Books are absent teachers. —Mortimer J. Adler
If we’re fortunate the teachers we were dealt in the game of life were teachers who cared, teachers with passion, teachers with an intense desire to share everything they had learned on their journey. Guided by them we learned to see the world anew, our eyes opened up to its infinite possibilities.
We may no longer be in education, but that doesn’t mean our education should cease. As Mortimer J. Adler puts it, in his excellent book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:
…a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable.
Our teachers – in a formal capacity – might be firmly in the past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find new, informal educators to inspire us anew. Books are, as Adler puts it, “Absent teachers.” Books offer us an insight into the world and its various challenges and opportunities, they offer us a chance to continue growing.
It’s a common misconception that reading is a relatively simple process. We sit back and relax with a good book in hand and let the words wash over us, soaking up meaning. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, reading is an art and, like any art, it improves with practice.
Reading is important to maintain a constant stream of new inputs (inputs, as we know, shape outputs), and – to get the most out of our reading, not to mention maximising the return on the limited time we have available – it’s well worth investing time to develop the art of reading effectively.
How to Read a Book
How to Read a Book was first written by Mortimer J. Adler in 1940. In 1972, Adler co-authored a heavily revised edition with the noted academic Charles Van Doren, which remains in print to this day. If you don’t already own a copy, I’d urge you to stop reading for a moment and order a copy. It will change the way you read, and think.
Of course, you’re probably thinking, “I already know how to read.” (I thought this, too.) The fact that you’re reading this essay underlines that you can read, but can you read well?
If you’re like most you’ve probably given little thought to how you read, you just read on autopilot. As Shane Parrish puts it:
We think of reading in binary terms – you can either read or you can’t. But the truth is that reading is a skill along a continuum. We can improve our skill with knowledge and practice.
Acknowledging that reading is a complex art, Adler defines four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical. Elementary reading is, unsurprisingly, the level of reading we are taught at elementary school. We can do better, however.
Inspectional reading – the second level of reading – is intended to afford a high level overview of the material at hand through ‘systematic skimming’ and ‘superficial reading’. At this level, the intention is to identify books worth deeper investigation. As Adler puts it:
If a book is easy […] then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.
Inspectional reading paves the way for analytical reading and, as our skills develop, syntopical study. Digging is hard, but the diamonds are what we’re seeking and, to find them, we need to dig deep. (If you’ve followed along this far, you understand that nurturing creative ability is hard work, but hard work more than delivers its just rewards.)
There are only so many hours in the day, and the world’s libraries are vast. It’s impossible to read everything, so you need to ensure that everything you read counts. Reading strategically – understanding when and where to apply additional effort – leads to greater gains.
Inspectional reading is for many books enough, but some books demand deeper engagement. As Francis Bacon – the philosopher, not the painter – put it:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
Analytical reading – the third level of reading – is a thorough reading. As Bacon puts it, reading with diligence and attention. Adler defines four guiding principles to improve analytical reading: firstly, classify the book; secondly, define the book as briefly as possible; thirdly, tease out the book’s structure; and lastly, define the problem, or problems, the author is trying to solve. As Adler puts it:
You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts.
If this sounds like hard work it’s simply because it is hard work. Very few put in this level of effort and, the good news for you, is investing this time will set you apart from your less-diligent peers. Fortunately the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Reading analytically enhances your understanding and paves the way for the final level of reading, syntopical reading, reading comparatively to synthesise knowledge from multiple books on the same subject.
Objectivity is evasive. To truly understand something you need to investigate it from multiple angles. Every writer has a point of view, your job – as a seasoned reader – is to corral a number of texts, enabling you to view the subject at hand from a range of different perspectives.
There are very few hard and fast rules in the world, almost everything you encounter and subject to scrutiny will be informed by one or other’s point of view. Your goal, ultimately, is to define your own viewpoint. By ‘reading around a topic’ you both broaden and deepen your knowledge of it. As you do so, you begin to edge towards your own understanding, developing an opinion that is informed by, and appreciative of, the multiple interpretations of others.
Over time, as you apply your mastery of the art of reading, your knowledge and understanding will grow, impacting upon every aspect of your life. As Adler puts it:
The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.
Read widely. Read wisely. In so doing, you will improve as a designer. Of course, you already know it’s important to Widen the Frame of Reference, but traversing vast expanses of knowledge is only half of the equation, sometimes you need to dig deeper and engage syntopically.
As Pico Iyer puts it, in his short, but powerful book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:
I had long, exciting voyages coming up, but at some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected.
In the unexpected, when we dig deep enough, we often find insights. Investigating an idea from multiple angles, turning it over in our minds, enables us to enhance our own understanding. Engaging syntopically allows us to reach conclusions – our own conclusions – drawn from society’s rich pool of knowledge.
Reading is an art, an art that’s well worth pursuing to deepen your understanding. As Adler puts it, “Books are absent teachers.” Embrace books and you embrace knowledge, engage with this knowledge and you become wiser, not just more knowledgeable.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring how, when we put the pieces in place (as we’ve already been doing), purpose emerges. I’m also looking forward to underlining the importance of doing what matters and how, if you stick to your values, success is more likely to follow. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.