This article contains everything you need to know to become a critical reader. If you implement its lessons you will become a better and more intelligent reader than 99% of people, and get more out of a non-fiction book than you ever have before.
In this article:
- What is critical reading?
- Why read critically?
- How to preview a book
- How to annotate and take notes
- Critical reading questions
- If you can’t understand what you’re reading
- Critical reading test
- Critiquing a text
- Advice from the world’s fastest reader
- Analysing your reading style
What is critical reading?
What is “critical reading”?
What does it mean to be a “critical reader”?
- Preview the text to see what’s in it, and if it’s even worth reading, before they decide to read it. They don’t waste their time reading average books when there are better books out there
- Read actively and with a purpose. They know why they’re reading a book and what they want to get out of it
- Demand more from the text. They’re not content with a surface level basic understanding. They want the deepest possible understanding of the authors assertions, arguments, evidence, rationale etc. before they form a judgement or give a critique
- Actively engage and interact with the text. They annotate, take notes, summarize, ask and answer questions etc. sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. When the text asks a question, you try to answer it. When it answers a question, you question that answer. When a thought, idea, question, counterargument etc. occurs to you, you write it down without hesitation
- Think critically about what they’re reading. They don’t just read passively and blindly believe and accept the words on the page just because they’re written in some famous book, or by some famous author, expert, philosopher, psychologist, scientist etc. or even by “God” in some “Holy book” e.g. the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Quran
- Question every assertion, assumption, argument, “fact”, statistic, story, explanation and conclusion presented by the author, regardless of who they are, what their reputation is, or how many times the text has been fact-checked, peer-reviewed, or endorsed on Amazon, or by experts, or the scientific community
- Think about the text before they’ve read it, as they’re reading it, and after they’ve read it
- Ask questions of the text before they’ve read it, as they’re reading it, and after they’ve read it
- Think critically
…what they’re reading
Why read critically?
Why do you need to read critically? Why does it even matter? Can’t you just enjoy whatever you’re reading without having to analyse and critique everything?
Well you can definitely read for enjoyment, especially if you’re reading any kind of fiction, a celebrity gossip magazine, a comic book etc. But if you’re reading a contract, fine print, non-fiction or “the news”, and you want the truth, you need to read critically for the same reason you need to think critically, most people are lying to you, they’re trying to deceive and mislead you. Fake news, false advertising, scams, social media lies etc. are common. You can’t just blindly believe and accept what you read.
Benefits to reading critically:
- You’ll become a better and more intelligent reader, and understand what you’re reading at a deeper level
- You’ll get more out of the text, and recall more of what you read, because you’ll be more engaged with it
- It’ll stop you from being gullible and just blindly believing and accepting the words on the page, just because it’s “news”, or written in some famous book, or by some famous author or expert
- It’ll make it easy to spot bad arguments, assertions without evidence, fallacies, false advertising, fake news, propaganda, scams etc.
- It’ll improve your critical thinking skills and make you smarter
- You’ll extract the maximum value from the book
Before you decide to read a book critically – or at all, however, the first step is to know if it’s even worth reading…
Preview the book
How do you know if a book is worth reading?
You preview it.
Previewing a book before reading it is important, because it gives you a general overview of the book and what it’s all about, and it allows you to quickly determine if the book is even worth reading.
How to preview a book
- Look at reviews on Amazon and Google before you even pick up the book. What do other reviewers say? What do the experts say? Does the book have mostly positive or negative reviews? Why? Is there a better book on the subject you should read instead?
If the reviews are mostly positive open the book and preview it:
- What is the book about? Carefully read the title, subtitle, contents, chapter headings, preface, introduction, chapter introductions and summaries, the first and last couple of paragraphs of each chapter, anything the author has done to make the text stand out: bold, italics, bullet points, lists, large font sizes, images, diagrams etc. as well as the conclusion
- Who is the author? What is their background? What makes them qualified to speak on this subject? Are they an expert in the field? Why should you listen to them? Note: Even if it’s an unknown author, it may still be a great book worth reading
- Why did the author write the book? What is their goal or intention? What do they want the reader to think/understand/do?
