Learn to read at a new level!

Just finished the book, they ask what it's about, and your answer is something like...

“I know what it is, but just can’t say it.”

The reason why we have difficulties grasping and remembering what we read is that we do not know exactly how to read.

It’s a widespread problem (not sure if this is bad or good news, actually).

Well, today, I’m sharing some beneficial techniques I wish I knew years ago.


Welcome to all new subscribers! This is The Ambitious Writer, a weekly newsletter for fellow writers who want to succeed as creatives.

In case you haven't already done so — THIS is the ideal time to subscribe.

The Reading Bible

I was the worst possible reader until a dear friend suggested I read How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

I’m about to report here a hyper condensed and essential summary of those 336 pages of invaluable knowledge. Despite this, I strongly recommend reading the book in full.

The 4 Levels Of Reading

There are essentially 4 different levels of reading, and they are cumulative.

The first level is included in the second, the second in the third, the third in the fourth.

1) Elementary reading

The first and baseline level that we all acquire in school.

Mastering elementary reading means learning the rudiments of the “art of reading” and acquiring initial, basic, reading skills.

Every level is tied to one or more questions we try to answer in order to succeed — as it happens in any activity aimed at understanding.

The question we try to answer here is simple: ‘What does the sentence say?’. If you studied a foreign language, you’d surely recognise this was the initial goal.

2) Inspectional reading

Also known as the art of skimming systematically, this second level of reading focuses on grasping the most information possible in a brief period of time.

Practically speaking, when approaching a book, your goal with inspectional reading will be answering a few fundamental questions within minutes. Questions like ‘What is this book about?’, ‘What is the book's structure?’, or ‘What are its parts?’.

Most people are completely unaware of the importance of this skill (either was I). We are used to starting a book from page one and going through it without even looking at the table of contents.

When your reading aims to grasp valuable information from a book that conveys knowledge, well, having a clear mind map of what the book is about can be essential to its understanding. Naturally, if you’re reading a novel for pleasure, it doesn’t make sense to study the structure of the chapters: you don’t want any spoiler!

Inspectional reading — stay with me! — consists of two different activities: Pre-reading and Superficial Reading.

Pre-reading is a quick reading you perform to discover whether a book requires a more careful reading or not. The idea is basically not to judge a book from its cover.

Since I started pre-reading books, I decided not to read many of them! When you understand early what a book is about, you can make informed decisions.

Here’s how it works:

  1. read the book preface;

  2. study the table of contents;

  3. check the index;

  4. look at those chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s arguments;

  5. turn the pages, dipping here and there, reading a paragraph or two.

Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea. You’ll be surprised by how much information you can acquire in a brief time!

Now, if you’re persuaded by what you discovered with your pre-reading, it’s worth performing a Superficial Reading. Particularly helpful when tackling a difficult book for the first time, it consists of going through the whole book without ever stopping to look up those things you don’t understand right away.

The scope is to capture a general picture of the contents and overall arguments: this kind of reading will lead your mind to form questions and doubts — precious for the next reading, in which you will try to answer them all. We could say the goal here is not to miss the forest for the trees and get ready for an in-depth second reading.

[I think you’d like to know it now: you won’t always have to go through each of these steps. Also — if sufficiently trained — you’ll be able to perform them all at the same time (as I wrote above: the levels are cumulative).]

3) Analytical reading

We are at an advanced stage! Analytical reading is defined as the best reading we can perform —in which we invest the most.

You will read analytically books that convey knowledge for the sake of understanding. This means it’s not necessary when the goal is to read for information or entertainment.

Here are the basic rules to master this level of reading.

A) Know what kind of book you’re reading; know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

B) Be able to state the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences.

The reader who says, “I know what it is, but I just can’t say it,” probably does not even fool himself.

C) Set forth the book's major parts, understanding how these are organized into a whole and ordered. A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts.

D) Find out what the author’s problems are. In other words: discover the author’s intentions. What are the main questions she/he tries to answer in the book?

E) Find the important words and, through them, come to terms with the author.

Where “Come to terms” stands for understanding the meaning of what the author tries to communicate. Authors often have their particular vocabularies, and you have to become familiar with them — or you’ll risk misreading their messages.

“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

— Edgar Allen Poe

F) Mark the most important sentences and discover the propositions (meanings) they contain.

Books usually contain a few sentences that are pivotal statements for the entire work. These can be seen as the author’s synthetic propositions: look for them! In the case of famous works, they tend to be the most quoted.

G) Locate or deduce the basic arguments in the book. You can find them clearly expressed, or you’ll have to construct them by taking sentences here and there.

H) Find out what the author’s solutions are.

This rule H) is the last one for reading a book analytically.

I think by now you see how, after such a process, you’d have a deep understanding of the subject read! It’s a bullet-proof method that guarantees to ‘digest’ books in their entirety and makes them yours.

4) Syntopical reading

Here we are! The most complex and systematic level of reading, also named ‘comparative reading’, is performed when approaching more than one book simultaneously — placing them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve.

It’s the ultimate tool for those readers who seek answers and evidence on complex subjects (not for everyone!).

For example, let’s say my assumption is that it’s possible to draw your path to success. To verify it, I amass a bibliography of 30 books on the subject. Read them all means spending a whole year, though. Thank God I can perform a quick inspectional reading to determine which ones are essential to my purpose: now the list consists of 5 books.

At this stage, I’m ready to read syntopically, an activity that requires many energies but guarantees astounding results.

I’ll need to be organised and methodic! Here’s the step-by-step process.

A) Find the relevant passages in the books.

This means to pre-read the few books selected. You will notice that the further you go, the more refined your research skills will be: particular passages will naturally jump out from the pages you have just skimmed.

B) Bring the authors to terms.

You’re facing different authors, and it’s unlikely that they all used the same words to describe the subject of your research. The job here is to establish a common terminology to link these authors to each other.

In Syntopical reading, you act as a professional researcher: you’re the dancing master! Authors, in this specific situation, are just your assistants who bring different points of view. Summarise them all and build your own terminology in order to illustrate the subject.

C) Get the questions clear.

Frame a set of questions that shed light on your problem, and look for answers from your selected authors.

Also, consider that you’ll probably find out conflicting or lacking opinions. This is normal as you’re trying to answer a question that hasn’t a single and already validated answer (if that were the case, you’d not have to carry out the research in the first place).

D) Defining the issues.

When two authors answer a question in contrary or contradictory ways, you’ll have an issue. These are crucial points that, if resolved, can bring you closer to an answer.

E) Analyse the discussion.

Most of the times, we can’t expect just to find an answer. Instead, your research will probably result from a conflict of opposing answers. The truth you’re seeking, the solution, consists of the discussion you’ve been able to create among the authors you selected. The way you examine and “handle” their thoughts will design your new thesis, which will probably be the final result of the entire work.

In other words, presenting the truth means showing how questions are answered in different ways and trying to explain why.

Reading To Grow Your Mind

Here’s an extra gem for you about what you decide to read.

If you’re reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You should tackle books that are beyond you.

Those books conveying information you’re already able to grasp, well, they won’t help you grow — they make the minds fuller of facts without affecting your skill.

To learn to read better, you’ll need books “beyond ourselves”, those requiring the mind to stretch and your faculty of understanding, to increase. They will not only provide you with new information, but also improve your reading skills and make you wiser.

Not just more knowledgeable — but wiser! — more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.

Think about what you choose.

“Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness.”

— Sophocles

See you next Wednesday,

Lorenzo Di Brino