A Live Developer Journal

Reading Notes - How to read a book for increased understanding

How to read a book book in
front of white and pink floral curtains, book filled with index tabs

Reading notes based on How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer. J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

Reading for the sake of increased understanding

The written world has the power to shape our understanding of who we are and the environment that surrounds us. Reading allows us to encounter ideas and perspectives that can shift the trajectory of our lives.

All of the information that we consume leaves some form of residue, an imprint on our minds and emotions. If we are exposed to these ideas often enough, they become a part of our own personal narratives.

When encountering an idea for the first time, the narrator who exposes it to you begins to shape the way that you think about that idea, even if they only have a little more experience on the topic than you.

If you are disproportionately exposed to the ideas held by one individual or a like-minded collective, then you become constrained by a narrative that prevents you from encountering alternative perspectives that may offer benifits exceeding your own perspective.

Seeking out information, ideas and inspiration from multiple sources allow us to begin expanding the constraints of our own personal narratives. However, it isn't enough to just expose ourselves to these thoughts and ideas, because we only ever see the peak of them, not the history that is woven into the mountain supporting them.

Have you ever struggled to understand a concept you were studying? Chances are, you sought out alternative explanations in the hope of finding the piece of the puzzle that would make everything make sense. When you found the missing piece, the click moment in your brain was likely audible to the people around you.

The best sources of information contain insights that are just on the threshold of your understanding. Where you have to stretch just a little bit to grasp them. This act of 'stretching' takes effort. Reading for the sake of increased understanding requires active participation on your part.

The levels of Reading - a roadmap

All of the levels of reading are cumulative, they all incorporate the previous levels of reading within themselves.

1. Elementary Reading

sillouette of sherlock homes with the
speech bubble: elementary my dear Watson

There are four stages to elementary reading: Reading readiness, simple materials, context clues and assimilation.

Reading readiness

Reading readiness includes being able to physically see a book, to be able to speak clearly and to be able to remember what it is you have read. Being able to work with others is also important in the first stages of learning to read, because you'll be interacting with mentors and peers to help aid your understanding of what it is you are (or are not yet) able to read.

If you try to make a child read before they are ready to, then chances are they will get incredible frustrated and disengage. It is then likely that the child will carry this dislike of reading into their adulthood.

Simple materials

Elementary readers are able to read simple materials. When you first start to read at school, books generally have only a few key words that are repeated so that it becomes easy to recognise them. In the first year of reading, children typically learn 300-400 words a year.

This could be a good benchmark for learning a new language. As an adult, I'd be curious to run a mini experiment to see how long it would take to learn 400 words in Russian. Though it might be good to learn these words by reading 'picture' books in the way that children are taught. Or both.

By the end of this stage, children are able to read simple books by themselves and are generally enthusiastic about it. The really interesting thing about this stage is that children start of looking at a page filled with alien symbols, then very quickly (even in just a couple of weeks) are able to see meaning in them.

Context clues

In the third stage of elementary reading, children are able to start picking up vocabulary fairly quickly, as well as being able to 'unlock' the meaning of unfamiliar words through context clue, which is where the sentence as a whole can reveal the meaning of an unfamiliar word contained in that sentence.

At this stage of elementary reading, children are able to start reading books in different areas that interest them, rather than just reading simple books that have been chosen for them.


In the fourth stage of elementary reading, children (or adults learning a foreign language) are able to start carrying concepts they have read in one book over to other books that they are reading. They are able to start seeing the differences in views held by different authors.

Interestingly, this fourth stage of elementary reading is usually reached by early teens. As an adult, it may only take a couple of weeks or months to get to this stage when learning a new language, which can also be something like programming or mathematics.

2. Inspectional Reading

sillouette of inspector gadget with
a magnifying glass arm popping out of his hatAs there are different stages within the Elementary reading stage, so are there different stages withing inspectional reading. You know you can read on an inspectional level when you are able to read a book without having to stop and look up the meaning of words or without struggling to make sense of what is being said based on missing knowledge of syntax and grammar.

Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading

The first stage in Inspectional reading is sytematic skimming (or pre-reading). This is where you discover whether a book is worth reading or not. Here are the rules outlined in How to Read a book for this stage of inspectional reading:

  1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at it's preface. Be sure to take note of the subtitles or other indications of the scope or aim of the book. After you have done this, you should be able to say what category this book belongs to.
  2. Study the table of contents to get a general sense of what will be discussed within the book. According to the authors of "How to read a book", not many people actually do this, and so they have to work out what the book is about while they are reading it.
  3. Chech the INDEX of the book if it has one, and make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and the kind of books the authors refer to. If you see any terms that you think are crucial, look up some of the passages cited. These passages will often contain the main arguments that the entire book is hinged on.
  4. Read the publishers blurb, these are often written by the authors themselves with the aim of summarising the main points in their book as accurately as they can. Their blurb is likely to have been edited by a public relations department to seem more exciting, but the main points will still be there.
  5. Now that you have a sense for what the main arguments are, look at the chapters that seem to be essential to the main point of the book and quickly read their opening and closing pages.
  6. Quickly turn the pages of the book and read sentences here and there, listening for the main points. Do not fail to read the last two or three pages of the book, as this is where the author will sum up what they think is important about their work.
  7. Oh I reaaallly don't like the idea of reading the last few pages of a book, but this is based on reading for entertainment and the last few pages would ruin the surprise. For example, in the book Genesis by Bernard Beckett, the last page contains a twist that changes the meaning of the entire book. So a caveat for this rule would be to do this for books that you are reading to learn from, not read for entertainment only.

Superficial Reading

The second stage of inspectional reading is called superficial reading. This is where you read a book through for the first time without pausing to look up the things you don't understand. This is to stop you getting stuck early on and giving up on the book. At some point you will get back to a part that you can understand again. That way if you only read the book through once, you will understand more than you would have if you stopped reading at the first point you really struggled to understand.

This actually happened to me when I was reading Test Driven Development by Kent Beck. I spent a week or so trying to understand the code examples in the first chapter so that I could understand the surrounding concepts better. After the first week I put it aside to read again when I'm a 'better' developer. So I'll go back and read it through without stopping next time, which will be pretty soon.

A good technique for reading a book through without stopping is to quickly run your finger under each line you are reading, so that your eye is reading at the same speed that your finger is moving. Most of the time, when we see something in a book that we don't understand, our eye fixes on that point unconciously. Using your finger like this prevents this fixation from happening and allows you to read past the parts you don't understand easily.

Active Reading

This section on active reading is an asside to the main levels of reading, but is important because if you only read a book passively, then you are not able to engage in such a way that is necessary for you to really learn from a book, especially if you are reading for the sake of increased understanding.

At the end of the book, if you have read it actively then you should be able to articulate an answer to the following four questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole? (what is the main message that the author is trying to get across to you?)
  2. What are the main ideas, assertions and arguments that make up the authors main message.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part? You have to make your own mind up on this. It's not enough to say that you agree or disagree unless you can articulate specific reasons for your opinions. Otherwise, those opinions are purely driven by emotion and not fact, and you are doing a disservice to the author who has put effort into providing evidence and arguments for his position.
  4. Why does the author think that it's important to know those things? (and is it important for you to know those things in your opinion?)

All of the levels of reading mentioned in this article provides tools and techniques that if implemented, will help you to be able to answer these questions.

A good tip for helping you 'own' a book, is to write you reactions to what is being said in the book in the book itself. I use a highlighter to capture the essence of what I think is being said. I also use a pen to capture ideas of how to use the advice in the book in my own life, as well as feelings and reactions. The following is a quote from the book which advocates this approach.

Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it - which is by writing in it.

Another standalone point in the book that stood out to me is that sometimes authors in a book say that some actions are simple, but that you believe are secretly impossible. This is something I regularly experience with programming, where expert developers that I am exposed to say that the things they are doing are easy once you have learned the seperate parts that go into the things they are doing as a whole.

3. Analytical Reading

sillouette of a skeleton with
definitions branching off him

The third level of reading is Analytical reading, which is made up of four stages: X-raying a book, capturing the terms, capturing the key messages (propositions and arguments), criticizing the book fairly and agreeing or disagreeing with an author.

X-raying a book

At the end of the first stage of analytical reading, you should be able to articulate what kind of book you are reading, what it is about, what parts make up the book and what problems the author was trying to solve.

  1. You must know what kind of book you are reading (scientific, practical, philosophical, technical, poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc)
  2. You must be able to summarize in a couple of sentences what the book is about (Elementary and Inspectional reading). Saying that you know what the book is about without actually being able to articulate it is a lie (this guideline makes me feel called out).
  3. You must be able to articulate the major parts of the book and explain how they are organised as a whole, and in relation to each other.
  4. The thought I had in relation to the previous point was in relation to a programming approach called Test-Driven Development. As someone who is still a 'newbie' at this approach, I can easily say that it is about writing a failing test before you write any code, pass the test as simple as you can by writing the code, then refactoring the code to make it 'better'. I can say this without knowing a great deal about the underlying parts that make up this approach. So that tells me that there are deeper nuances that I'm not picking up on yet. Exciting
  5. Template for discussing parts of the book as put forth by the authors: "The author accomplished this plan in five major parts, of which the first part is about so and so, the second part is about....The first of these parts is divided into three sections, of which the first considers..."
  6. Find out what the authors problems were, what problems were they trying to solve?

