How to Read a Book

by Jeremy Anderberg on June 17, 2013 · 62 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure


1. Open book.

2. Read words.

3. Close book.

4. Move on to next book.

Reading a book seems like a pretty straightforward task, doesn’t it? And in some cases, it is. If you’re reading purely for entertainment or leisure, it certainly can be that easy. There’s another kind of reading, though, in which we at least attempt to glean something of value from the book in our hands (whether in paper or tablet form). In that instance, you might be surprised to learn that it’s not as simple as opening the book and reading the words.

Why Do We Need Instructions on How to Read a Book?

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” –Francis Bacon

In 1940, Mortimer Adler wrote the first edition of what is now considered a classic of education, How to Read a Book. There have been subsequent editions that contain great information, but the bulk of what we’ll be covering today is from Adler’s words of advice from nearly 75 years ago.

He states that there are four types of reading:

  1. Elementary - This is just what it sounds like. It’s what we learn in elementary school and basically gets us to the point that we can understand the words on a page and read them, and follow a basic plot or line of understanding, but not much more.
  2. Inspectional - This is basically skimming. You look at the highlights, read the beginning and end, and try to pick up as much as you can about what the author is trying to say. I’ll bet you did plenty of this with high school reading assignments; I know I did. Think of SparkNotes when you think of inspectional reading.
  3. Analytical - This is where you really dive into a text. You read slowly and closely, you take notes, you look up words or references you don’t understand, and you try to get into the author’s head in order to be able to really get what’s being said.
  4. Syntopical - This is mostly used by writers and professors. It’s where you read multiple books on a single subject and form a thesis or original thought by comparing and contrasting various other authors’ thoughts. This is time and research intensive, and it’s not likely that you’ll do this type of reading very much after college, unless your profession or hobby calls for it.

This post will cover inspectional and analytical reading, and we’ll focus mostly on analytical. If you’re reading this blog, you likely have mastered the elementary level. Inspectional reading is still useful, especially when trying to learn new things quickly, or if you’re just trying to get the gist of what something is about. I won’t cover syntopical reading in this post, as it’s just not used much by Average Joe Reader.

Analytical reading is where most readers fall short. The average high schooler in America reads at a 5th grade level, and the average adult American reads somewhere between the 7th and 8th grade levels. This is where most popular fiction actually falls. For men, think Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Louis L’Amour, etc. These are books that are incredibly entertaining, and a great way to spend a weekend afternoon, but if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t challenge either our minds or manliness all that much. There are some fine examples of manhood in those characters to be sure, but the point is that you won’t get more out of reading them once than you will out of reading them five times. It’s also why these are the types of books that are always on the bestseller lists — they cater to the level that most Americans can actually read at.

How come people can’t read at a higher level? Are we a society full of dopes? Hardly. Adler argues that the reason actually lies in our education. Once we reach the point of elementary reading, it’s assumed that we can now read. And to a point, we can. But we never actually learn how to digest or critique a book. So we get to high school and college and get overloaded with reading assignments that we’re supposed to write long papers about, and yet we’ve never learned how to truly dissect a book and get the most value out of it.

That’s our task today with this post. Again, I’ll mostly cover analytical reading, but I’ll also touch on inspectional reading, and a couple other related tidbits as well.

Inspectional Reading

inspectionalAs mentioned above, there are certainly times when inspectional reading is appropriate. It’s particularly useful when you’re at the bookstore trying to pick out your next book and deciding if the unknown object in front of you is worth the dough. (The good news is that you can also do this with ebooks — in most cases you can scan the cover, the table of contents, the introduction, etc. before actually buying.) This type of reading is also handy when trying to learn new things quickly, or when you’re just trying to get the gist of something. It’s great for the kind of reading you should be doing to stay current in your career as well; books related to a certain industry can often be full of fluff and chapters that just don’t apply to your particular job, and inspectional reading lets you glean the things that are actually helpful without wasting time on irrelevant material.

You can often get a pretty good feel for a book with inspectional reading by following the steps below. (To get the most out of this, you can actually follow along with a book off your shelf — it will only take 5-10 minutes.):

  1. Read the title and look at the front and back covers of the book. This seems obvious, but if you pay attention, you can glean much more than you would have originally thought from just the cover of the book. What’s the title? Spend 10 seconds thinking about the title and subtitles. What is it telling you? We often glance over titles, but they often offer deep insight into the meaning of the book. I think of some of the classics I’ve recently read, The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, even Frankenstein. There’s more to these titles than meets the eye. In that last example, I’m told that the book is really more about Victor Frankenstein than about the monster he creates. It’s more about his human character than about horror. Are there images on the cover? What could those images be conveying? An incredible amount of time and money goes into cover art, so don’t neglect it. What does the blurb on the back of the book say? We often quickly scan these, but if we’re paying attention, they give us a great, succinct plot that often reveals what the book is truly about. Now it should be said that sometimes titles, cover art, and blurbs are designed more for marketing and increasing sales than they are about accurately conveying the ideas of the book, but they can usually still provide us with valuable clues as to the book’s content.
  2. Pay special attention to the first pages of the book: the table of contents, the preface, the prologue, etc. These are incredibly useful pages. The table of contents will give you an outline of the entire book, which with non-fiction can tell you much of what you need to know right there. It’s a little harder with fiction, and many novels don’t have a table of contents, but take advantage of the ones that do. Especially with novels that are considered classics, you’ll often get all kinds of introductions and prefaces. For instance, my 50th anniversary one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings has a very detailed three-page table of contents. That’s followed by a “Note on the Text” that gives me a bit of its publishing history and Tolkien’s process in writing. I then have a “Note on the 50th Anniversary Edition” that tells me that certain changes were made using Tolkien’s notes and journals. There’s then a foreword from Tolkien himself that tells a little bit of his own purpose in writing. And then I get to the prologue, which is part of the book itself. Even reading just the first sentence tells me, roughly, what the entire series is about: “The book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.”
  3. For non-fiction, skim headings and read the concluding chapter. The headings will actually often tell you the bulk of what you need to know of any non-fiction book. The text beneath the headings is often just fleshing out that main thought or theme. You can also read the conclusion to get a feel for what the author thought the main purpose or point of the book was. This is a little harder with fiction, as you don’t often get much for headings (outside of chapter titles), and at least for me, I certainly don’t want to know the end of the book. Although, I do know a fair amount of people who do; I still don’t understand that.
  4. Consider reading some reviews of the book. Your most likely destination will be Amazon. Often the top-rated review on Amazon offers a lot of information about the book – a summary and/or some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, you also have to take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt. Some negative reviews are from people who perhaps read a chapter and didn’t like something (see below regarding how to critique a book), or didn’t read the book at all! And sometimes people simply have an axe to grind against the author and are trying to “sabotage” them. And sadly when it comes to positive reviews, authors and publishers these days will sometimes pay for fake reviews of the book (a good clue for this is a whole boatload of 5-star reviews posted on the very same day/week the book is released). So look at the aggregate rating the book has received, then read a few 5-star, 3-star, and 1-star reviews and evaluate their credibility in order to get a better overall sense of the quality of the book.

