While we are taught how to read words and sentences when we are young, we are rarely taught how to read paragraphs or books. And most of us don’t realize there are different levels of reading.
The fascinating and useful How To Read A Book is subtitled “The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” The authors claim there are four levels of reading, each of which builds upon the other. The levels are elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical:
This is basic reading as we are initially taught. We learn to interpret meaning from letters. We learn how to grow our vocabulary and to compare concepts from different reading materials. This rudimentary reading is focused on the core question of “What does the sentence say?”
Elementary reading gets us through life but likely isn’t enough to get joy of out reading.
The inspectional level is skimming or superficially reading to get the gist of a book. We read without pausing to think about the meaning of the text; if we don’t understand something, we move on rather than researching it. The goal of inspectional reading “is to get the most out of a book within a given time – usually a relatively short time, and always (by definition) too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.”
The authors imply very few people get past the second level of reading and, to truly understand a book, you need to read at the third level.
Analytical reading is in-depth, more demanding reading which requires actively trying to understand text, rather than passively consuming it. This level is not about reading for information but rather for comprehension. Analytical reading involves taking notes, conducting additional research, and going back to re-read sections for clarity. As Francis Bacon quipped, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Analytical reading is hard and requires practice to do it well.
In this level, we read many books on the same subject, compare and contrast multiple perspectives, and synthesize what we’ve read into a point of view. The goal isn’t to understand a specific book, but rather to grasp the overall topic, develop a deep fluency, and form a personal opinion.
Syntoptical reading allows you to discover an insight which may not be explicitly in any of the books that you read.
So, what does this mean in real life?
The different levels of reading are useful in different situations. Only elementary reading is needed for your phone or credit card bill while inspectional reading is better when you’re reading for entertainment or getting through a high volume of email. For most of my writing (including this blog entry), analytical reading of a single book is enough to truly understand the topic and write about it in a clear and concise manner. But when I really want to dig into a topic, I’m learning how to do syntopical reading.
Better reading is still the secret to better writing.