Big Brain Ideas

How to Read a Book, Chapter 1: The Activity and Art of Reading

The first chapter of How to Read a Book sets the context for the rest of the book: there are multiple ways to read a book, and some are more effective than others, depending on your goal.

If your goal is to read for entertainment, the advice in How to Read a Book will not be useful to you. If your goal is to read for information, you’ll get more than you bargained for because Adler is talking about the third type of reading that requires much more effort: reading for understanding.

Key Ideas

Active Reading vs. Passive Reading

Most people read books passively. Each word goes in one ear and out the other. At the end of the book, the reader may be left with a few major ideas that are somewhat useful, but they won’t have a deep understanding of what those ideas mean or how to apply them in another context. The reader won’t fully receive the message the author is trying to communicate to them.

An alternative approach is to read actively. Active reading requires you to think about what the author is saying and why. You have to ask yourself questions about what you’re reading. “What is the author’s point?” “Why is the author making this point?” “Do I agree with the author’s point? Why or why not?” “Why is this point important to me?” And the real kicker is that, because books can’t talk back, you have to answer these questions yourself.

This quote is a good summary of active reading in Adler’s own words:

Without external help of any sort, you go to work on the book. With nothing but the power of your own mind, you operate on the symbols before you in such a way that you gradually lift yourself from a state of understanding less to one of understanding more. Such eleveation, accomplished by the mind working on a book, is highly skilled reading, the kind of reading that a book which challenges your understanding deserves.

Reading For Information vs. Reading For Understanding

It is possible to know many things and understand none of them. Knowing does not equal understanding. This is Adler’s point when he talks about reading for information and reading for understanding. Adler also points out that there is a big difference between being widely-read and being well-read.

In Adler’s own words:

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

Reading for understanding takes a different set of tools than reading for information. None of these tools were presented in the first chapter, but that is what the rest of the book is about.

Learning By Instruction vs. Learning By Discovery

A simple way to think about this point is to think about the differences between learning from a lecturer (e.g., a school teacher or college professor) and learning from a book.

When learning from a lecturer, they will often direct the majority of the lecture for you. They may even draw conclusions for you. The problem is that, by doing so, they’ve robbed you of the opportunity to discover these things for yourself, and the process of discovery is what leads to more effective learning.

On the other hand, learning from a book requires more participation on the part of the reader. You have to engage with the book more deeply because it may not give you the answers you’re looking for in the way you’re looking for them. This reiterates the early quote about going to work on a book.

If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.

Importance

Why is this chapter important?

I’m sure many of you have had the experience of staying up late the night before an exam trying to cram a bunch of facts into your brain. I’m also sure that worked out for some of you, but it went horribly for me. In hindsight, I’d failed the test before I walked in the door because I was looking for information when I should have been looking for understanding.

And that’s why this chapter is important: it points out the difference between information and understanding. They are not the same thing, and understanding is strictly better than information. You can have information without having understanding, but you can not have understanding without information. Understanding is a superset of information. 1

I forget where I learned this, but information vs. understanding is a lot like the model of decisions vs. outcomes. It’s possible to make a good decision that has a bad outcome, and it’s possible to make a bad decision that has a good outcome. Knowing whether you’re making good decisions, regardless of the outcome, is an important skill. That thought has stuck with me and has become one of my core mental models. In time, I expect the idea of information vs. understanding will be elevated to a similar level of importance.

Takeaway

I took three main things away from this chapter:

  1. Active reading leads to better understanding. Read actively. The rest of the book will teach you how.
  2. Challenge yourself by answering your own questions without help when possible. (But don’t get stuck on something forever.)
  3. Know the difference between being widely-read and well-read. We want to be well-read.

While reading this chapter and thinking about it afterward, I remembered The Work Required to Have an Opinion. It’s an idea that I personally think is great and something I’ll talk about more in the future.

If you’re interested in having a conversation about How to Read a Book or anything else, please hit me up on Twitter.


  1. For the sake of completeness, it is absolutely possible to have understanding without having complete knowledge. Not having complete knowledge of a subject is normal and expected. We will never be able to learn everything. ↩︎

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