By reading and grappling with difficult books, one can increase one's understanding. This means not merely acquiring new facts, but rather learning new ways of understanding, new paradigms--expanding the scope and depth of one's apprehension.
Not all books offer this opportunity. Books read for entertainment might do nothing else but entertain, and books read simply to acquire facts might not challenge the understanding; only by struggling with a book beyond one's understanding and overcoming it can one improve.
A single book may be read in any of these ways--for entertainment, for information, or for improved understanding--thought not all books are sufficient to challenge the experienced reader.
Learning by reading is likened to investigation of the world, as opposed to learning in a class:
Chapter 2: The Levels of Reading
Adler suggests four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and finally syntopical.
This is the sort of thing you probably think of as the simple act of reading: the mechanical process of moving your eyes across the page, understanding the vocabulary and the syntax. This isn't any special way of reading a book, but it is a necessary building block for the further levels.
This is a sort of quick pass over the book. You read the table of contents, and skim through it to understand what kind of book you're holding, what its topic is, and how it's organized.
At this level, you read the book actively, asking questions of it, and trying to understand it fully.
This level involves reading many books on a subject in order to get a view on the whole, perhaps learning things which are not written in any individual book.
Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading
This sort of reading the student should be capable of by the time he or she is in high school, but, Adler laments, often even students entering college have not mastered even this elementary level. Adler suggests that high schools and colleges teach courses based on his book.
Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading
Adler divides this level of reading into two steps, which are ultimately to be performed simultaneously: systematic skimming or pre-reading; and superficial reading.
This activity should give you an idea of the content of the book, as well as whether the book merits a more in-depth reading. Some options for this step:
Quickly read the title page and preface, to understand the subject of the book.
Read the table of contents, to understand the structure of the book, as well as more detail about its contents.
Check the index, if present. This can give a sense of the overall scope of the book, as well as the importance of the various terms and ideas, based on the number of references to them.
Read the blurb, if present. A well-written blurb may serve as an extrememly compressed summary of the main points of the book.
Look at the chapters that seem to be most important, reading, for example, the introductory and concluding pages or paragraphs.
Skim the entire book, reading small portions--not more than a few pages in a row--and particularly reading the last few pages of the book, which may summarize the whole.
These steps should have taken no more than an hour--perhaps much less.
Read through the book without stopping, even if you do not understand something. Understanding half of a difficult book is better than understanding none of it because you were stumped by a difficult section early on.
On speed reading
It may be possible for most readers to improve the speed at which they read--this is the promise of speed reading courses. However, a book should not be read more quickly than is efficient, nor more slowly than is needed. Some attention to reading speed may be beneficial, but the speed at which one's eyes move across the page is not the most important factor in efficient reading.
Chapter 5: How to Be a Demanding Reader
There are four main questions to ask about any book:
What is the book about as a whole?
What is being said in detail, and how?
Is the book true, in whole or part?
This does not mean "Is the book fiction?", but "Is the author truthful and correct?".
4. What of it?
This question is in two parts. First, whatever the book said, does it really matter
to you? And, if so, what are you going to do about it? How will you continue your
engagement with the subject?
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.
So, you should write in books as you read them, as the physical manifestation of this conversation. Adler suggests:
Underlining of important points or statements.
Vertical lines at the margin for longer passages.
Stars or other symbols in the margin, used sparingly, to draw particular attention.
Numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points.
Page numbers in the margin as cross-references.
Circling key words, much like underlining.
Writing in the margin to record questions and reactions.
I have too often relied on the library for my reading material ever to be comfortable writing in books, but Adler's point is well taken.
The balance of the chapter is devoted to reminding the reader that it takes a lot of work to learn new things.
Chapter 6: Pigeonholing a Book
Adler proposes a rule for analytical reading:
This is part of the knowledge gained from an inspectional reading. How, precisely, should books be classified?
Adler classifies as practical books that teach how to do something, and as theoretical those that teach about something. Additionally, persuasive writing is classified as practical, inasmuch as it is exhorting one to behave or believe in a certain way.
Theoretical works Adler divides into history, science, and philosophy. History deals with events at a particular time and place. Science and philosophy both hope to be of general application, but science is concerned with empirical studies, while philosophy requires only pure reason.
Why classify books? Because different sorts of subjects must be taught and learned in different ways. Only by understanding the genre of a book can one read it to best advantage.
Chapter 7: X-raying a Book
To accomplish this rule, Adler suggests making an outline of the book, dividing it into sections and subsections as necessary to fully describe the organization of the book. However, he indicates that the reader is not, in fact, expected to do this in full for every book. Rather, this is an ideal that should be kept in sight as the reader analyzes the book, constructing an outline in such detail as is needed, as the book merits, and as time permits.
In other words, what questions was the author trying to answer, in writing the book?
Adler ends the chapter by restating the four rules together in a slightly different form:
Chapter 8: Coming to Terms with an Author
Adler is defining 'term' to mean a word as used--the word and its meaning in the particular utterance in question.
Authors may use technical vocabulary specific to their fields, or may invent new words--or adapt existing ones--to their needs in a specific work. One must pay attention to any instances where the meaning of a word does not seem to be totally clear in order to cope with the latter, while the former might pose little problem for a reader with some familiarity with the subject.
Chapter 9: Determining an Author's Message
Now we come to propositions and arguments. Propositions may be made up of multiple sentences, and a single sentence may contain several propositions. The relationship between the two is like that between words and terms.
Having come to terms with the author, now you may recognize the propositions constituted by those terms. Find the author's argument and follow it. The main argument of the book will be made up of the most important propositions, and those propositions will likely contain the most important terms. So we see that the process works in both directions, from terms to arguments and back again.
Adler suggests that the reader restate each proposition in order to demonstrate (and test) understanding.
Having found the arguments, decide whether the author has solved the problems he set out to solve.
Chapter 10: Criticizing a Book Fairly
In short, you must understand a book before you can judge it, and you should judge it based on the facts of the matter. Agreeing with the author is not 'losing', and disagreeing is not 'winning'.