Reading of any kind is important work, and a critical element to the development and evolution of the human psyche.
It’s how you expose your mind to new ideas, it captures the human imagination. You can find the entirety of the human experience within the confines of a single library.
But to harness the full potential of these opportunities, one must elevate their level of reading beyond just processing words on a page – you have to read analytically.
How many times have you read a book, and a month later can’t recall a single thing about it? Or you finish a well renowned book, but feel as if nothing sunk in.
Maybe you can remember some concepts, but in nominal value only; you know what the book said, but not what it meant. The ideas haven’t sunk in enough for you to be able to readily apply them to your everyday life without going back and re-reading part of the book.
You gained more information, but you didn’t get any wiser.
“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you want to really grow and expand your capacities, and capitalize on the time end effort you are putting into your reading efforts, one must engage in specific styles of reading.
The three levels of reading:
- Reading for Entertainment – This is your prototypical novel reading. The intent is not to learn anything new, but simply to enjoy the story or what the author has to say.
- Reading for Information – This is what we are typically taught to do in school. You are focused around learning information on a new topic, or maybe getting an in-depth look at a topic you have already been introduced to. You’re learning what you didn’t know before
- Reading for Knowledge – This is reading for concepts and ideas. You are going beyond learning some new information, and are instead focused on internalizing what you are reading to alter some part of how you think.
Now each of these styles certainly have their appropriate time and place; I’m not advocating that you never read a mystery novel again.
But we are here in the pursuit of growth, and growth involves evolution. You have to internalize what you are reading to derive the intellect and enlightenment required to expand your capacities.
At the third level of reading, you’re not just reading the words as they are on the page. You are taking them off the page and into your own head; bringing your own personal experience into what you are reading, or maybe the reverse: taking the words you are reading and testing how they might apply to various circumstances that have occurred in your life.
What you read should become a part of how you think.
When you read analytically, this is the desired result: that the topics, ideas, and arguments from various books become ingrained in your head and become a part of your intellect.
You can recall ideas from what you have read instantaneously, and you find yourself bringing these various themes to bear in your everyday life and decision making.
This third style of critical, analytical reading involves several practices that are typically overlooked:
Speed reading is most useful for Level 2 reading activities, when you are just trying to gain some level of understanding about a particular concept (just-in-time information).
But that is not our objective here. We are after knowledge, not just information (this is the ‘recall’ ability mentioned before).
We want to fully engage ourselves with what we are reading, wrestling with what the author is saying and what our experiences tell us, with the objective being that the material becomes integrated into our decision-making process.
To do this, you have to take your time with each book to let it soak in. It’s better to read four books a year that change some of your perceptions of the world, than to read one hundred books and remember nothing but the titles, subject matter, and how quickly you finished each one.
This is your education, not a contest.
The second practice is taking detailed notes
Again, this goes beyond note taking on factual information (dates, names, ages), and should be more focused around what you are thinking or taking away from the passages in the book. Mark key passages or quotes, and record the thoughts that come to mind, or connections you begin to make with other books or life experiences.
How you take these notes is largely up to personal preference. Everyone has their own unique twist on a note taking system that works best for them.
Whether it’s highlighting, writing in the margins, flagging pages, or keeping a separate journal to write in, detailed note taking forces you to engage with the author and the words you are reading. You can start wrestling with the book, and correspondingly, the author, and analyze whether you agree/disagree with what you are reading, and therefore how it is impacting your worldview.
“The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you”
– W. Somerset Maugham
This all culminates in a state of active reading – reading for concepts, ideas, and insights, not just for factual information or entertainment. When you read a book on Napoleon Bonaparte, what is important is not when he took the throne as Emperor. No one is going to quiz you on which islands he was exiled to.
What is important is how he revolutionized the military strategies and tactics of his age, and executed on them. How he gained near absolute loyalty from both his troops and the larger French population, despite bringing France back into a monarchical fold on the heels of the Revolution. What lessons in leadership can be gained from his final defeat at Waterloo (one example: his generals had lost their ability to take initiative, after years of Napoleon’s micro-managing and thinking for them).
These are ideas that you can bring into your decision-making models, and alter how you interact with others on a daily basis (ie. limit micro-managing. The short term benefits are far outweighed by the cumulative negative effects that are eventually realized over the long haul).
When you read analytically, you’re wrestling with the ideas presented to really internalize what is being said. You read slowly and intently to thoroughly process the argument or story, and what your takeaways are.
Only then will what you read become a part of who you are, and shape the way you see the world. The ideas that you read will stick with you long after you have set the book down, and you will come to find that you have in fact grown just a little bit wiser, with each passing page.