How (and why) to Read a Book

How (and why) to Read a Book
How to Read a Book. Hint: with a pencil. 

Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

It seems fitting that my first post on my newest iteration of a blog be a rundown on a book about reading. I am an avid reader and have been for some time, but just because I read a lot doesn't mean I can't read better; I'm always looking for ways to improve my skill set. So, it's been a meandering road but I've finally come around to Adler and Van Doren's classic How to Read a Book.

First off: while this book contains worthwhile information, it is not, in and of itself, a great read. Originally written in the 1940s and updated in the '70s, the text is dense, wordy--definitely not written for the 21st century's shortened attention spans. That being said, there are worthwhile points.

Also, there are plenty of blog posts and reviews Out There that hit the various guidelines and steps the authors layout on how to better read a book. I'm going to skip that and try instead to relay the ideas and concepts that stuck with me in my reading.


If you want to get the most out of this book in the least amount of time, start at the beginning and read through until the end of chapter five. This gets you through the introduction and the ins and outs of Inspectional Reading. Once you've got a good understanding of that--basically systematic skimming--read the rest of the book using those Inspectional Reading skills. You'll get 80% of the value with 20% of the work.

Active Reading

One of the biggest arguments in this book is that one should read actively. The authors define this as "the asking of questions." Basically, be curious as you read. Ask questions of the book, the author, and yourself. Reading is a form of conversing, albeit with a prerecorded partner, and you should be active in the process. Read with a pencil in your hand. Markup your book or have a notebook handy.

The point is to be engaged, to be challenged. It's okay to read for entertainment--I love a good Jack Carr or Grady Hendrix book--but you should also read books that make you work.

Books have so much to teach us, be they nonfiction--expository, as the authors refer to them--or fiction, literary or otherwise. However, we must remember that there is no such thing as inactive learning, you have to work for it, but the work can be oh so rewarding.

Asking Questions

Perhaps the biggest part of being an active reader is asking questions as you read. Curiosity breeds discovery which builds knowledge. This leads to "enlightenment," which is only achieved when:

"In addition to knowing what the author says, you know what he means and why he says it." pp. 11

It isn't enough to know that something exists (to be informed), you need to know why it exists (to be enlightened). To discover this, you have to be curious. I've learned a lot about myself through reading and how I interact with books. For example, Infinite Jest exposed my bad habits about trying to get ahead of an author versus just trusting them and going with the story. Reading Tom O'Neill's Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties showed me how naive I was in reading Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, just taking his word for everything. When I read Helter Skelter, I wasn't arguing with the author, making him work to prove his points, I just lazily took it all for gospel.

Reading like that doesn't cut it if you want to build up knowledge. You can gain information, facts, and figures, but not knowledge--knowledge requires interaction and effort.