I just learned that I don’t know how to read

I have in my library in Mumbai and Pune more than 500 books. I am known to be a person who reads a lot and I did, when I was young, spend a lot of time with books. I am well qualified and have a blog (this one) and more than a thousand answers in the Q&A site quora.com

So what do I mean when I say that I do not know how to read?

It means that I have only learnt one way to read, and that is the way you read a novel. I just skim through my books, as you would do with a bestselling novel, and until recently I didn’t even know that there are other and better ways to read serious books.

I have written about the way I read in an earlier article:

But, just today, I picked up a book that I had purchased a few months back but which was lying on my bookshelf unread. The book is titled How to read a Book by Mortimer Adler and it is supposed to be a classic. After reading just the first chapter it is easy to see why. Here are my takeaways from just the Preface and Chapter 1.

Quoting from the book:

  1. … (a person) can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration and he is at a loss.
  2. As Pascal observed three hundred years ago, “When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing.”
  3. Variable speed reading is the solution, the aim being to read better, always better, but sometimes slower, sometimes faster.
  4. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much an obstacle to understanding as too few.
  5. The art of reading includes … “keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

Here is what I have learnt from the above points:

Point 1 is self-explanatory.

Points 2 and 3 convey that different books and different parts of the same book need to be read at different speeds. The optimum speed is that which enables us to understand and digest the text.

Point 4 says that it is very easy to miss the forest for the trees. I have sometimes read an entire chapter of a difficult book on philosophy and thought I had understood it. But when I challenged myself to remember the main argument and conclusion of the chapter (the main point that the chapter is making) I did not have anything to say. I had understood each sentence as I read it but missed the main point.

Point 5 lists down the skills required in the art of reading.

If you are a scholar or an academic or someone who has an interest in reading serious books then I encourage you to pick up a copy of the above book. Link to browse the book at Amazon is below (Not an affiliate link):


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