Analytical Reading


You don’t need to do this type of reading for just anything. Only undertake it if you really want to get the most out of the book in front of you. Even Adler mentioned that not every book deserves this thorough treatment. But, many do. To read a great book and simply throw it back on the shelf to collect dust is in many ways a waste. The tips below apply to both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ll note where something may differ.

Let’s find out how to get the most out of what we read:

First, look up a bit about the author and the other books he/she has written. This is a personal thing. Before I pick up a book, I almost always look up the author and/or the book itself on Wikipedia. I like to know how old the writer is, what some of his or her motivations were, how autobiographical it may be if it’s a novel (you’d be surprised how many are), etc. This just gives you a little context into the author’s life that will hopefully help you understand the book a little better.

Second, do a quick inspectional reading. This is partially why I wanted to cover inspectional reading in the first place. A good, thorough reading of any book will include it. Look at the cover, always read the opening pages, etc. I know far too many people who never read introductions and just get right into page one. You’re skipping the valuable information that can actually frame the entire way you read the book. You don’t need to jump ahead to the conclusion, but at least get all that you can out of the cover and those opening pages.

Third, read the book all the way through, somewhat quickly. Adler actually calls this a “superficial reading”; you’re simply trying to digest the overall purpose of the book. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean speed-reading. It more means that you won’t stop and scrutinize the meaning of each and every paragraph. It means that when you get stuck in a place that’s hard to understand, you’ll keep on going anyway. It means that when the story slows down a little and gets boring, you don’t just read 10 pages a day, but you’ll keep powering through with the purpose of understanding the flow of the book as well as you can right off the bat. In this reading you are underlining or circling or taking notes on things you have questions about, but you aren’t looking into those questions just yet. When you’re done with the book, go back through and look at what you underlined or circled or took some notes about. Try your best to answer a few of those questions you had. If you have the time and desire, re-read the whole thing again. I often do a semi-quick reading like this for many classics that I’m reading for the first time, but then I’ll go back a few months later (okay, sometimes it ends up being years) and read it a little more slowly.

This is where many people struggle with reading older or more complicated books. You might stop 50 pages into The Iliad because you’re just too confused about the language and the style. It’s actually best to just power through that and understand what you can, and then come back to your misunderstandings later. Better to have some knowledge than none at all.

Fourth, use aids, only if you have to. If there is a word you don’t know, first look at the context to try to discern its meaning. Use your own brain to get things going. If it’s something you simply can’t get past, or the word is clearly too important for you to glance over, then pull out the dictionary. If there’s a cultural reference that you can tell is important to understanding the particular passage, Google it. The main point is that you can use the tools around you, but don’t lean on them. Let your brain work a little bit before letting Google work for you.

Fifth, answer the following four questions as best as you can. Now, these questions could have been listed as the first step, as you should keep these in mind from the second you start reading. But, they quite obviously can’t be answered until you’ve read the book. This, Adler says, is actually the key to analytical reading. To be able to answer these questions shows that you have at least some understanding of the book. If you can’t answer them, you probably haven’t quite paid attention well enough. Also, it’s my opinion that you should actually write (or type) these answers out. Consider it to be like a book journal. It’ll stay with you and become much more ingrained than if you just answer them in your head.

  1. What is the book about, as a whole? This is essentially the back cover blurb. Don’t cheat, though. Come up, in your own words, with a few sentences or even a paragraph that describes what the book is about. This can actually be surface level; you don’t have to dig too deep. For instance, boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy makes stupid mistake and distances himself from girl, boy redeems himself and gets the girl.
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? This is where you start to dig a little deeper. When you’re done with that first reading of the book, Adler recommends writing an outline of the book yourself so you get a feel for its organization and overall tenor. Briefly go back and page through the book, jogging your memory of the key points. With non-fiction, outlining is pretty straightforward. With fiction, you could do it by chapter or by setting/scene. By chapter you would simply list the chapter numbers/names and a couple sentences of what it’s about. For books with very short chapters, it could even just be a few words. For setting/scene, you just follow the characters around and say what happened of significance there. I just finished The Sun Also Rises, which could be segmented into its various settings: Paris, the fishing trip, Pamplona, and post-Pamplona where the characters go their separate ways.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part? These last two questions are where we get to the meat of reading. As before, for non-fiction, this is a relatively easy (or at least easier) question to answer. Is what the author said true? Are the facts they presented true? With fiction, it’s more about asking if what was written is true to the general human experience, or even to your own experience. In The Great Gatsby, is that feeling of loss and the futileness of great wealth true to the human experience? I would certainly say so. This is partly what turns great books into classics. They ultimately speak to the most basic truths of humanity in story form.
  4. What of it? What’s the significance? If the book is indeed saying something true about the human experience, or about manliness, what’s the takeaway? If something strikes a chord with you, and you do nothing with it, it becomes at least partially wasted. There is something to be said about literature that stands on its own merits of simply being great literature, like art, but I’ve learned there is almost always a takeaway. Or at least a way in which you may think differently about the world. My understanding of life in America during the Dust Bowl was greatly increased after reading The Grapes of Wrath. There wasn’t necessarily something I would do in reaction to it, but my appreciation for farmers and farming families of that time period certainly grew. That’s definitely a valuable takeaway.

