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The Survival Skill that we take for Granted — How to Read a Book?

The correct methods to digest and absorb knowledge from silent teachers

By Z3n Ch4nPublished 4 years ago 6 min read
Photo by Craig Philbrick on Unsplash

Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher. — Van Doren, Charles; Mortimer J. Adler. “How to Read a Book”

Everybody reads—no matter whether it is a book, a medium post, or Twitter. We encountered multiple stages during education that require us to read. But in all of them, no one teaches us about reading books to gain increased understanding.

When I was in school, my first memory of reading was in a classroom with many students. We all said out loud, word-by-word, after the teacher. We then learned the fundamental method to read. That was the slowest and least effective way.

Reading became a habit for me, and I read one to two books a week. I learned through a painful but fruitful journey about how to read properly. This time I am going to share what I learned from different books about reading. To begin, let me start with the two definitions of reading.

Profit v.s. Pleasure

Reading for fun and reading for learning are two different things. In this article, I will focus on reading as a means to gain knowledge instead of entertainment. Books, as silent teachers, can be separated into different levels of reading. In the following, I would introduce two books on this topic.

How to read a book

The most important book is, without question, “How to read a book” by Van Doren, Charles, and Mortimer J. Adler. From this book, you will learn how to build your own “Reading System” to read any book.

Although it was first published in early 1940, this classic's systematic approach is the most comprehensive book about reading. As a non-Native English speaker, I need to be honest; this book was not easy to read. Despite the difficulties, I hope I can read this book earlier.

The first important concept of learning how to read is through Active Reading instead of a passive one. Passive reading is what we did in the classroom when teachers “reading” the book out loud. Students are required to receive what teachers prepared and digested passively.

Active Reading, on the other hand, is normally done alone. It requires readers to absorb information from the book by asking questions like:

  • What is the book about?
  • How is the author trying to prove his/her arguments?
  • Do you agree with his/her argument, and why?

Reading, in this book, rank into stages:

  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading (The most important part of the book)
  4. Syntopical Reading

I like the chapters about using different types of books in Analytic Reading, including the dictionary and encyclopedia. Not only did I understand the nature of other books as extrinsic aids to reading, but when and how to use them properly.

Although the analytical reading rules are general, this book provided specific methodologies on different forms of books. Keeping this idea in mind helps me to apply the rules flexibly and adaptively. Above all forms, the first thing reader needs to distinguish is whether the book is theoretical or practical.

… the basic division is into the practical and the theoretical — books that are concerned with the problems of action, and the books that are concerned only with something to be known.

Theoretical books, therefore, are books providing information such as history and science. Practical Books, on the other hand, can be on different topics. There are suggestions, guidelines, or precautions in practical books. In the book, it further indicated the differences:

The most important thing to remember about any practical book is that it can never solve the practical problems with which it is concerned. A theoretical book can solve its own problems. But a practical problem can only be solved by the action itself.

The highest level, Syntopic Reading, requires reading the same topic across multiple materials. It is useful for a deeper understanding of a subject(e.g., scientific research) and more details of an event (e.g., historical event). This reading level is difficult to apply as readers must be skilled at the previous levels first.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The Snowball Reading method

On the 4th level of reading, I found another book that further established the same idea in more practical terms. It is a Japanese Book called ”どんな本でも大量に読める「速読」の本.” (Direct translation: A Speed Reading book that can help you read many books.)

Although you may not have a chance to read this, I cannot find this book in other languages. A reading method called “Snowball Reading” was introduced in it. In short, it is to “read” a difficult book or a large number of materials in a short period of time by repeatedly skimming the words.

Snowball Reading, different from traditional methods and speed reading, largely depends on our subconscious in understanding information. As this is a totally new reading concept, it takes some time for the reader to practice and understand.

The first thing you need to do, similar to the previous one, is to tune yourself into active reading. Reading for knowledge requires a clear goal. However, you may not know what information is important in the first place.

With the specific goal in mind, you can start investigating the book by reading the cover page, the table of content, the back cover… After all, familiarize yourself with the book. This idea is the same as Inspectional Reading from “How to read a book.”

Next step, readers are required to speed reading the materials in a concise period of time, i.e., 10–15 seconds a page. The goal here is not to read the words but to “absorb” the book using our subconscious mind. Reading like a snowball rolling will gain its weight and speed down the slope.

Instead of closing the book at the finish point, the reader should revisit the material, but this time, faster. By repeating this process several times, the author claimed this would help the reader to pick up information from the book like a snowball.

This kind of reading is not for entertainment but for identifying useful information from a vast amount of data. In short, Snowball Reading can be summarized as procedures below:

  1. Switch to Active Reading mode before start
  2. Read the context of the book.. (Inspectional Reading)
  3. Snowball Reading (3 to 4 times on the same book/ material)
  4. Review (Can switch back to Analytical Reading of the selected materials from 3#.)

Tips for better reading

There are a few things that are universally applicable for all. I guess everyone wants to read smoothly and spend less time (i.e., to read faster). Below are some of the useful tips I applied.

1# How to Speed Read from Tim Ferriss

2# Make notes

To read without jotting down notes is not long-lasting, especially for practical books. Note-taking can be as easy as highlighting the book and writing down keywords on the same page. If you are a fast reader like me, I use a journal to organize all my book summaries.

One easy tip is to keep a pad of post-it in the book (or stick it in the book cover). Then I would jot down notes on the post-it and stick them to my Journal By doing that:

  • You can make notes even though the book does not belong to you .
  • No need to write duplicated
  • Can re-organize the ideas and move notes from one Journal to another

3# Teach the others

From all the books about learning how to read, all of them mentioned the importance of teaching. Reading is another form of learning. And to test if you truly understand what the book is about is by telling others about it (teaching).

This article is an example of what I learned about the topic of enhancing my reading skill. There is nothing more entertaining for me than learning something new. The moment of “aha!” always amuses me in different ways (sometimes it is painful). I am also excited to tell anyone about it. That is why I started writing on medium to share.


Thank you for reading! Learning how to read in a more sophisticated way helps you read faster and more organized and a deeper understanding of the book. I feel lucky that reading became my hobby. I recommend anyone read “How to read a book” if you want to advance your reading skill.

Happy reading and learning how to read.

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About the Creator

Z3n Ch4n

Interested in Infosec & Biohacking. Security Consultant. Love reading and running.

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