Tim Gittos

I'm an Australian currently living in Austin, TX in the USA.

I currently earn a living programming, though I wouldn't call myself a programmer. If I had to attach a label to myself, I'd use the term autodidact.

I love learning, and my favorite things to learn about are programming, computer graphics, AI & machine learning, robotics, painting and creativity.

Book Notes: How to Read a Book

Last updated on 12 Feb 2013

Amazon: How to Read a Book (referral link – help me buy new books!)
ISBN: 0671212095
Read: 2013-02-12

A good analytical approach to reading books with purpose. Readers for leisure need not apply. Although the author references scientific and mathematical works, the book shines when discussing how to gain meaning and understanding from books that are more concerned with the humanities.


Goals of reading books:

  • Entertainment
  • Gain information
  • Gain knowledge/understanding

There are four levels of reading, wich higher levels encompassing and including lower levels of reading:

  1. elementary reading
  2. inspectional reading
  3. analytical reading
  4. syntopical reading

Analytical reading is only required when the goal of reading is to gain understanding. For entertainment or informational reading, elementary or inspectional reading is sufficient.

Elementary Reading

Reading learnt in school. Great for reading for entertainment.

Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading is performed in 2 parts. Experienced readers can accomplish both simultaneously, however for beginners it’s best to do them separately.

Systematic skimming or prereading

  1. Look at the title page & preface
  2. Study the table of contents
  3. Check the index
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb
  5. Look at chapters that seem pivotal to the book’s argument, and read the chapter summary statements (if they exist)
  6. Turn pages of the book and dip in here and there, reading a paragraph or two. Look for signs of the main contention
  7. Read the book’s conclusion

The purpose of prereading is to attempt to figure out the book’s general theme or idea.

Superficial reading

Read through the book without stopping to look up or think about concepts that aren’t immediately understood. Read relatively fast – some speed reading techniques may apply here.

Analytical reading

Before you read the book, determine what kind of book it is: theoretical or practical.

As you read the book, ask the following questions of it:

  1. What is the book about as a whole? What is the leading theme & how is it developed by division into sub themes or topics
    1. Classify the book according to kind & subject matter
    2. State what the whole book is about as succinctly as possible
    3. Enumerate major parts in their order and relation, construct an outline
    4. Define the problem or problems being solved
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? What are the main ideas, assertions and arguments of the book?
    1. Come to terms with the author – understand key words
    2. Grasp leading propositions by dealing with the most important sentences
    3. Know the arguments by finding them in, or constructing them from, sequences of sentences
    4. Determine which problems were solved, which were not, and of the ones not solved, which the author knows he/she failed at.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part? Make up your mind about the book.
    1. Don’t criticize until you understand the book as per above
    2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contensiously
    3. Demonstrate knowledge of difference between knowledge & opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement.
      When crticising a book:
    4. Show wherin the author is uninformed
    5. Show wherin the author is misinformed
    6. Show wherin the author is illogical
    7. Show wherin the authors analysis or account is incomplete
      If you cannot show the above, you must agree with the author.
  4. What of it? What is the significance of the book to you? Is it important for you to know?

As you read analytically, take notes about both the books structure and the books concepts.

Syntopical reading

The purpose of syntopical reading is to analyze the contention in a subject. Do not defend an opinion, merely conduct a survey. Do this by reading multiple books on a single subject.

Before getting started, you must use elementary and inspectional reading to:

  1. Create a tentative bibliography
  2. Inspect all books and determine if they are relevant

These tasks can be performed in unison, building bibliographies from books determined to be relevant to the subject.

Once a bibliography has been created, read books using a combination of elementary, inspectional and analytical reading simultaneously. While reading, perform the following steps:

  1. Find the relevant passages in each book
  2. Bring the authors to terms with each other – construct a neutral argument to frame multiple authors terms to a single “language”
  3. Get the questions in a subject clear
  4. Define the issues central to the subject
  5. Analyze the discussion of these issues across books.

Remember to be objective.