A commonsense roadmap for reading…

[Mortimer] Adler offers a commonsense roadmap to the various “levels” of reading in light of what the book deserves. For example, some books need only an inspectional reading. Some might call this skimming, but that gives the impression of it being less of an investment than it really is. It’s actually skimming systematically. Often there is a good deal that can be learned about a book on the surface, and many books do not require that you go much further. If the most basic level of reading is, What does this sentence say? The question at the inspectional level is, What is this book about? While this is a skill to be developed, the mechanics are simple: (1) look at the title page and its preface, (2) study the table of contents, (3) check the index and (4) read the publisher’s blurb. At this point, you will probably know whether the book deserves more than an inspectional reading. Let’s assume it doesn’t. To complete the inspectional process and finish the book, (5) examine the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s argument and (6) finally, turn through the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence but seldom more than that.

If the book does warrant more than an inspectional reading, take the work to the next level, which is analytical reading. This is a thorough, complete reading—the best reading that you can accomplish. It is intensely active reading, engaging the text with numerous questions. These books should be “chewed and digested,” Adler writes that this level is seldom needed when you are after information; it is to be reserved for the deepest levels of understanding. The highest and most complex level of reading would be syntopical, or comparative reading. This is when you read many books, seeking to place one book in a larger conversation with others that deal with related issues and ideas. From this you can construct an analysis that may not be in any of the books. As a result, I tend to make this investment based not only on the worth of the book but the ideas it engages.

James Emery White, from Serious Times, p. 108

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