How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Published on November 13, 2015

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” 

— Charlie Munger

It is almost certain that the typical reader of this article has come across Charlie Munger’s famous quote on reading countless times.  The need to read extensively, not only when it comes to investment topics but much more broadly, is almost an article of faith for anyone who has spent considerable time studying the habits of highly successful investors.  Investing is a discipline in which one benefits from the cumulative effect of knowledge compounded over a lifetime.  In conjunction with life experience, pursuing a habit of regular reading can accelerate the wisdom required to identify opportunities with confidence.

Anyone who recognizes the truth in Charlie Munger’s statement is already well ahead of the vast majority of investors and has most likely already made efforts to emulate his approach.  For many people, doing so amounts to a completely different lifestyle in which diversions such as television are reduced or even eliminated in favor of several hours of reading per day.  However, those who are most interested in investing often make three choices that are likely to result in a sub-optimal return on the time invested.  First, most investors focus mainly on current events and therefore spend a great deal of time with newspapers and business periodicals.  Second, most investors will gravitate toward books on business or investing topics rather than adopt a more multi-disciplinary approach.  Finally, the scorecard investors use to measure their reading is often related to the sheer volume of material that has been read which puts an emphasis on speed and quantity rather than quality.

How To Read a book

There are certain books of great value that can suffer from an overly simplistic title.  How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren seems to fit in this category since, at a surface level, most of us have been reading books since grade school.  At varying levels of seriousness, most of us had to read hundreds of books of all types in order to graduate from college and for the most part, our intuitive sense of how to go about the process must have led to at least some success.  However, the number of truly influential books – those that we go back to mentally again and again – is a much smaller number, and perhaps it need not be so.  Perhaps we have suffered from the manner in which we have gone about reading over the years and could have retained much more value over time.

Most readers never consciously think about the various levels of reading when tackling a new book.  For the most part, readers will look at the cover, superficially skim the table of contents, and then just dive into the book and go through it in a linear manner.  However, at best, this process only goes through the first two of the four levels of reading documented in How to Read a Book. 

The first level of reading is referred to as elementary reading and is something the vast majority of people learn in grade school.  We understand what the sentences and paragraphs say in a basic sense because we understand the language that we have chosen to read in and have a decent vocabulary built over the course of many years.  However, merely understanding the words and paragraphs is only the most basic form of reading and has little to do with comprehension and true understanding of what the author is attempting to convey.  Some enhanced level of understanding occurs when one proceeds to inspectional reading which is really the art of systematic skimming.  The authors provide useful steps that will increase the return on the time spent at this level of reading.  One of the common errors is that readers often achieve only superficial knowledge of a book because they simply read through it in a linear manner rather than inspect the book systematically first.  The techniques to do so are quite valuable and most likely steps that most readers have not made explicitly in the past.

The authors emphasize that a thorough inspectional reading of a book may be all that is warranted based on the nature of the book.  It is not always necessary to proceed to the third step:  analytical reading.  Reading at this level requires a reader to go through an organized process wherein several questions are asked regarding a book and answers are sought.  As the authors state, analytical reading is “chewing and digesting it”.  This level of reading is not typically warranted if the reader is seeking entertainment or merely seeking information.  Analytical reading requires a significant time investment and it may be enough to simply do an organized inspection of a book.  It is up to the reader to determine whether it makes sense to proceed to an analytical reading of a book once the inspectional phase is complete.

Syntopical Reading is the highest form of reading because it involves reading a number of books on the same topic analytically and then placing the books in context in relation to one another and the overall subject.  This level of reading has the potential to bring about insights that are not found in any one of the books when considered in isolation.

As an example relevant to investors, one might want to conduct an analytical reading of Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor and Philip Fisher’s Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits and then come to grips with the underlying themes expressed in both volumes while drawing conclusions on investing that might not appear in either book in isolation.  This approach can, of course, be applied to other forms of literature including biographies.  It is quite possible than a thorough analytical reading of Roger Lowenstein’s Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist and Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life could lead to insights about Warren Buffett that one could not achieve by reading one of these books in isolation.

It would be difficult to do justice to the techniques expressed in How to Read a Book in a brief review, and this article is not so much a book review as a strong recommendation to pick up a copy and give the ideas serious consideration.  The fifteen distinct steps associated with reading well should resonate with most serious readers and bring about a better sense of understanding and comprehension resulting in a greater payoff for the time invested.

Charlie Munger likes to use the phrase “You are like a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest” to refer to individuals who have attempted to engage in some activity without satisfying the basic prerequisites necessary to have a good chance of success.  How to Read a Book significantly reduces the probability of being that one-legged man when it comes to reading comprehension.  It probably should be required reading for all incoming college freshmen, but it is better late than never.

In the video below, William F. Buckley interviews Mortimer J. Adler on Firing Line in 1970.  How to Read a Book was first published in 1940 and extensively revised in 1972.  Mortimer Adler died in 2001.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading