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A Powerful Secret to Improve Your Reading

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There is a difference between reading and understanding. 

You can know the name of the bird in any language, but learning about the bird—how it flies and what distinguishes itself from others, shows a deeper understanding, and as Feynman says, demonstrates the ability to differentiate “between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

So how do we do that, moving beyond raw information and into knowledge?

We outline all this in an online course we put together on the art of reading called How to Read a Book.

I’ll first preface by stating that there is a difference between knowing something and really understanding it.

When you first pick up a book, you have to ask yourself if you’re reading it for information or to develop a deeper level understanding. A good heuristic is that anything we can easily digest is reading for information. Reading for understanding, however, is how we get smarter.

I mentioned going through the front/back covers, the introduction, the table of contents, and skimming the chapters. That’s basically creating a mental map of the book.

At this stage, you want to define, at least loosely, what type of book you’re reading. It’s not always as simple as it sounds. Is the Count of Monte Cristo an adventure, a romance, or a history? Is Moby Dick an adventure tale, a book on whaling, a memoir, or an allegory? And why does knowing matter?

If the book is practical, it will tell us why and how something should be done; if it is theoretical, it will try to tell us what is true. A simple romance tale is mostly meant to entertain. It’s useful to categorize a bit in order to calibrate how closely you should be paying attention to the text. You can read The Bible for inspiration, for academic reasons, for historical purposes, or simply for entertainment.Get it clear with yourself why you’re reading a particular book.

But once you’ve determined if a book is worthy of your time, it’s not just a matter of diving in. This is the analytical reading stage. And your note taking system will be key. The simple truth about note-taking is, however you do it, the purpose is to keep your thinking brain turned on and have a “dialogue” with the author.

Taking notes is not really the point. The point is to avoid reading passively.

The next step to optimizing your knowledge is to summarize the whole book in a single sentence (or at most a short paragraph).

Finally, seek to understand the author’s problems. Where does the argument lie? Where does the uncertainty lie? Where are the borders of the author’s competence and knowledge—what does he or she know and what is speculation? The author won’t tell you, it’s your job to figure that out.

Where you really get into developing a deep understanding of a topic is by doing comparative reading—digesting many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting the ideas. This kind of comparison is called syntopical reading.

There is a big difference between reading and reading well. And that difference grows in a non-linear manner over time. People who read well acquire new knowledge and ideas at a much faster rate.

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