be a primer or dry run for the second reading, where you begin to understand and form an opinion.

Analytical Reading

This is the point where you engage your mind thinking deeply and on a second level about the ideas presented. You attempt to dig deeper and truly understand the whole ideas as they are presented, connecting them with previous knowledge to form understanding. There are rules to the analytical phase and if you were to engage in this process effectively you would attempt to do the following.

· Define the problems that are being presented

· Know the arguments and context of the arguments

· Define the problems that the author is attempting to solve

· Understand the context of the ideas as a “whole”

· Identify the author’s errors, where they are misinformed, incomplete or illogical.

· Invert the arguments to view the opposite of the example presented.

So far all of the processes presented will only help us to become higher-level readers gaining further understanding by knowing what we are looking for. Although the most important phase is comparing and contrasting the readings, otherwise known as syntopical reading.

Syntopical Reading

This is the compare and contrast phase of reading where you use multiple examples and readings “whole” ideas and examine them relative to one another. They say that after reading five books on a particular topic that you may become an expert, or at least knowledgeable on a subject. How you read these books will be much more important. There are five steps to the syntopical process of reading outlined below:

Inspection: Finding the relevant topics within your chosen 5-10 books and filling in the gaps.

Assimilation: You find all the various terminology used by the author and bring it all together. Simply stated this is a translation phase.

Questions: This is an opportunity to present the questions clearly and attempt to articulate answers. A scrap piece of paper or legal pad should be kept around to frame questions you would like to find answers to in your own terminology.

Issues:This is a chance to invert your questions and answers looking for multiple viewpoints to a particular problem. Understanding the questions and problems from multiple viewpoints will allow you to form an intelligent thesis and intelligently converse on a particular issue.

*It is important to note we do not need to have an opinion on everything.

Discussion: A single truth will likely not be found, as it is an agnostic world we live in. The value is added from the multiple viewpoints that are presented during the discussion, discerning various problems, and forming an intelligent opinion on those matters. You have come to the point where you are able to have an intelligent opinion on the matter.

Now Sum It All Up: Be a Demanding Reader

Reading is not about absorbing as much information as you can or being able to recite facts but to be able to recall and present ideas in a simple manner with an intelligent opinion on the matter. The reading process is about asking questions, looking for answers, inverting ideas, understanding the answers and discerning an opinion for you . Ask yourself what are the main ideas, what is the author trying to articulate and are the ideas presented true?

Most people won’t do what is required to become a more efficient reader (most people don't even read regularly) and understanding the ideas presented, but that doesn’t mean you have to be included in the pile.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” – Dr. Seuss
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