- Who did the author write the book for? Who is the author’s intended audience?
- When did the author write the book? When was it last updated? Is the information up to date and current, or is it possibly outdated and no longer relevant? What may have changed since the book was written?
- What are the major parts of the book? How are they organised into the whole?
- Preview the chapters that seem pivotal to the books argument
- Don’t stop to look up any unfamiliar words or terminology, or anything you don’t understand. Just keep your eyes moving and go straight over the bits you don’t understand until the end. You’re not trying to understand everything in the book in the preview, you’re simply trying to get a general overview of the book
- What is your overall impression of the book? Does it look like it’s worth reading?
Previewing the book shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, at most an hour. You should now have a good idea as to what the book is about, and if it’s worth reading.
“Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea, alert for anything that will make it clearer.” ― Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
Should you read this book?
What is the book about? Is it worth reading? Is there a better book you should read on the subject? You can learn something from everything you read, but some books are clearly better than others, and have more to teach you than others.
If the book is worth reading, are there any books you should read before this one? If this is an advanced book, are there any introductory books you should read before this one?
Have a purpose
If you decide to read the book, have a purpose for your reading. Having a purpose will focus your attention and give you a goal to aim for.
When you know why you’re reading a book, it’ll give you a good idea as to how to read it.
Why are you reading this book?
What do you want to get out it?
What do you want to learn or understand?
What questions would you like answered?
What problems would you like to solve?
Write down a list of goals that you have for the book, and a list of questions that you should be able to answer after you’ve read the book.
After you’ve read the book, you’ll test yourself and try to answer those questions.
Have the right mindset
When you read a book go into it with the right mindset, and have a goal to extract the maximum value from it, and get as much of it as you possibly can. Be excited about all of the new facts, ideas, lessons, methods, strategies, techniques etc. you’re about to learn.
When should you read?
Read when your mind is clear and rested and you can concentrate and focus. For most people this is in the morning after a good night’s sleep, maybe after a tea or coffee, or after meditating, somewhere you won’t be distracted.
Write notes and annotate as you read
“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember.” — Cicero
If you do decide to read the book, you need to read actively, and that means taking notes and annotating as you read.
Taking notes and annotating is important, because it forces you to engage with the text, and the more you engage with the text, the more you’ll get out of it.
If you don’t want to write in the book because you don’t want to ruin it, write on sticky notes, or in a notebook.
How to annotate and take notes
- Read with a notebook and a pen in your hand, and write down any thoughts, ideas, questions, counterarguments etc. as soon as they occur to you, and respond to what you’re reading paragraph by paragraph
- Write a one sentence summary on each paragraph after you finish it
- Write down the main ideas, key concepts and terms, recurring themes, author assertions and arguments, any unfamiliar words, and anything that seems important or interesting
- Underline/circle/asterisk any sections of the text that seem important or interesting
- Write question marks next to any sections you find confusing
- Draw diagrams, pictures, mind maps etc. anything that makes the subject more interesting
- Write a one page summary on each chapter after you finish it
- Don’t use a highlighter when annotating as this gives you the illusion of learning and making progress, but it’s much less effective than writing your own notes in the form of thoughts, ideas, questions, counterarguments
The more you write notes, ask questions, think critically, and respond to what you’re reading, the more you’ll get out of it.
How to remember what you read
How much of what you read do you remember later? Probably not much.
Here’s my advice: Don’t rely on your memory. Don’t trust your memory. As soon as you read a great idea, lesson, method, strategy, technique etc. anything important or interesting, get it out of your head and down onto paper ASAP.
Next review your notes at the end of the session, and before you start your next session, to lock it in deeper.
Ask questions as you read
As you’re reading you need to be asking questions of the text.
Ask questions of the text before, during, and after you’ve read it.
Asking questions of the text forces you to engage and think critically about what you’re reading.
Each time you start a new section, write down at least three questions that you should be able to answer once you’ve completed the section, and then test yourself and try to answer those questions at the end.
