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4 Ways to Read a Book: How to Get the Most out of Reading

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

English philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” This is another way of saying that not all books should be read in the same way. Understanding the different types of reading can help you get the most out of nonfiction books, fictional bestsellers, or whatever you’re reading in your book club this month.



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What Are the Different Types of Reading?

According to Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, there are four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary reading
  2. Inspectional reading
  3. Analytical reading
  4. Syntopical reading

Your level of reading will likely affect the way that you absorb and process the author’s arguments and subject matter. In other words, two people reading the same good book can have completely different reading experiences.

What Is Elementary Reading?

Elementary reading is the most fundamental level of reading; it’s rudimentary literacy, the kind that is taught in elementary school. Elementary readers possess the foundational reading skills necessary to comprehend the information in basic clauses and sentences. If you’re reading this sentence, you are (at least) an elementary reader.

What Is Inspectional Reading?

Inspectional reading is also referred to as skimming or pre-reading. This is when a reader intentionally reads a book or article superficially, with the intention of absorbing the main points and takeaways in a short amount of time.

2 Types of Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading falls into two main categories:

  1. Systematic skimming: Systematic skimming is a method of reading books in which the reader skims through certain parts of the book, such as the table of contents, the back cover, and a few relevant passages, in order to determine if the rest of the book is worth reading. Sometimes a systematic skimmer will only spend a minute or two on each section, deciding quickly whether the full book is worth adding to their reading list.
  2. Superficial reading: Superficial reading is when a person reads the entirety of a nonfiction or fiction book but does so without engaging with the text in a meaningful or substantive way. If a superficial reader does not understand a plot point the first time, they simply continue reading. If they don’t understand different terms or references, they don’t take the time to look them up. This would be the equivalent of listening to a podcast or audiobook but refusing to rewind if you get distracted or hear something that you don’t understand. This kind of reading results in low retention and is generally inadvisable.
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What Is Analytical Reading?

Analytical reading is a more rigorous and complex level of reading. Analytical readers thoroughly analyze the text in order to understand its deeper meanings. Those with analytical reading habits should be able to do the following upon the completion of new books:

  1. Identify and synthesize the book’s subject matter.
  2. Summarize the book in a clear and concise manner.
  3. Explain and outline the major sections of the book and how they relate to each other.
  4. Describe the problem that the author is attempting to solve.

What Is Syntopical Reading?

Synoptical reading, also known as comparative reading, represents the highest level of reading according to Mortimer Adler. Syntopical reading involves someone reading numerous books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting the ideas they contain. This type of analysis often requires hard work, extensive note-taking, and a considerable time commitment.

How to Read Syntopically

There are a few steps you must follow in order to start reading syntopically:

  1. Begin with inspection. First, you need to identify which passages from which books you’ll need to read in order to fully comprehend your subject. There are a lot of great books out there, but there are also a lot of duds, so inspectional reading can help you quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.
  2. Assimilate the terms. Analytical reading requires you to identify the key words and terminology used by a given author to better understand the subject. Comparing multiple works requires the understanding and synthesis of myriad terms and concepts. Develop your own familiarity with the terminology to better comprehend and analyze the concepts in your books.
  3. Articulate your questions. Put together a list of questions you hope to address in your syntopical reading journey. Revisit these questions as you read to see which are answered and which remain unresolved.
  4. Analyze the discussion. Now that you’ve framed your questions and gathered all the relevant information, it’s time to analyze the answers you’ve received. What do different authors seem to agree on? What remains controversial? Where does the discussion in the field seem to be headed? If you can cogently answer these questions, you have likely achieved an expert-level understanding of a subject.


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