Book Summaries Productivity

How to Read a Book Summary (8/10)

Television and radio do not stimulate your mind or force you to think. They provide you with pre-packaged opinions that give you the illusion that you are thinking. How to Read a Book argues for switching to the written word, and to doing it right.

You are enlightened, not when you know what the author has said, but when you know what he means when he said it, and why he said it. You need to be informed to be enlightened, but information alone is not enough.

There are two types of ignorance. There are those who cannot read at all. And there are those who can read but are ignorant. There have always been literature ignoramuses throughout history. The Greeks had a name for the mixture of learning and folly, that is, the bookish but poorly read. They were all sophomores.

Four Levels of Reading

  1. Elementary Reading
  2. Inspectional Reading
  3. Analytical Reading
  4. Syntopical Reading

Elementary Reading

Basic level of reading.

Inspectional Reading

Two Types.

1) Systematic Skimming

Read table of contents, preface, index. Read a few paragraphs throughout the book. Decide if it’s worth your time.

2) Superficial Reading

Go through the book quickly. Don’t think about the arguments or look anything up. The quick read helps you decide if you want to read it carefully and will help you understand the book better if you do.  

Analytical Reading

Analytical reading is when you read a book properly, you chew and digest it. There are different ways of reading a book. As Francis Bacon remarked, some books should be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed.

There are four basic questions you should ask as a reader.

1. What is the book about as a whole?

2. What is being said in detail and how?

3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?

4. What of it? If the book has given you information, what is its significance?

Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading is a shortcut to reading many books. You look for the paragraphs that matter to you. Analytic reading involves you studying the entire work of the master, but syntopical reading is about you being the master.

Assuming you want to understand a topic better and have prepared a reading list, you would do the following:

1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject, to find the most relevant passages.

2. Since you are reading different authors, who may be using different words to describe the same thing, you must establish a standard vocabulary to apply to all.  

3. Create the appropriate questions and make sure they are clear.

4. Understand the issues. Know what you should be mindful of in terms of the different perspectives that exist.

5. Your questions will have opposing answers. This is where you engage with the different answers by analyzing them. If you do this well, you will have an informed opinion.

General Ideas about Reading

Reading is like skiing. At first, both activities are awkward and slow. When done well, both can be graceful and harmonious.

Practical vs Theoretical

The difference between these two types of books is that practical books tell you about how you ought to do something. This includes moral philosophy since it is informing you about how you should act in the world. Theoretical books are about ideas, or about how things are, but have nothing to do with what you should do yourself. Sociology books, for example, are theoretical.

The Book as a Whole

You must always understand, with definitiveness, what the book is about as a whole.

Why Encyclopaedias don’t work

It is not enough to merely take in facts. You need both imagination and reason to understand information.

Why Fiction works

The reason why fiction is important is because it touches the unconscious mind.

Reading Poetry

When reading poetry, you should expect to not understand everything instantly. And you should say the poem out loud. The act of speaking will force you to understand it better.

The Five Philosophical Styles

1. The Philosophical Dialogue

A conversation unfolds, and you discover truths through the disagreements. Plato did it well, everyone else was bad at it.

2. The Philosophical Treatise

Kant and Aristotle did this. A clear style of philosophy where the problem is presented, and there is a beginning, middle, and end.

3. The Meeting of Objections

The author raises possible objections and debunks them, Aquinas’ style. 

4. The Systematization of Philosophy

Descartes was a great mathematician. He wanted to organize philosophy mathematically, so did Spinoza.

5. The Aphoristic Style

Not as important as the rest, since less subject to scrutiny. Attractive because similar to Eastern wisdom books. Reader is required to do the work, to find meaning for himself.

Quality vs Quantity

Most books won’t improve your reading skills. A tiny proportion will.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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