Sixth, critique and share your thoughts with others. Notice that this step is dead last. Only after having read the entire book, and thoughtfully answered the questions above, can you critique or have meaningful discussions about the book. When reading Amazon reviews, it’s clear when someone stopped reading three chapters in and gave a terrible review. Be extra careful about coming right out and saying, “I understand the book.” You can certainly understand parts of a book, but to have no questions at all probably means that it wasn’t actually a good book to start with, or you are full of yourself. When discussing, be precise in your areas of agreement or disagreement. To simply say, “This is stupid,” or, “I don’t like it,” offers nothing to a conversation. Also know that you don’t have to agree or disagree with everything about or in a book. You can love some parts and really dislike others.

Now you’ve read a book for all its worth! Huzzah! To execute all of these practices for every book you read would be exhausting and time-consuming. I know that my enjoyment would probably be lessened if I did this for everything I read. So, take a few points and apply them to your reading. Personally, I resolved to read the difficult books I encounter all the way through (not something I’ve always done in the past), and to keep a short journal of every book I read that answers, at least in part, the four questions above.

Why Read Analytically?


This can sound like a lot of work, and you may be asking yourself if analytical reading is really worthwhile. Isn’t reading something you do for pleasure and entertainment? Partially, yes. You certainly don’t need to be sketching out an outline while you’re reading Dan Brown’s Inferno on the beach this summer (although maybe doing so will help you solve the mystery before Langdon does).

As the late great Stephen Covey taught us, however, a man should always be “sharpening the saw.” This means keeping yourself sharp in all areas of your life. Doing any kind of reading is beneficial, but engaging in analytical reading from time to time can greatly enhance these benefits and help us become better men in several ways:

Increases your attention span. The internet has given us more reading opportunities than ever before. But oftentimes our cyber reading consists of skimming and/or quickly jumping from one thing to the next without giving each much thought at all. Have you ever tried to talk to someone about something you read on the net earlier in the day only to find you couldn’t really recall much about it? Reading a book analytically gives your focus and your skills for diving into a single thing deeply and mining it for all it’s worth some much needed training and exercise. It greatly sharpens your ability to handle something as a whole, rather than in part.

Enhances your critical thinking abilities. You can read, but how are you at examining something critically? Analytical reading hones your ability to evaluate truth, weigh evidence and sources, synthesize information, make connections between different things, evaluate claims, discover wisdom hidden below the surface, understand others’ motivations, interpret symbolism, and draw your own conclusions. Quite obviously these skills are not limited to helping you better enjoy books, but are absolutely vital in becoming an independent, perceptive, and well-informed citizen and man.

Shapes you into a better man. A man who sees personal growth as being something important to him will take time to meditate on life and consider the areas in which he can improve. Books facilitate this reflection in a unique way because they present us with characters or stories (be they real-life or fictional) that we can relate to in at least some small way.

As an example, I just finished the recent sci-fi hit, Wool. It’s a unique story with great characters, and the author is fast becoming a celebrity in the indie publishing world. I could have quite easily read it and moved on to the next book in the series. But to pause, and read through passages that I highlighted, and take even just 10 minutes considering what can be learned from the book gave me a greater reading experience. Wool forced me to ask myself if there are areas of improvement in my life that I’ve glanced over simply because it’s something I’ve always done. It forced me to ask about the ways in which I’ve lessened risk simply because it was the easier way to live. I learned that doing the right thing is often terribly uncomfortable. It’s not the first time I’ve learned that lesson, but seeing it again in a unique story gives me yet another chance to be reminded of the importance of that lesson.

Reading analytically offers valuable opportunities for this kind of needed reflection and can help you think through the kind of man you are, don’t want to be, and definitely hope to become.

Additional Reading Tidbits

  • Consider paper vs. ebook. I was once a Kindle devotee. I still do a lot of reading on it, but I’ve moved to actually preferring paper. Even though you can scan all your Kindle notes and highlights at once, it’s actually easier to navigate a paper book, and skim it, in my opinion. There’s also something to be said about the reading experience. With digital devices, you really only get one sense involved — sight. With a physical book, you get multiple senses involved, making it a more immersive experience. You can feel the paper on your fingers as you turn the page, you can smell that new book (or old book) smell that is so distinct. What’s your preference? Has it changed?
  • Consider new vs. used. This is just a personal thing, but I love used books in many cases. I appreciate just knowing that someone before me has enjoyed this very text. Especially when it’s an old book, it’s always fun to wonder how many people had their eyes on these words, and what kind of setting they were in. On an airplane in 1960? In a bar in the 80s? Perhaps in college just a few years ago?
  • Consider your variety of fiction vs. non-fiction. There are significant benefits to reading a variety of genres. I am almost always reading one fiction and one non-fiction book at the same time. Your mind grows as you experience new things. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into thinking you only like one genre. I recently read some science fiction (something I didn’t think I liked very much) at the recommendation of a friend, and now I want to read much more. I’m hooked.
  • Consider whether to take notes in the book itself. I love underlining great sentences and taking short notes in pencil of things that pop into my head as I read. The only time I don’t do this is when it’s a book I plan on either giving to a friend to read, or giving away to Goodwill or a used bookstore. Some people are quite opinionated about this one, so let’s hear your thoughts!