If you can’t answer the questions at the end of the section, is it because you haven’t understood the passage? (If so re-read it again slowly) or is it because they haven’t been answered yet?
Critical reading questions
Write down your answers to the following questions as you read the text:
- What is the title of this chapter or section? What is the subtitle? What clues does the title give you about the section before you start reading it?
- What is this chapter or section about?
- What questions should you be able to answer at the end of this section?
- What should you have learned at the end of this section?
- What are the main ideas in this section?
- How does this chapter or section relate to the whole? Why is it important or significant?
- Why do you need to know this? Why is this information important?
- What are the main assertions and arguments the author is making in this section?
- Note: Authors don’t always state their arguments and assertions explicitly. An author may make several assertions in one sentence e.g. “Fat Tony robbed the Bank of America at 244 8th Ave, New York, of $10 Million dollars at gunpoint, at 9.03am on December 4, 2005”, or they may state one assertion or argument in a single sentence or paragraph, or they may take two or more sentences or paragraphs to state one assertion or argument. You may need to construct it yourself. The test of whether you’ve identified the author’s assertions is can you state it in your own words? If you can’t state the author’s assertion in your own words, you haven’t identified it and don’t understand it, which means you won’t recognize it when it’s uttered in different words, either by the author, or by other people. You need to identify each of the authors assertions, and then make a judgement call on each one individually
- Is the author making an argument or an assertion? If it’s an argument, is it deductive, inductive or abductive? Is it sound or cogent? Valid or invalid? Strong or weak?
- Is the author arguing for anything controversial? If so, there are likely to be good counterarguments on the other side
- Does the author encourage you to think for yourself? To do your own research and draw your own conclusions? Or do they seem dogmatic and insistent in telling you what to think, and what conclusions to draw?
- What conclusions does the author want you to draw? What does the author want you to think/believe/understand/do?
- What kind of evidence does the author provide to support their assertions? Anecdotal, anonymous authorities (“weasel words”) e.g. “experts say…” “scientists say…” “studies show…”, expert opinion or testimony, deductive or inductive reasoning, randomized controlled trials, scientific studies, statistics, scientific consensus? Or are they making assertions without evidence?
- What is the quality of that evidence? Is it good enough to accept the authors conclusions? Would it stand up in court? If the author references a study, how was it conducted? Is it qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods? Has this study been peer reviewed by experts? Was the sample size sufficient? representative enough of the wider population? Did the participants come from different cultural and social backgrounds? How generalizable are the findings?
- What are the best arguments and evidence in support of the authors claims?
- What are the best arguments and evidence against the authors claims?
- Is the preponderance of evidence for or against the author’s claims?
- Is the expert consensus (if there is one) for or against the author’s assertions? Do the majority of experts agree or disagree with the author? Why?
- Do you agree with the authors rationale? Do you find their arguments and evidence convincing? Why/why not?
- Do you agree with the authors conclusions? (You might agree with the authors arguments, evidence, rationale etc. but not with their conclusions) Do they necessarily follow from the premises? Are they backed up by sufficient evidence? Or is the author jumping to conclusions too quickly from insufficient evidence?
- Are there any other equally valid conclusions or interpretations that could have been drawn from the evidence, or any other competing theories with better explanations for the evidence? If so, what?
- Are there any flaws or fallacies in the author’s reasoning? If so, what? e.g. Is the author attacking a strawman? Are they confusing causation and correlation? Are there any unjustified leaps of logic? Does every point necessarily lead to the next?
- If the author provides a “rule”, are there any exceptions to the rule that are not explained or accounted for?
- Does the author address counterarguments, disconfirming evidence, objections etc.?
- What assumptions is the author making? What does the author have to believe is true before the rest of their argument makes sense?
- What are the implications of the authors argument? If this is true, what else must be true?
- Do you agree with the authors “facts” and description of “reality”? Why/why not? Anything you disagree with?
