The Way You Read a Book Determines How Well You’ll Understand It

Do you read for understanding or information?

Thomas Oppong
Mar 16 · 4 min read
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Reading enables us to grow personally and professionally. It’s a regular source of new ideas, perspectives, models and joy.

I personally love learning relevant new things. I use different approaches for every book I choose to read. For many books, I read for understanding instead of information. My goal determines how I read a book. For better comprehension, I use slow and deep learning.

There is a big difference between reading to understand an idea or concept and reading for information to help your project. How you will read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations will be very different from how you will approach The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. They are both great writers with two different ideas and stories.

Your goal (and sometimes your perception of a book) can determine your level of commitment toward the book. Some people read to find a specific insight which solves a personal problem — And by solving it, they know they will grow and profit from the solution. Others read for the joy of losing themselves in great fiction.

You can also read to lead, argues Ryan Holiday. “ Reading to lead means pushing yourself — reading books “above your level.” He explains, “Reading to lead or learn requires that you treat your brain like the muscle that it is — lifting the subjects with the most tension and weight.”

A good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. It can help you become wiser— not just more knowledgeable. But wiser, in the sense that you become deeply aware of the enduring truths of human life.

“If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds,” writes Mortimer J. Adler, his book, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

A good book deserves an active reading. Reading effectively or learning something insightful requires mental work. It’s uncomfortable, which is why few people embrace deep learning in the age of skimming and fast reading.

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension,” argues Adler. In his book, Mortimer identifies four levels of reading:

The basic form of reading taught in schools. Almost everyone knows some form of elementary reading. Once you can correctly interpret letters, you have achieved some degree of sufficiency of this level.

Inspectional reading knocks elementary reading up a notch. Adler defines it as “systematic skimming” — it is understanding the outline and structure of a book in a short period of time. It provides you with an idea of what a book is about in a limited amount of time.

With so much to read and learn, most people stop at inspectional reading. In the process they teach their brains to form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for valuable phrases, scrolling up and down quickly. A beneficial as it may be in the short-term you can lose attention and focus.

It’s a thorough and complete reading of a book. At this level, the reader thoroughly reads the book and ask questions. Analytical reading is not necessary for people reading solely for the sake of entertainment. Francis Bacon once remarked, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

At this level, you start to engage your mind and dig deeper. It’s an approach that probes more deeply to understand the message and goal of the piece you read. At this stage, you begin to make sense of an author’s writing by comparing and contrasting it with your personal experiences, feelings, thoughts, and previously gained knowledge.

This is the most complex of all reading levels. It represents the most demanding and difficult reading of all. Syntopical reading, however, is the most rewarding level of reading because it helps the reader understand a topic deeply.


“The goal is not to achieve an overall understanding of any particular book, but rather to understand the subject and develop a deep fluency,” writes Shane Parish.

To make the most of any book, think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book’s general theme or idea.

Reading well and actively is thus not only a good in itself, but it also serves to keep our minds alive and growing. “The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection,” says Adler.

To read more effectively, set yourself up for success by choosing the right books and identifying your motivation or goal for the book. “Every book you consciously decide not to read increases what you’ll get out of the ones you do read,” says RibbonFarm blogger Venkatesh Rao.

Are you reading information or reading for understanding? In many cases, if you read for understanding, reading for information will take care of itself — the opposite is not true.


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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Thomas Oppong

Written by

Founder @AllTopStartups | Contributor at Business Insider. I share tools for wealth, health and happiness at https://postanly.substack.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Thomas Oppong

Written by

Founder @AllTopStartups | Contributor at Business Insider. I share tools for wealth, health and happiness at https://postanly.substack.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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