Looking for some motivation to start reading analytically or simply start reading, period? Later this month we’ll be launching an AoM Book Club. Stay tuned for details!

What tips do you have to make reading the most worthwhile experience it can be?




{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lukas June 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and it was a fantastic story, but after reading it again in an analytic fashion It almost seems like a different book.

2 Daniel June 17, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I have all of my students read Adler’s three page article on how to annotate a book properly to move from surface reading into analytically reading. If you can legally put it up as an article for us, or just give us the gist of it in an article, that would be wonderful for many people.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the step after asking whether it is true is to go through and see what the book tells us about the six great ideas (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, Liberty, and Equality). This will also help to naturally move you toward syntopical reading, because it forces you to bring other books that you have read to bear on critiquing this authors answer to those ideas.

3 Patriq June 17, 2013 at 7:03 pm

A very timely post, as I have Adler & Van Dorens book next to me right now. It’s a pretty tough read for a non native english speaker like myself though, but I do think it (or the reading techniques within) should be thought in high school.
My own initial reason for getting this book was mainly to be able to better remember the non-fictional books I read. It’s not uncommon for me to have read a very good and informative book about some topic that I’m interested in, only to forget most of it in a few weeks, and not really be able to tell what I just read, or what I learned from it. I want to change that.
One thing I’ve learnt from “How to read a book” that I hadn’t thought much about before though is the techniques for reading fiction. To read it quickly, intensly, and with focus. To really allow myself to get into the world created by the author without questioning anything until I’VD read the whole piece, analyzed it and understood it.
Great stuff.

4 Zach June 17, 2013 at 7:07 pm

I recently finished Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This was one of the first books I took notes on in my personal time, and these notes have helped big-time in my cycle maintenance.

5 CWalls June 17, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I’m a 22 year old and still in college and I was hoping that some of you older gentlemen out there could help me pick a book to pick up on. All suggestions are appreciated

6 Mike June 17, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I’ve completely converted to ebook readers. I’m a voracious (and I believe analytical) reader, and while I admit I sometimes miss the tactile and olfactory pleasures of printed books, the ability to carry a library on a Kindle, say, outweighs the disadvantages. In addition, as I get older (65 this year), the ability to adjust the font size is invaluable.

Oh, and for a different and thoughtful perspective on reading, I strongly suggest Alan Jacobs “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.”

7 Paul June 17, 2013 at 9:09 pm

The step about reading the book all the way through before digging into the details is a very important point. And if there is one book in which this step is completely forgotten or ignored, it’s the Bible. We’re really good at analyzing and dissecting the Bible down to the last detail due to our complete reliance on the chapter-verse system, but, too often we pay so much attention to the individual verses that we miss the big picture and often some amazing literary structure. I came to this realization in college when my campus minister introduced manuscript study, in which we reproduce a large portion of Biblical text without the chapter-verse divisions. This has changed my view of the Bible and in some cases even challenged some long-held beliefs taught by my church. For any churchgoer and Bible student out there, I highly recommend giving it a try.

8 Scott Sevier June 17, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Great post. I love that this information is being put out there for this generation. The skills Adler teaches are not difficult, but without intentionality, will almost certainly not be picked up on the fly. I use this book in my Critical Thinking classes, and my students often thank me for it. It is especially practical for students – whether in high school or college, though, of course, the main point of this article, I take it, is that a well-developed skill in reading is a gateway to becoming a better person, man, citizen, what have you. I agree with that sentiment entirely. Respect for mental life is not encouraged by our culture today, and we are paying the price for it – in sloppy thinking, emotion-based or impulse buying, etc. A dull mind is the gateway drug to the death of a thousand cuts. Thanks for sharing.

9 Isaac June 17, 2013 at 9:34 pm

As for your very last point on taking notes in the book. It really depends on who we are giving it away to.

Personally, I love recieving a second-hand book with notes in it provided that they are sensible ones and are written neatly.

Knowing that I love literature, my mum gave me her high school textbooks on analysing poetry and prose. I love that she wrote copious amount of notes in it. It was an interesting experience. I felt that I was connecting with my mum’s younger self as I found myself internally debating with her on whether her points were right. Sometimes I find myself mumbling “clever girl” when she noted something I didn’t catch when I was reading the text. Fantastic experience.

10 Adam June 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm

It is nice to see Adler getting some blog time. The college I graduated from used to require incoming freshmen to have read this book before orientation. I don’t know if they still do but they should. The college was a “great books” school and in many ways it was four years of mastering the skills Adler describes. I can’t say that I really knew how to read a book before then.

As for tips on how to make reading the most worth while experience possible, I would say the more you read the better it gets. One book, on some level, is not much more than an opinion. Three or more books on a subject becomes a dialogue.

11 Matthew Hayes June 17, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Could you do a post (even a short one) on synoptical reading? Having just started a new research internship, a post on that would definitely come in handy. Regardless, a great article and I plan to start using the advice immediately!

12 Marc June 17, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I never ever take notes or underline stuff in my books. Instead I put little note stickers aside the abstract that I find worth to keep in mind.
I know that many people like to just scribble thoughts and notes into the text. But I like to keep my books clean and as unused looking as possible.

13 Austin Mullins June 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm

I’ll be honest, this is the first post in a while of yours that I actually read before deleting it from my RSS feed. This, to me, is far more interesting than anything you’ve posted in about a month. Glad to see it, and I hope it will continue.