Capturing the terms

By the end of this stage of analytical reading, you will have compiled a list of terms (words) that are important in the book, as well as what those words mean to the author. You'll also have identified whether those words have been used with different meanings within the book as well as how those meanings relate to each other.

  1. Find the important words in your book and figure out how the author is using them. These words are known as terms. As a reader, the most important terms (words) for you are the ones that you struggle to understand the meaning of.
  2. Determine whether the word has more than one meaning in the book you are reading. If it does, write down the different use cases as well as how they relate to each other.
  3. Make a list of the important terms and the meanings that are associated with them.
  4. Another technique for finding terms is looking for words that you do not ordinarily use. These words could be specialist terminology that are specific to the field being discussed in the book.
  5. A term is especially important if the author has told you that they have created it, or if they say that they are using a word differently to how other people would use it.

Capturing the key messages (propositions and arguments)

By the end of this stage you will have identified the things that the author agreed or disagreed with and why. You'll have been able to articulate the authors main arguments and reasons for supporting those arguments, as well as which problems the author provided a solution to through his arguments. You will also be able to talk about the problems that the author left unsolved, as well as whether or not they knew they had left these problems unsolved.

  1. Mark the important sentences in a book and identify the propositions they contain. "A proposition is an authors expression of judgement on something". Propositions that are not supported by reasons are just opinions.
  2. Not all sentences can be called propositions. A proposition is an answer to a question. A good technique here is asking yourself whether you can point to an experience in your own life that demonstrates this preposition in action.
  3. Write down the arguments that a book contains by finding them in the connections between sentences. The arguments themselves are the major agreements or denials the author is making that also include reasons in support of these claims. You might have multiple propositions that make up a major argument.
  4. Find out what the authors solutions are. After completing all of the previous levels and stages up until this point, you should have identified the problems that the author was trying to solve. You should also now be in a position to write down which of these problems the author managed to solve, either in whole or in part.
  5. Finally, write down which problems the author knew they didn't solve, as well as any problems you believe the author is unaware that they didn't solve.

Fair criticism

This stage is about being aware of your biases when you make critical judgements in agreement or disagreement with the author. You must be able to support your own arguments with more than just 'this feels right/wrong'.

  1. You must be able to say that you fully understand the argument and the reasons behind an argument the author is making before you can say that you agree or disagree.
  2. You must be able to give your own reasons based on fact for any of the agreements and disagreements that you do make. It is not enough to say you agree or disagree based on pure emotion and opinion only.

Agreeing or disagreeing with the author

If you believe that the author has made an incomplete analysis, but that you still can't show that the author was uninformed, misinformed or illogical, then you have no choice but to agree until you have yourself conducted a more complete analysis that enables you to disagree based on the arguments listed above.

A few additional tips for reading analytically

4. Syntopical reading

a bunch of circles all connected to
each other
  1. After having completed the first three levels of reading for one book or paper on the subject you are interested in, compile a tentative reading list for similar works that could be worth reading
  2. Complete an inspectional reading for all of those sources, and of those you have read, keep the ones that you think will be important for your project.
  3. Conduct an analytical reading on only the chapters that are relevant for your project.
  4. Construct a terminology that is general to all of the sources you are reading. If there terms have different meanings accross those works, include those as well.
  5. Establish a set of questions (prepostions) that the most of the authors have given answers to, whether or not they treat the questions explicitly or not.
  6. Define a set of issues (arguments) that have been covered by the authors, ranging from most important to least important. Divide the authors arguments by whether they are for or against the issue. You are likely to have to interpret where they fall on the spectrum yourself.
  7. Examine the evidence in support of each of the authors arguments in comparison to each other and come to a conclusion as to which arguments appear stronger or weaker, and why.

Actions to take after reading this book

My favourite books are those that are usuable. Which means that when implemented, they add real value to my life. Before reading this book, I already scribbled all over my books and asked a ton of questions that I sought answers to. However, these are things I thought to do by myself. So a book that gives an actual roadmap for reading a book for the purpose of increased understanding really caught my attention.

The actions I want to take after reading this are: