Big Brain Ideas

How to Read a Book, Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading

Key Ideas

This was a short chapter, and it revolved around a single key idea: there are four reading levels. Each level serves a different purpose, but they all work together to provide a framework for reading.

The four levels of reading are:

Level 1: Elementary Reading

This is the simplest level of reading and what I think of when someone tells me they’ve read a book. I think of this level as “Mechanical Reading” What words are on the page? What does each word mean? What do the sentences constructed from each set of words mean?

There isn’t much to say about this level because it’s so basic. Elementary reading is important because the other levels can’t be achieved without it, but I don’t think talking about this level will yield anything insightful.

A quote from this chapter:

The child sees a collection of black marks on a white ground; what the marks say is, “The cat sat on the hat.” The first grader is not really concerned at this point with whether cats do sit on hats, or with what this implies about cats, hats, and the world. He is merely concerned with language as it is employed by the writer.

Level 2: Inspectional Reading

The goal of inspectional reading is to systematically skim a book to understand it at a surface level. What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? What can you learn from the table of contents and the title and subtitles of each chapter?

Adler notes that a special emphasis on time characterizes inspectional reading:

Hence, another way to describe this level of reading is to say that its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time — usually a relatively short time, and always (by definition) too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten.

I was thinking about how this reading level could be useful to me, and the answer I came up with is that inspectional reading seems best suited for deciding whether a book is worth my time, given the opportunity cost of reading a book. If I read one book, I have less time to read another book. This is especially true given the intensity and effort required for level 3 reading.

It sounds like Adler may have other ideas about the utility of inspectional reading, which I hope to hear more about in Chapter 4.

We do want to stress, however, that most people, even many quite good readers, are unaware of the value of inspectional reading. They start a book on page one and plow steadily through it, without even reading the table of contents. They are thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it. That compounds the difficulty.

Level 3: Analytical Reading

This is where things start to get really interesting from my point of view. I can’t think of a better summary than the one I found in this chapter:

Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading — the best reading you can do.

Adler didn’t have much to say about analytical reading in this chapter. The goal of this chapter was to introduce the four levels of reading. The entirety of Part 2 of the book is dedicated to analytical reading.

For now, suffice to say that analytical reading is the type of reading I had in mind when I decided to read How to Read a Book. This is the level at which you extract significant meaning and understanding from an individual book.

Level 4: Syntopical Reading

If analytical reading is about extracting understanding from a single book, syntopical reading is about extracting understanding from a series of books that all relate to the same idea, field, discipline, etc.

When reading syntopically, the goal is to learn from different authors and then combine the understanding you gain from each book and synthesize it into something that is your own:

When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve.

Adler also points out that, done well, this can lead to insights and thoughts that aren’t present in any of the books you read but are something you came up with on your own:

With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

Adler doesn’t explain the meaning of the word “syntopical,” but it strikes me that “syntopical” is an amalgamation of two words: “synthesize” and “topical.” Hence, syntopical reading is about synthesizing knowledge of an entire topic.


Why is this chapter important? Because it allows us to build a system for reading.

Each level of reading serves a different purpose:


I took two main things away from this chapter.

The first takeaway is that there are four levels of reading, and each level is useful in a specific situation:

The second takeaway is the idea of a system for reading. I want to try outlining such a system here, with the understanding that my views will likely change as I make my way through this book.

A System for Reading

Let’s assume that we want to learn a new topic deeply and well. Let’s also assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re limited to only books. Online courses, blog articles, etc. are off-limits for this exercise.

Where do we start?

The first problem we run into when learning something completely new is that we don’t know what we don’t know. A good solution to this problem is to find a book whose goal is to provide an introduction or an outline of the topic we’re interested in.

Five Books is a good resource for finding good books by topic. For example, if you’re interested in learning about Leonardo da Vinci, The best books on Leonardo da Vinci is probably a good place to start.

Wikipedia is also a good place to find outlines by Googling for “<topic> outline Wikipedia.” This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s beneficial.

Eventually, you’ll have a list of candidate books. Now it’s time to apply inspectional reading to decide which one seems like the best place to start. You can check out the table of contents, the title of each chapter, the book’s index, etc., to get a high-level understanding of what the book is about.

Once you decide on a book, you iterate between level 3 and level 1 reading as you make your way through the book. As you read, try to generate a list of questions you want to answer and see if you can find answers in the book before looking elsewhere. This question-answer loop comes from Knowledge Bootstrapping Steps v0.1 by @acesounderglass and has been very useful to me. I recommend trying it out for yourself.

When you finish the first book, check the bibliography for other relevant books, or go back to the list you developed before to find your next book.

At first, you’ll start with a near-empty world view about the topic you want to learn. You may know nothing at all about the topic. As you read different books, you update your world view with new information and ideas and an understanding of what you’re learning. This is the gist of syntopical reading.

After reading enough books, one day you will realize that you know a thing or two (but not everything) about this topic you previously knew nothing about.

In the future, I hope to refine these ideas into something more useful and concrete, but I think this is a reasonable first try at building a system for reading.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this stuff, so feel free to hit me up on Twitter.

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