- Are these facts universally true always and for everyone at all times and places e.g. 2 + 2 = 4? Or are they subjective and only true for one gender, nationality, age group, occupation, income bracket, city, country etc.? Are there any exceptions to these “facts” that are not accounted for?
- Were these facts once true, but no longer? e.g. The Burj Khalifa was the tallest building in the world in 2019 (828 m) but won’t be in 2020 when the Jeddah Tower opens in Saudi Arabia (1,000 m/1 km tall)
- What are the main problems the author is trying to solve?
- What solutions do they propose?
- Do you agree with the authors proposed solutions? Can you think of even better solutions to these problems?
- Do you understand all of the key words and terms that the author is using? You must understand the meaning and significance of these words, if you want to understand the author. If a word is important to the writer, it should be important to the reader
- Do you understand everything in this section? What don’t you understand? What unanswered questions do you have?
- What is the perspective of the author? Do they seem like an insider or outsider? Why? What other perspectives might be equally valid or worth looking into?
- Does the author seem intellectually honest? Trustworthy? Fair? Reasonable? Open-minded? Willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads? Willing to admit when they’re wrong? Or do they seem like a closed-minded ideologue?
- Does the author seem biased? Does their language, tone, choice of examples etc. reveal any biases? If so, do the writer’s biases reduce their credibility?
- How would you characterise the writer’s tone? Curious? Dogmatic? Judgemental? Emotive? Pay attention not only to what is said, but how it’s said. How does the tone affect your response to the text?
- Is the author using dramatic images and/or emotive language in an attempt to alarm, scare or outrage you?
- Does it seem like the author is trying to present you with a fair and balanced picture of the issue? Are they presenting you with both sides of the story – or only one? Are they trying to be objective in their analysis and critique? Perfect objectivity isn’t possible, but are they even trying to be impartial, unbiased and objective?
- Does the author treat their opponents charitably and fairly? Do they strawman or steelman opposition arguments? Do they treat the other side as intelligent people with a difference of opinion/perspective? Or do they demonize them as “crazy”, “dangerous”, “evil”, “dumb”, “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, “transphobic” etc.?
- Is the author misquoting people, or taking quotes out of context?
- Is the author redefining words e.g. “rational”, “reasonable”, “racist” to suit their argument?
- Is the author embellishing or sensationalizing a story for dramatic effect? Do you think the story really took place the way the author tells it?
- Does the book contain any hidden propaganda? e.g. “the best form of government”
- Is the author’s analysis of a problem or situation oversimplified or incomplete? What needs to be unpacked or expanded upon?
- Is the author oversimplifying complex ideas, or offering overly simplistic solutions to complex problems?
- Is the author engaging in oversimplified either/or, all or nothing, black and white thinking? As if something “always” or “never” happens, or as if “everyone” or “no one” should think/believe/do something?
- Are you engaged in black and white thinking, as if “everything” or “nothing” the author says is right?
- Are you projecting meaning onto the text that isn’t there? Are you putting words in the authors mouth?
- What are you going to do with this information? How are you going to put it into practice? How will it make a difference to your life?
I know this is an exhaustive list. But it’s important that you question every assertion, assumption, argument, answer, explanation and “fact” of the author. Don’t just accept or believe the words on the page. Demand evidence and proof. Remember anyone can write anything, but that doesn’t make it true. You think to think critically and question what you’re reading.
If you can answer most of these questions, you’re well on your way to understanding the book.
Read out loud
When you’re reading it’s a good idea to occasionally read passages out loud too, because your ears will often pick up on things that your eyes miss.
Pause and reflect
You should also periodically pause and reflect upon what you’re reading, and allow it to sink in.
Consider the implications of what you’ve just read. Is this true? If so, what does this mean?
“Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” – Edmund Burke
What if you can’t understand what you’re reading?
Some books are damn hard to read. Everything is difficult, nothing makes sense. There are too many new concepts, ideas, terms etc. It hurts your head.
