First Day Back

Today was my first day back at university. Well, it should have been. I arrived at the bus stop ten minutes before my bus arrived and ended up waiting for about forty-five minutes before I saw it coming around the corner. The traffic was horrendous.

Of course, by this point, it was too late. I wouldn't have been able to get to university in time for my lecture, and I only had the one lecture today. As the bus station is right beside McDonald’s, I popped in to grab a coffee for my journey home. It turned out that a motorcyclist had been knocked off his bike, causing the traffic. Thankfully, my day wasn't as bad as his.

I got myself home and spent a bit of time trying to sort out some more stuff ready for me to move into my new place. Once completed, I got on with my reading list. Today's book was the classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles von Doren.

Levels of Depth

I chose to read this book, at this particular point in time, as I'm at a stage where I'm devouring a lot of content. Learning how to read and absorb that content in a more efficient manner cannot be a bad thing.

The first thing that the authors talk about are the different levels of reading and the necessity of mastery in each. Rather than having one method of reading, starting with the first and ending at the last, they suggest there are a number of ways to approach written material depending on your purpose.

Elementary reading is the first level, which is basically the level you first access when you learn to read. It is the ability to understand the grammar and the vocabulary of the material. While you may be able to read elementary level reading lists perfectly well, that doesn't mean you can apply this level of reading to your university textbooks. To perform the elementary reading level, you should understand all of the words you're reading, and understand them in the context that they're being placed in.

Inspectional reading is a level of reading whereby you almost take a preview of what's to come. While you will develop some familiarity with the text purely due to the exposure, this level is really to decide whether the book is worth reading. By looking at the title, contents, blurb and skimming the relevant chapters, you can get a feel as to whether this book meets your purpose.

Analytical reading is the level of reading where you take a closer look at the points the author is trying to present. At this stage, you should try to identify the author's main aim and locate the main themes of the piece. Outline the main points in a listed format so as to quickly see any relationships within the material.

Syntopical Reading

When you have a deadline looming for a written essay, it is too easy to pluck all of your information from a relevant source and almost falsify a list of references. It might not be picked up because after all, the references can be the impression you got from the initial source. Ultimately, though, your writing will suffer from a lack of depth.

Syntopical reading is the process of acquiring information from two or more sources on the same topic at once. It is a process containing the earlier levels of reading to speed up the process of finding and utilising the best resources for your topic.

Start by choosing a small stack of relevant books or journals. Use the inspectional level of reading to narrow those sources down to the most appropriate ones. Identify titles, skim chapters, get a general feel for it. Don't hesitate about putting it back on the shelf if you don't think it is going to add value to your research.

Follow that up with the analytical level of reading. View it deeper than the previously superficial level, looking for the main points that the article, paragraph or chapter holds. By the end of this step, you should have several bullet-pointed lists, one for each source.

Search for relationships between the material and ensure you're being critical. What is the importance of this information? Do any of the authors disagree with each other? Are any values significantly different? Identify the similarities and differences between the sources, and then use those as a basis to explain your topic. In syntopical reading, don't forget that the investigation is about your topic and not what the authors were initially investigating.


There was a lot of useful information in this book, surprisingly. I say I was surprised because I genuinely didn't realise that there were any other methods that would truly add value to the reading experience. Obviously, though, there are different reading methods for the different stages that you're at and to meet different purposes.

The main message that the authors were trying to share, in my opinion, is that in order to be a successful reader you must be an active one. Treat the writing as a conversation whereby you ask questions of the author. Take notes in order to capture the most important points that the author wants you to know. Realise that passivity while reading is of little more use than not reading at all (at least when it comes to studying from textbooks!).

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