The Art of Reading Well
The Art of Reading Well
Reading is something we do on a daily basis. Switch on the TV to watch your favourite K-drama and find yourself reading the subtitles that fill the bottom of the screen. Step out of the house for a getaway in town and find yourself reading the signs at the bus stop to check which buses serve that stop.
In fact, even as your eyes scan the words that fill this space, you are already engaging in the very act of reading.
Reading has become a part of the everyday. (Photo credits: Ben White via Unsplash)
While reading has become such an everyday act that practically everyone knows how to read (you surely do, given that you’re here), few actually know how to read well, or what it even means to read well.
For many of us, we might think of reading as the mere perusal and absorption of text -- and for good reason. Growing up, we have been taught to read books line by line, word by word, from start to finish. Flip open the novel, start the first chapter, read the first sentence, then the next. And this cycle continues until you reach the very last sentence of the very last chapter, where you then close the book and call it a day.
But the truth is that reading is much more than that. As written by famous American philosopher Mortimer Adler, skimming through text and reading it for what it is constitutes the first (and lowest) of four levels of reading -- elementary reading. Adler points out that at this stage, the reader only possesses a surficial understanding of the content, which is insufficient in helping them gain insight on the broader subject being discussed.
In order to achieve this, Adler suggests, the reader must engage in the two highest levels of reading -- analytical and synoptic reading. Therein lies the intricate art of reading well, where the reader not only engages in a thorough reading of the given text, but also compares between different texts and identifies the various arguments made.
If you want to discover how you can become a better reader (heads up: this is helpful for students doing academic research, or anyone wanting to become an expert in a certain topic), read on!
The ‘SOP’ of Analytical Reading
Needless to say, the process of analysing text is central to analytical reading, which is the second highest level of reading. While this might sound difficult for most readers, it actually abides by three simple rules -- summarising, organising, and problematising (SOP) -- that, when followed, can help the reader obtain a deeper understanding of the book’s key ideas.
The first rule is to summarise the book in the shortest number of words possible. This might appear familiar to those who have been exposed to comprehension summary exercises in school, and indeed, it follows a similar logic. When one is able to give a brief but accurate overview of what the book is trying to convey, this suggests that they have engaged with the book thoroughly enough to be able to make sense of its structure.
The process of summarising what we have read is integral to analytical reading. (Photo credits: Thought Catalogue via Unsplash)
So the next time you pick up a book and finish going through its contents, ask yourself the following questions: what are the main events or learning points of each chapter? Are there key words used by the author that are linked to these events or learning points? Are there details that will not significantly affect one’s understanding of the book even when removed from the summary?
Piece together these key events or learning points while sifting away the minute aspects, and you should be left with a cohesive book summary, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of the book.
As important as this act of summarising is, however, Adler cautions that it cannot be performed in silo. Rather, the reader needs to study how different ideas within the book are ordered to create a cohesive whole, because only then will they engage with the book more deeply and appreciate its complexities. As quoted by Adler,
“A book is like a single house. It is a mansion having many rooms… With different outlooks, with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part… But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected by doors and arches, by corridors and stairways”
This brings us to our second rule, which is to organise the book’s key ideas and show how they link to one another.
To achieve this, it is important to note that these ideas are not always clearly stated, and that some reading between the lines is needed for the reader to correctly infer and identify them. Therefore, the reader has to study the little details mentioned, such as facts or examples, and determine if they provide suggestions surrounding the main ideas -- this will slowly lead the reader to infer what these ideas are.
To check if the correct key ideas have been identified, the reader can rephrase these ideas into questions and check if they can be answered by the passage. For example, if one’s inferred idea is ‘books are beneficial for one’s mental well-being’, they can convert this topic sentence to a yes-no question: ‘are books beneficial for one’s mental well-being?’.
The third and final rule of analytical reading is to problematise. Some of us might have heard of the Future Problem Solving Program in school, where participants would be required to choose a problem from a certain topic and think of creative ways to solve this problem. The process of problematising follows the opposite logic. While the book already contains the “answers”, the original questions for which these “answers” were set -- and the author strove to address in the book -- are less explicit.
Therefore, to fully understand what the author set out to answer -- and obtain a deeper understanding of the book -- the reader has to study the main ideas gathered from the process stated in rule two and determine what the overarching question connecting these ideas is.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and many of you might be wondering, what if there are many questions involved and it is difficult to tell what the overarching question is? In that case, the reader should first identify what the subordinate questions -- known as questions that focus on more detailed aspects of the broader topic or subject -- are. It is these questions that come together to form a bigger, more generalised main question.
Reading Out of the… Book?
Completing the ‘SOP’ of analytical reading, however, does not suggest that it is the end of understanding a book and -- more importantly -- its discussed subject. The ultimate stage is to engage in synoptic reading, which is arguably the most difficult and least conventional reading process.
Synoptic reading, known as the process of reading multiple books on the same subject, is key to obtaining a deeper understanding of a certain topic. (Photo credits: Christin Hume via Unsplash)
While it is commonly thought that one can fully understand a book if they conduct a thorough reading of it multiple times, Adler proposes that synoptic reading -- where the reader reads many books of the same topic and compares the arguments put forth -- is the key instead. By taking the extra step of doing synoptic reading and reading out of the book (both literally and figuratively), the reader can gain greater insight into how each author approaches the topic, and obtain a more nuanced perspective vis-a-vis the topic itself.
So, how do we engage in synoptic reading? The answer lies in a crucial first step: to select suitable books that focus on the said topic. By first skimming through books and correctly identifying which are the most relevant, half the battle is already won -- the reader does not have to spend time reading passages that are not linked to the topic, and risk making themselves confused by analysing unrelated materials.
Then the reader has to follow the processes central to analytical reading, or the ‘SOP’, albeit in slightly different ways. Rather than problematising the author’s questions and finding out what the author wants answered, the reader should be clear of what they themselves want answered, and seek to find these answers. Be it wanting to find out more about the history of neoliberalisation or the reasons for business acquisition, the reader should know what aspects they want to learn more about.
Similarly, instead of simply organising key ideas within the certain text itself, the reader now needs to go a step further and analyse the multiple perspectives that are offered by different authors. More often than not, different books will propose different arguments, even if these differences are ever so slight, and it is the responsibility of a discerning reader to make sense of these discrepancies.
Reading Well: A Lifelong Skill
Of course, it is impossible that reading this article can immediately bestow you with the skill of reading well. After all, being able to read well is something that comes with endless practice and -- needless to say -- reading.
But as time-consuming and exhausting as this learning journey may be, it is worth it. As put across wisely by America’s 44th President Barack Obama, “Reading is the gateway skill that makes all learning possible.” Reading well is undoubtedly the key that unlocks all doors to learning about the complex world and its intricacies, and it is a key that all of us should strive to possess.
Columbia College (n.d.). Finding the Main Idea. Columbia College. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from https://www.ccis.edu/student-life/advising-tutoring/writing-math-tutoring/main-idea
Farnam Street Media Inc (n.d.). Analytical Reading. Farnam Street. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://fs.blog/how-to-read-a-book/#analytics_reading
Farnam Street Media Inc (n.d.). How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler. Farnam Street. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://fs.blog/how-to-read-a-book/#analytics_reading
Image by Ava Sol (2020) via https://unsplash.com/photos/2HfTce4lDTo
Image by Ben White (2016) via https://unsplash.com/photos/7BiMECHFgFY
Image by Christin Hume (2017) via https://unsplash.com/photos/k2Kcwkandwg
Image by Thought Catalogue (2017) via https://unsplash.com/photos/505eectW54k