If you can’t understand what you’re reading, it could be because:
a) the subject matter is simply difficult
b) the book you’re reading assumes a foundational knowledge on the subject that you don’t yet have. Maybe you need to start with an introductory book or “dummies” guide to come up to speed on the subjects foundational terms and concepts
c) the author is a bad writer and/or isn’t explaining things as clearly as they could, maybe the book needs to be rewritten so it’s clearer and easier to understand
d) All of the above
Either way, for now, just focus on the parts you do understand, and don’t worry too much about what you don’t understand. The parts that confuse you might have just been poorly written, or they might not even be important, or they might become clearer later on in the book. Either way, there is no point in wasting lots of time on them.
“If you insist on understanding everything on every page before you go on to the next, you will not get very far. In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points, the forest for the trees.” – Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
Identify the exact point of confusion
If there is just one particular passage or section that confuses you, re-read it again slowly, and identify the exact point of confusion. What is the exact point you go from understanding to not understanding? Is it an argument? An analogy? An example?
You can try reaching out to others who’ve read the book on Reddit and Quora and ask them to explain it to you in layman’s terms.
Also, think from the authors perspective. Even if they didn’t say it the way they could have, or should have, or the way you would have, what do you think they’re trying to say?
Read the book at least 3x – once is not enough
“Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” – Stephen King
You need to read great books at least 3X (if not more) to understand them – once is not enough. There is always something valuable you miss the first time, no matter how attentively you read, ideas left undiscovered, lessons left unlearned, you need to find out what they are. Rereading the book will also deepen and strengthen your understanding of the contents, and lock them deeper into your memory.
1st reading – previewing the text, finding out what the book is all about, and if it’s even worth reading
2nd reading – active reading, reading with a purpose, annotating the text, taking notes, asking questions, thinking critically about what you’re reading, analyzing and evaluating the text, responding to what you’re reading
3rd reading – reviewing your notes, filling in the gaps in your knowledge, answering any unanswered questions, reviewing anything ambiguous or unclear
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” ―
You can also listen to the audiobook
If there is an audiobook available, especially if it’s read by the author, you might want to listen to that too.
Listening to the audiobook will lock its contents even deeper into your mind, and you will notice when the author is emphasizing certain important things with their tonality, that you may have missed reading the book.
I don’t recommend listening to audiobooks instead of reading the book, because it’s too easy to listen passively and for your mind to wander. So if you can only read or listen to the book, read it, but if you can do both, reading and listening to the book is better than just reading it.
You can also listen to author interviews
You can also listen to author interviews on podcasts, and watch talks they’ve done on YouTube for further insights.
After you’ve read the book
After you’ve read the book (at least 3X) it’s time to do the following:
- Review your notes
- Test yourself to see how well you’ve understood it
- Write a critique
- Discuss the text with others, try to explain it
- Write an action plan of next steps
How well do you really understand the book?
The only way to know for sure is to test yourself.
Review your notes
Before you take the following test, I recommend you do the following:
- Review your annotations, notes, summaries etc. Does everything make sense to you? What don’t you understand? What unanswered questions do you have? What is ambiguous or unclear? What sections of the book do you need to review?
- Review the critical reading questions and see if you can answer most of them. If not, re-read the book until you can, and then take this test
Critical reading test
- What is the book about? Can you summarize it in your own words in 1-2 sentences? If you can’t, or if you can only restate the author’s words, you don’t understand it
- Write a one page summary of the book
- Why did the author write the book? What was their goal or objective? What did they want to achieve?
- What is the main premise of the book?
- What are the main ideas in the book?
- What are the author’s main assertions and arguments?
- What evidence does the author provide to support these assertions and arguments?
- What conclusions does the author want the reader to draw? What does the author want the reader to think/believe/understand/do?
- If it’s a “how to” book: What methods, strategies and techniques does the author recommend?
- What are the main lessons you’ve learnt from the book?
- What don’t you understand? What sections of the book do you need to review? What do you need to study up on next?
- What are you going to do with this information? How are you going to put it into practice? How will it make a difference to your life?
If you can answer most of these questions, you’ve probably understood most of the book.