14 Pete June 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Great article.
I’ve started reading during my freshman’s’ year and it certainly made my college days more memorable.
I began with Crime and Punishment and it really made an impression on me because of it’s characters. After that book many more came and now I fancy reading Classical Antiquity books like the “Histories” by Herodotus or “Campaigns of Alexander the Great” by Arrian, to name a few.

15 Christian June 17, 2013 at 11:33 pm

This is one of my absolute favorite books of all time, one of the few I consult regularly.

My opinion is that Adler and Van Doren set a standard so high that most people (myself included) won’t reach it. Of course, it is reaching for a high standard that is the heart of manliness.

IMHO, if you fancy yourself a reader at all, you really do owe it to yourself to read this book.

16 Jonathan Gerber June 18, 2013 at 12:31 am

I remember first coming upon pencil-written notes in the margins of a friend’s book of poetry when I was housesitting at their place one evening. Up until that point, the only markings I’d seen in books were messy ones with pens that were often the equivalent of graffiti or worse on some wall. However, I was impressed by the neatly written pencil notes my friend left behind. This was probably my first impression that writing in books can be tasteful and enlightening, even more so when you write them down yourself and discover those marks years later. As an English major, I’ve taken up this habit more and more and love to pencil in cheap paperback versions of classics and poetry in my house!

@CWalls As far as books to read for a 22 year old, one recommendation I make: To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not an overly long read yet it carries a powerful punch.

17 Ben June 18, 2013 at 12:34 am

I conducted inspectional reading of your article, but I got the gist of it and I enjoyed it very much.
Since graduating from college I’ve been reading a book a week. In college I hardly read the books I was required to read, weird how that seems to happen a lot.
Thanks AoM

18 Steve Crespo June 18, 2013 at 5:20 am


I’d recommend anything by John Steinbeck.

19 Ben June 18, 2013 at 5:34 am

Fellow men, I’m not usually the sort to comment on blogs (this is my first comment here), but I wanted to throw my two bob’s worth in on the subject of making notes and underlinings in books.

There are of course people, for example Marc who has commented here, who dislike marking texts and do not do so, simply because they do not want to and do not want to — I simply want to preface what I’m about to suggest by saying that this is obviously fine.

However, if you actually feel compelled to mark the text (and if you own the text!), then don’t feel held back by some nagging thought that it’s somehow sacrilege to write in a book: get stuck in!

First of all, a text isn’t fixed — it’s meaning is arguably completely determined by the person reading it, but at the very least it shifts in tandem with the changes of society and culture. When you mark a book with a pen, you’re contributing to a record of the particular interpretations (that are possible, likely and perhaps even ‘canonical’ or ‘legitimised’) of a text in your particular time and place. You are making it possible for our progeny to study not only the book, but responses to the book, and for them to be able to construct histories of meaning.

Secondly, the act of consuming a book (or film or piece of music or a painting or sculpture or…) is not a simple, one-way relationship between an author and his or her audience. It’s a dialogue — a collaboration between auteurs and audience members — that takes place on a variety of levels, consciously and non-consciously. While physically writing in a book is just one way of engaging in this conversation, it is a method that has much to commend it: it allows you to very consciously and determinedly interrogate an author, and to help you in crystallising your own responses to what you’re reading.

And thirdly: so-called ‘marginalia’ can be invaluable for historians trawling through the personal library of some great individual in the hope of learning more about them. I imagine that, amongst those who have gravitated towards a website as splendid as this, there are a great many of tomorrow’s great statesmen, inventors, philosophers and generals. Though your contribution to the human story will be beyond doubt, by writing in the margins of whatever gargantuan tome through which you’re currently ploughing your way, the future benefactors of your existence might be able to gain some insight into what lay behind that statesmen, that inventor, philosopher or general: the man.

(There’s clearly a good reason why I don’t post comments often.)

20 Graham June 18, 2013 at 7:25 am

I read Adler’s book and found it tough going. I think he should have read how to write a book and make it interesting before he started.

21 Charles J Miller June 18, 2013 at 7:45 am

For some books, analytical reading is accomplished over a lifetime. There are several CS Lewis titles (Screwtape and Great Divorce) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I read as a kid, and have re-read repeatedly, each time gaining new insight based on my maturity…or just aging.

An additional type of reading is one that I do frequently: technical. It involves reading in depth several to many authors’ contribution on a single topic. An example would be reading about a particular surgical procedure or disease state. This goes on (or had better!) throughout the professional career of a surgeon. Perhaps it is a sub-type of synoptical. On the other hand, since it is not really “reading a book” per se, then it may be altogether different.

I am truly looking forward to an AoM bookclub. I have enjoyed sharing this site with my four young adult sons.

22 TR June 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

“This Is It” by Alan Watts..
srsly, it’s incredible and makes your heart happy.

23 Ginger June 18, 2013 at 8:08 am

Wonderful article!

There is a wonderful book by Susan Wise Bauer entitled The Well-Educated Mind that lays out the books we “should have” read by genre along with techniques as to how to get the most enjoyment and improvement by reading them. An excellent resource, and a good starting point to the Great Books.

24 Tyler June 18, 2013 at 8:32 am

I separate my reading into two groups: books I have to read (mainly for classes), and books I want to read for fun. If I’m reading a book for fun, I have to read it purely for entertainment; if I try looking deeper, I lose interest. However, these are great tips, and I’ll likely use them in the literature class I’m taking this summer. Thank you for the post, Jeremy.

PS: @CWalls: If you’re looking for a good starting point, I’d suggest looking here first. Pick one and go from there. If you want more fiction, try here.

25 MatthewSD June 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

I heard this in Leonard Nimoy’s voice.

26 Cody June 18, 2013 at 8:59 am

As a college English Instructor, I think you did a great job with this article. There’s something here for the layman and for the scholar. Well done, Mr. Anderberg.

27 Bates June 18, 2013 at 9:13 am

Great article! Since graduating from college over a year ago, I realized that I wasted a lot of valuable time that could have been spent reading and studying more. I have slowly began reading more challenging works to broaden my reading skills and this article was a tremendous help! Thanks!

28 JWH June 18, 2013 at 9:38 am

@ CWalls:

Read anything and everything by Robertson Davies. Fifth Business is his most popular novel, and a good one to start with. Just my two cents as a Canadian!

29 Ben June 18, 2013 at 9:39 am

My favorite way to read fiction is to stop from time to time and really think about what’s going to happen next. Make theories, wildly speculate, write it down. Don’t just accept the story passively–engage! What sort of action would be true to the characters and story thus far? What has been foreshadowed? What would really turn the story on its head? Why was that last bit included at all? What did it do to drive the story forward? What would (as Mark Twain put it) drive this or that character “up a tree and throw rocks at him”? If you were writing the story, where would it go from here? It’s fun to see how the ever-changing story that takes shape in your mind zigs and zags along with the author’s actual story. It really shows you why some works are page turners, why some inspire legions of cult-like fans, why some become timeless masterpieces, etc and it puts you into an fun imaginary conversation with the authors.

30 Tyler Smith June 18, 2013 at 9:42 am

With soooo many books out there, I only read books that are recommended to me (or are classics).

31 Butwhynot June 18, 2013 at 9:49 am

The one place I absolutely despise seeing margin notes and highlights is in books from the public library.
Come on folks, have a little courtesy.
Because I do most of my reading from the public library, I tend to keep a reader’s journal instead. I identify the pages, summarize the reading, and then make my own observations.
If I truly love a book, I will purchase it after I’ve returned it to the library, and mark it up the next time I read it.
As an example, I just finished (for the second time!), and will subsequently be purchasing Studs Terkel’s “Race”.

32 Agust June 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

Great insights. I’m glad for the encouragement to press through thick prose. I’m often tempted to pick up a classic but equally as often intimidated by them. Cheers!

33 Joe M June 18, 2013 at 10:17 am

My wife and I have had this book in our library for years, but never read it. Someday I plan on passing it down to my children so they can not read it as well.

Note for the history or movie minded:
The Co-author, Charles Van Doren is THE Charles Van Doren of the game show 21 scandal. He was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Quiz Show in 1994.

34 JulioCG June 18, 2013 at 10:18 am

I always read with a notebook next to me, because I absolutely HATE writing in books. It’s definitely some sort of OCD, but I try to keep all of my books looking like they were new: I don’t even open the book all the way, because I don’t want to damage the spine.
I have them all in my bookshelf, and someday (when I have a home with enough room in it), I will have a library.

35 JulioCG June 18, 2013 at 10:19 am

P.S. Great Article! I thought I had already said that…

36 brainiac3397 June 18, 2013 at 10:38 am

School never taught me these things about reading. Rather, I managed to do it on my own. I first began by reading some old DC comics my father had found in a box in a house he was demolishing.

Soon after, I jumped to young adult fiction but quickly moved ahead to books by those authors mentioned(Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, W.E.B Griffin etc). After that, I began to read non-fiction, like biographies then political books then philosophical books. Now I’ll literally read anything from Dr.Seuss to fantasy/sci-fi fiction to non-fiction on political ideology, philosophy or history.

By the time I finished high school, I was already nearing syntopical reading. All this without any help from school, which continued to assign the same old things and ask for the same old things.

I never write in any of the books I own however, nor do I place notes in them. It’s a pet peeve, I get bothered when my books have markings in them(while in my possession that is. If it’s a used book and had been written in before, it won’t bother me). It doesn’t matter whether new or used, but used books do have a history to them(I’ve got a book that studies human history, and it was published in 1930. My copy of Atlas Shrugged was published around 1960)

Course, when I get to full syntopical, I’ll probably begin to take notes in a separate notebook.

I also never went to the library to study or do homework, for the sole purpose that I’d always find myself in the reference section(where you can’t check those books out, unfortunately) reading whatever text caught my attention. I’d spend hours, not realizing how much time had passed, reading the books.

37 Tom June 18, 2013 at 11:59 am

Make sure to read the more in-depth inspiration for this post on Farnam Street:

38 Charles June 18, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Being homeschooled, most to all of my assigned reading had to be done analytically, since there wasn’t anyone to rely on to explain a book as it was being read. (Shakespeare was fun to read this way.) I have also found that analytic reading makes it easier to read things inspectional, so that the same amount of time gives you much more information. I’ve had to read this way much more often in college since there is a lot to read and no time to read it in.

Also, it is not just books that can be perused this way. In particular, I think more time needs to be spent analytically thinking about screen media. TV and movies stay with you because if their visual nature, but stopping during and after the program (commercials are good) is just as important as it is in reading a book.

39 Jeremy Anderberg June 18, 2013 at 12:35 pm

@Daniel – love that thought about the six great ideas. I just looked it up, and I assume that concept is from the Adler book? Seems like it’d make a great article!

@Matthew – we’ll definitely take that into consideration. Didn’t think the interest would be there for syntopical reading, but it seems like it might be.

@Charles – that’s a great point. Adler makes mention of the fact that these skills can actually be applied to ANYTHING that is read, including advertisements, brochures, magazines, etc. It’s also true that these skills can (and should) be applied to other media types we consume.

40 Matt June 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Excellent article. I’m going to put this to good use. I’ve just started Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by Ludwin von Mises. I want to assimilate this book. This article will be a great help in that endeavor.

41 Kenneth Andrews June 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Great article, gave me a lot to think about. I sadly don’t do much book reading, something that as a somewhat intelligent person is a bit embarrassing. But I’m terribly slow and it just ends up dragging on but I need to start again and I think reading this has given me another kick in the pants to try to push on again. Thanks for the great article!

42 luke June 18, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Let your brain work a little bit before letting Google work for you.

i like this.