Write an outline of the book
You can also test the depth of your understanding of the book by trying to create an outline of its major parts, in their order and relation.
Mortimer Adler suggests outlining a book is as follows:
- The book is about …
- The author accomplished this plan in five major parts
- The first part is about …
- The second part is about …
- The third part is about …
- The fourth part is about …
- The fifth part is about …
- The first of these major parts is divided into three sections, of which the first considers X, the second considers Y, and the third considers Z
- In the first section of the first part, the author makes four points, of which the first is A, the second B, the third C, and the fourth D. And so on and so forth.
This will take a lot of time and effort of course, but if you want to understand the book at a deeper level, this will help you do it.
What is your critique on the book?
Now that you’ve read and understood the book, it’s time to critique it.
- What are your thoughts on the book?
- Did you like the book? Why/why not?
- What did you like most about the book?
- What did you like least about the book?
- Do you agree with the author’s main premise? Why/why not?
- Do you agree with the author’s main ideas? Any you disagree with?
- Do you agree with the authors “facts” and description of “reality”? Why/why not? Anything you disagree with?
- Do you agree with the author’s assertions? Anything you disagree with?
- Do you agree with the authors rationale? Do you find their arguments and evidence convincing? Why/why not?
- Do you agree with the authors conclusions? (You might agree with their arguments, reasons and evidence, but not with their conclusions)
- Did the book change your mind on anything? If so, what and why?
- Do you recommend the book to others? If so, to who? Who should/shouldn’t read this book?
- What advice would you give to someone about reading this book? What should they know before reading it?
- Are there any introductory books one should read before this one?
- Are there any “better” books on the same subject? If so, what?
- What are the weaknesses of the book? How could an updated version be better? What could you add to it to make it better?
You must not critique the book or the author’s position however, until you’ve read it from cover to cover, and fully understood the author’s ideas, arguments, evidence, rationale etc.
You can’t just preview or skim a book or read a few chapters, and then begin to criticize it.
“Students who plainly do not know what the author is saying seem to have no hesitation in setting themselves up as his judges. They not only disagree with something they do not understand but, what is equally bad, they also often agree to a position they cannot express intelligibly in their own words.” – Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
If you’re going to criticize the book or the author’s position, you must give good reasons for that criticism too. You can’t just say you disagree or it’s dumb/stupid/wrong etc.
What is the author right or wrong about specifically? What exactly are they uninformed, misinformed or wrong about? Which aspect of their argument or rationale is fallacious? Why? Are you sure?
Read reviews – after you’ve written your own
After you’ve written your critique of the book, it’s a good idea to read reviews from other people. Read positive reviews, negative reviews, indifferent reviews. Reading the reviews of others will give you different perspectives to consider, other people may have noticed things you haven’t, and it will give you lots of ideas as to how to analyze and critique a text.
Don’t read reviews, commentaries, summaries etc. until you’ve read the book at least 3X however, are certain you understand it, and have written your own critique on it. You don’t want other people influencing your thinking, or doing your thinking for you.
Don’t just accept the critiques of others either, or let them tell you what to think. Reviews, summaries, commentaries etc. aren’t always right in their critiques. Reviewers can be biased, unfair, unreasonable, they do make mistakes, they can be wrong etc. You may notice things that others have missed. Read the reviews of others critically.
Discuss the text with others
After you’ve tested yourself (and hopefully have a good understanding of the book – if not re-read and re-test until you do), written a critique, and read the reviews of others, discuss the book with others who have also read it, and share your insights, lessons and perspectives with each other.
You might find that you come at the book from completely different angles, and have different insights, lessons and perspectives to share.
Try to teach what you’ve learnt to others
You can also try to explain what the book is about to someone who has never read it. What don’t they understand based on your description? What questions do they have? Any you can’t answer?
Teaching others is one of the fastest ways to determine the extent of your knowledge on a given subject. When people ask you questions for clarification, it’ll quickly highlight the gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and you’ll soon find out what you know and what you don’t.
If you think you know the book, but you can’t explain it or teach it, you don’t really know it.
“We learn 10% of what we READ,
20% of what we HEAR,
30% of what we SEE,
50% of what we SEE and HEAR,
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS,
80% of what is EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY, and
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.”
– Edgar Dale
What are you going to do with this information?
“When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information?” — Ryan Holiday
Now that you’ve read the book, and hopefully learnt something from it, what are you going to do with this information? How are you going to put it into practice? How are you going to make it work for you? How is it going to make a difference to your life?
You need to take the ideas, lessons, methods, strategies, techniques etc. from the book and make them your own. Try them out to see if they work for you, and to what degree – otherwise what good is the information?
“Knowledge isn’t power; it’s potential power. Execution trumps knowledge any day of the week.” – Tony Robbins
What are you going to do next?
How are you going to apply this information?
How are you going to turn these ideas into actions and habits?
Write down an action plan of next steps.
What books should you read next?
What books should you read next after this one?
What books does the author recommend? What books have influenced their thinking?
“The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.” – Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
What books do the experts recommend?
“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What books have the best (verified) ratings and reviews on Amazon?
What are the top 5 books on the subject?
Don’t just read one great book on the subject, read many. No book has all the answers or contains everything you need to know.
Being “well read”
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” – Henry David Thoreau
A lot of people boast about reading a book a week, or having read hundreds of books.
Is this what it means to be “well read”?
I think that being “well-read” should refer just as much, if not more, to the quality, rather than the quantity, of the books you’ve read.
I’d rather read one good book a month, or every couple of months, and apply all of its lessons into my life, than to read one average or crappy book a week and do nothing with it.
“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” – Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
re: Speed reading
Speed reading is okay, but it’s better to be a critical reader, than a speed reader.
My advice: Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next sentence, paragraph or chapter. Be present and think about what you’re reading, take lots of notes and ask lots of questions, and think about how you’re going to apply the ideas, lessons, methods, strategies, techniques etc. to your life.
Speaking of speed reading…
Advice from the world’s faster reader
I interviewed Howard Berg the world’s fastest reader (25, 000+ words/80 pages a minute) and asked for his advice on how to read a book and what he looks for, and he told me:
Michael Frank: What advice do you have about reading a book?
Howard Berg: If my purpose is to learn, I read in three steps:
- I preread the book super fast. I’ll read a 400-500 page book in 4-5 minutes to find out what’s in it, and if it’s anything I need to know. I want to be able to determine in 5 minutes: Should I even read this? Is this the right book?
- If it is the right book, then I’ll look for what I know, and what I don’t know, and need to learn. I don’t waste time learning what I know, I look for what I don’t know and need to learn. I look for what I don’t understand and what is relevant to me. I don’t need to know everything. I only need to what I need to know. Too many people spend too much time trying to learn everything and then they don’t remember anything. And to me what’s important is knowing the answers to the test questions if you’re in school, or knowing what your supervisors and clients want to know if you’re in business
- Then the final step, I look for meaning and significance in what confused me, so now I understand it, and then I use memory skills to lock it in
There are only five things you need to learn and master in any new subject:
- The vocabulary. About 80% of learning a new subject is learning the words, and if you’re reading a non-fiction book, the writer will draw your attention to those words. They’ll put them in bold or italics, they might have a glossary or a word list at the end of the chapter, which makes these words exceptionally important
- Names. Who’s in your book and what did they do?
- Any number, date, statistic or formula. What is it and how do you use it?
- In any non-fiction book with headers and sub-headers, what are the five most important ideas in each section, the big takeaways?
- What are the questions and answers? If you know every word and what it means, every person and what they did, every number, date, statistic and formula and how it’s used, if you know every main idea and the answers to every question, you’re going to get an A on the test
Michael Frank: What should we be looking for when we’re reading a book and covering new material that we’re completely unfamiliar with?