43 Zach June 18, 2013 at 11:50 pm

“Once we reach the point of elementary reading, it’s assumed that we can now read. And to a point, we can. But we never actually learn how to digest or critique a book.”

This quote explains my high school experience all too well. I have had so much resentment of my education prior to college because when arrived at post-secondary it was assumed that all reading would be done analytically. So there was a steep learning curve as I had to learn the exact steps pointed out in this article about how to read a book.

One thing that has benefited me greatly is keeping a commonplace book. Much like the journal you suggest, the commonplace book simply is a collection of quotes from various sources on relatable subjects. In my commonplace book I leave room from my own comments as a way to engage with the author.

Had this article come to me 10 years ago, I would have done much better in my first two years of college.

44 Cisco June 19, 2013 at 11:38 am

I was really excited to see this post. Books make me want to go places and improve in many aspects of my life. I look forward to seeing the future articles and posts.

Thank you AoM!

45 Hakase June 19, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Hey, great article ! I was thinking of adding a little personal insight, from my long years of analytical reading.

The use of reading analytically is more than just ideas. A strong subconscious imprint of words, meanings and nuances as well as a good, effective use of the english language takes place when reading analytically. And this is probably the most important reason as to why you should read.

The way I explain this is with George Orwell’s appendix on Newspeak at the end of 1984, as well as his essay “Politicis and the English Language”.
The gist of those two texts is as follows : he who does not speak well cannot think well. Firstly, because words are understood as a sum of emotional and sensory cues (what Orwell calls “associative thought”) and reading more means enriching your associative thought for each word, as well as learning news words, so having more depth in everything you think and say (even when using the same words as someone else !). For example, a Churchill quote on success said by Churchill, because he has known countless examples of success and failure (through his life and culture) is much deeper, even when these exact same words are said by someone else, because the latter will not necessarily understand the “different forms of success” (the different meanings, associated thoughts, to a same word are particular to each individual) as well as someone with a rich culture like Churchill. To truly understand a quote, you have to take the author’s associative thought of the words into account.

Secondly, constructed literary sentences, because the time was taken for them to be well written and because they are given the “prettiest” form (most understandable + best nuanced + most effective description or analysis of a particular pehomenon), actually subconsciously teach you to speak better, and thus THINK better. The better the sentences you have seen as a whole, the better your sentences will be. Learning literature by heart helps the effect. And this is critical not only to enrich your mind, but also because it considerably boosts your credibility socially and professionnally.

These two elements -rich associative thought and subconscious rich grammar and language- when conjoined, drastically increase both rationality and abstraction. Simple, clear language is the best way to demonstrate theses (even to oneself) ; having deep associative thought for each word helps understand the essence of any thing better and manipulate concepts (example, saying “science is the new religion” takes a deep understanding of both religion and science and their essence (rather than their apperance) to be truly understood).

So analytical reading (and learning passages by heart) is considerably worth the time.

I’ll conclude with a little tip of mine concerning analytical reading : I always read with an A4 piece of paper folded into four. Eight sides total : one side for all the vocabulary and references I don’t know (which I look up later so as to not break my reading rhythm) ; one side for the ideas the book gives me ; and you flip when either is full. Serves as a bookmark as well.

46 Annalisa June 19, 2013 at 8:59 pm

I loved the seminar that my friends and I did over the summer on Adler’s book – it was well worth it, especially since we all were accepted to Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California (Liberal Arts) the next year!

47 Adam Casalino June 20, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I buy a lot of books for my iPad, because of the convenience of instantly getting the book. But more and more I find myself preferring to read a real paper book. There’s something to be said for holding a book in your hands, having finished books rest on your shelf like trophies. It’s visceral and pleasant.

48 Joseph June 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I would recommend anyone interested in improving their analytical reading pick up a copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. It goes into excellent detail on how to recognize and interpret symbolism, character archetypes, etc., without straying into dull, impenetrable academic dribble. The most important thing I took from that book, though, is that the only proper response to “did the author mean such and such?” is “Well, what do you think?” I think people too often block themselves from analyzing what they read because in high school, when they offered their ideas of what a character felt or represented, haughty, bored, or just plain inept teachers responded with “no, actually they’re a modern interpretation of an obscure Greek hero-god you would have no way of knowing about.” It’s not what the book means, it’s what the book means to you.

49 Augusto Pinto June 22, 2013 at 11:18 pm

I think the section on analytical reading followed by how to critique a book is good advice for someone who wants to review books. Inspectional reading will help you know which books to avoid reviewing. I thought the readers comments were very interesting too.

50 Juan Doe June 26, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I think this a great idea – but this only caters to one side of reading: content. There is a whole other side of reading, especially when reading literature, and that is form. Form concerns the composition of the piece and the techniques that the author utilised in creating their work. For example, what distinguishes James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway? They were both modernists, and wrote about similar themes and symbols, but the two are worlds apart in terms of writing style. Why is this? What vocabulary, grammar (elements of style) have they used? What broader literary techniques such as vignettes, sensory writing, allegory, narrative style, poetic devices etc have they employed? Is the work prose or poetry, or a combination of both? Etc.

51 Joel June 27, 2013 at 2:16 am

Great article! My wife teaches literature and rhetoric (and I teach music) at a Classical Christian school and this is the core of the high school curriculum- getting students to read like that in preparation for a life of learning and for syntopical reading in college (though they do some in high school for their senior thesis and other research projects). And it’s not only for the humanities; the skills are applied to sciences and math and even my music classes too.

While reading obviously has its honored place in education and all society, I would love to see a similar article about applying some of these principles to film and even TV shows, because they are so immensely prevalent in modern culture.

52 pam July 3, 2013 at 6:59 am

There is another, longer version of the analytical reading post over at Farnam Street

I highly recommend it.

53 Bill July 3, 2013 at 5:06 pm

I think that we are actually blessed with many different ways to consume books. We have ebooks, audio book, and dead-tree books. With audio books you get the overall sense of the book and much of its magic. With ebooks you can carry many of them with you and read at your pleasure, with physical books you get the tactile interaction with the text itself. All are great ways to read, and if used together can greatly enhance the experience.

Just a recommendation for books to read: the Patrick O’Brian series on the English Navy from 1800 to 1815 is wonderful. Well written and thought its 20.25 volumes it examines what it is to be men and to be male friends.

54 Caleb July 12, 2013 at 9:57 am

I’ve recently discovered this wonderful site and this is my first post.

Excellent article, though I disagree about the lack of substance in Louis L’Amour. To be sure his work can be consumed like brain-candy, but if one looks closely there are numerous references to reading, learning, and self-education scattered throughout L’Amour’s work. And what he teaches us about manliness is that there really are good guys and bad guys; beyond that he teaches that the bad guys really do deserve to lose. L’Amour was anti-modernity in that regard, since modern stories tend to bore into the bad characters to see what makes the tick and make excuses for their behavior. L’Amour simply has them killed off because they deserve it: his approach resonates so well with men because we all have an innate sense of Justice wired into us. L’Amour also consistently presents a high standard for the treatment of women by men—this is manly. But to fully appreciate L’Amour the man and his work, read his autobiography “The Education of a Wandering Man.”
My favorite book on reading is “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis is unfortunately pigeonholed solely as a Christian apologist (which he surely was) but he was a brilliant man and a literary scholar first. His “Experiment” has taught me how to get more out of a book than anything else I’ve read.

I own a Kindle, enjoy it for what it is, but will always prefer real books. I mark up book in INK, underline passages, make numerous notes for my children to discover later on in life, and love to come across books where previous owners did the same. I’ve seen notes in library books that I’ve answered ore responded to in hopes that someone else might be helped later on.

55 Adrian July 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I also use both a Kindle and real books.

Anything I would consider “reference” I usually buy in hardcover with the intention to keep. I don’t always know what that will be ahead of time, so I re-buy some books. I’ll buy used or get it from the library whenever I can, especially if I don’t know if it’s worth keeping.

My Kindle re-ignited my love of reading, but I generally use it only for fiction. Older classics (such as Moby Dick) are free, and newer books are impossible to get from the library, so I buy them.

56 steve September 28, 2013 at 1:38 am

I am a 45 year old male and believe every male should read the following books and in this order , #1the godfather #2 call of the wild #3 white fang # the jungle #5 fight club and #6 the book of proverbs , these books read in this order will really help you see the world and life from a mans view point

57 Michael February 2, 2014 at 11:52 am

This is the first article on the site that I took my time reading. When I see a title that I feel would interest me, I click on it and skim the article for any information that might be relevant to me, but I always have that notion in the back of my mind that I keep be using my to do something else. So from here on, I plan to take my time in reading and see if it helps my fading memory.

58 William February 6, 2014 at 7:12 am

I always keep a pen and notepad handy whilst reading. If I run into a new word I write it down and if it isn’t essential to understanding the piece, like technical jargon, I’ll look it up later.

To mark key points I will write the page number along the edge of the front pages of the book, like the title page, and sometimes put a dot or check in the margin next to said key point. This doesn’t take long and if I later decide to write an outline of the book (which I do sometimes) I have a guide to the refresh my memory.

I also have a larger notebook in which I sometimes copy quotes I find particularly interesting. This can bog down with more interesting works though, so I just use the notation method mentioned above adding a “Q” next to the page number to signify a quote.

It also helps to pause now and then, at subheadings, the ends of articles, or every few pages, and summarize what you have read. By doing this, calling up key points and retelling the information as recommended in this article, it helps keep the information fresh.

59 TJ February 9, 2014 at 10:59 am

I like reading old, used books with light markings in them, as it gives me something to fixate on during my reading. Maybe someone picked out a phrase or topic of personal significance that I otherwise may have overlooked? I view books as both a personal and social medium, something to meditate on as well as something to connect with others.

60 Nick P. February 14, 2014 at 8:07 am

Wow, why did I not read this when it was originally posted? I completely understand your point early on about how taking the analytical reading begins to turn people off. This happened to me in middle school when we had to start taking tests and getting graded for books we read. From then until recently, I have not read many books, and enjoyed an even smaller handful of those.

I found your essential 100 books list a bout 2 years ago and started to get some of those as well. I certainly find that having a kindle helped me to pick back up into reading, and living in an apartment, it’s a lot easier to move an e-reader/tablet than a library of books.

Also, thanks for the tips on becoming an analytical reader. I never considered taking this approach to a book. Thinking back on the books I have recently read, I have pulled more than I thought I did out of them. Hopefully, I will one day have my own house with a study that I can fill with a musing of books and an air filtration system, the idea of sitting back with a glass of scotch a pipe or cigar and reading a good book is really enticing.

61 Bastiaan March 22, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Nice article, I will definitely use these tips next time I pick up a book. The most challenging book I’ve ever read is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Having read through it 3 times in the past 10 years or so, I’ll be interested to see what more I can get out of it using these techniques. About paper vs. e-reader, I much prefer to read non-fiction in paper format since it gives me much more overview and it’s easier to leaf through the book to refresh my memory when I come across a reference to an earlier chapter. For fiction, the e-reader is unbeatable in terms of practicality and the reading is much more linear, so ease of browsing is much less important. For light reading on the summer holiday’s it’s the perfect way to carry a small library in your backpack!

62 Tzippi April 6, 2014 at 10:33 am

Thank you so much for this article! I teach English to middle-schoolers, and what I hear most often from my young men is that “men don’t read”. I will direct them to you in future.

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