Howard Berg: I like to look for the nouns and verbs. The people, places, things and their actions. I also put a lot of focus on the first and last sentence in a paragraph. Usually the first sentence tells you what’s coming, and the last sentence tells you what came. I also look at chapter titles, chapter summaries, any kind of graphs, diagrams, or images. What did the writer do to make things stand out? Did they bold? Did they use colors? Do they have tables, charts, diagrams, sidebars? Are there questions? Is there contents, an index, a glossary? What did they do that looks special or different to draw your attention?
Michael Frank: What kind of questions should we be asking ourselves when we’re reading a book to extract the maximum value from it?
Howard Berg: Very good question. It depends on the subject, but I’m always asking myself:
How will I use this?
Why is this important?
What applications does it have for the problem I’m trying to solve?
And then I try to visualize myself in the future using what I’m learning and being very successful as a result. And because I’m enjoying that successful image, my brain wants to retain what I’ve just learned because it sees the benefit and the reward. Learning and motivation are very closely linked in psychology, so it’s not enough to simply want to read, you have to have a feeling for why it’s important, how it will benefit you, and what rewards you will get as a result, and when your brain sees that, now it’s on fire.
How do you read a book?
Before we conclude this article, it’s important to analyse your own reading style, and to understand it’s strengths and weaknesses, and how it can be improved upon, if you want to get better.
- What kinds of books or blogs are you most likely to read? Why?
- Do you prefer to read fiction or nonfiction? Why?
- Do you prefer to read for entertainment or information? Why?
- How often do you read books?
- What makes you want to read a book? The cover? The title? The subject? The author? Amazon reviews? Something else?
- Who are your favorite authors? Why?
- What are your favorite books? Why?
- What are your favorite blogs? Why?
- What time of the day are you most likely to read?
- Do you tend to read passively or actively? Do you annotate, take notes, ask questions and think critically about what you’re reading?
- Do you take the time to pause and reflect upon the authors words as you’re reading?
- What is your average reading speed? (Average adult reading speed is 200 words per minute)
- How much of what you read do you remember later? Are the words on the page quickly seen and forgotten? (Studies have shown that the average person retains 10% of what they read)
- What are the first things you look for when you pick up a book?
- What do you do when you don’t understand a word or passage?
- What do you do when you want to remember something important?
- What do you do when you read something you strongly disagree with?
- What are your strengths as a reader?
- What are your weaknesses as a reader?
- What would make you a better reader?
Critical reading summary
Let’s recap the steps:
- Preview the book. Read the title, subtitle, contents, chapter headings, preface, introduction, the first and last couple of paragraphs of each chapter, headings and subheadings, conclusion etc. this will give you a good idea as to what the book is all about and if it’s even worth reading
- If the book is worth reading, have a goal or purpose for your reading. Why are you reading this book? What do you want to get out of it? What do you want to learn or understand?
- Annotate and take notes as you read, writing down any thoughts, ideas and questions as soon as they occur to you, responding to what you’re reading paragraph by paragraph. Write a one sentence summary of each paragraph, and a one page summary of each chapter
- Continuously ask questions of the text as you read, and each time you start a new section, write down at least three questions that you should be able to answer once you’ve completed the section, and then test yourself and try to answer those questions when you have completed it
- Occasionally read passages out loud, because your ears will often pick up on things that your eyes miss
- Pause and reflect upon what you’re reading
- Read the book at least 3x – once is not enough. In addition to reading the book, you can also listen to an audiobook version, and see if the author has done any interviews on podcasts, or talks on YouTube
- After you’ve read the book, review your annotations, notes, summaries etc. Does everything make sense to you? What don’t you understand? What unanswered questions do you have? What is ambiguous or unclear? What sections of the book do you need to review?
- Review the critical reading questions and see if you can answer most of them. If not, re-read the book until you can
- Take the critical thinking test
- Write an outline of the book
- Write a critique on the book
- Read reviews – after you’ve written your own
- Discuss the text with others
- Try to teach what you’ve learnt to others
- Take the ideas, lessons, methods, strategies, techniques etc. from the book and make them your own. Try them out to see if they work for you, and to what degree
- Analyse and assess your reading style
How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler