What is the best way to read difficult books: 4 levels of reading

In How To Read A Book, Adler and van Doren discuss the four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical.

Your mind can grow or atrophy depending on what you do with it. So read books that stretch you. If you are doing that, How to Read a Book by Adler and van Doren holds valuable messages. This week, I talk through the four levels of reading.

First, elementary reading. Basically, what you learnt in school.

Second, inspectional reading. In this, don’t read the book. Filter first, to decide whether to read it.

Thirdly, analytical reading – an optimal structure for how to work out what a book really says. And THEN, think through your response.


Fourthly and finally, syntopical reading. This involves reading across many books. Learn to translate between the terms different authors used, and define better questions.

Below, you will find this week’s video from my Youtube channel, some quotes and visuals you might like to share, and a transcript of the video. If you find any of this useful, sign up for my newsletter – I share weekly, across a range of topics that might help you become more intuitive, knowledgeable, and take control of your own life.

This weeks video:

Illustrations and Quotes


Why, why do we read and how can it contribute to improving our thinking? 

 (1-An overview) 

The point in that Adler and Van Doren make is that our minds can either grow or atrophy  depending on what we put into them and what we do when we’re thinking about things and how we live our lives as well. So what they advocate is that you should read books, that stretch you, you should read books that are difficult and books that you struggle to understand initially and have to work out.  Those are the books, which will encourage your mind to grow rather than simply keep you entertained and keep you sat still reading and thumbing through more content that doesn’t really change you.

The focus of the type of reading that I’m going to talk about here then is what to do with difficult books, what to do with books that might have a profound impact on your life, or my teach you something new that you want to implement in whatever field it is that you’re reading.`

What I’m going to do is talk through the four levels of reading that Adler and Van Doren and talk about partly to show you the progression of knowledge as you read more, and as you understand more and partly to make the same kind of thing that they advocated. Which is that when we’re reading work, initially when you’re reading a good work, initially you should give the author the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t disagree until you’ve at least tried to understand exactly what the argument is that the author is making. And that’s something that we don’t see a lot of in popular discourse today. 

 (2- Four levels of reading) 

The first level is elementary reading. This is the type that you learn in school. This is about recognizing, first individual letters, syllables words, expanding that into sentences and getting the syntactical meaning of, of a phrase into your brain. Elementary reading has been taught to everybody, within reason everybody who’s watching this, certainly, and it allows you to access the words on the page. That’s as far as it goes.

The second level is actually not about reading a full book and understanding a book. And this is a level that many people skip now. But it’s vitally important if you want to know where to spend your time, which books to really dig into and read and analyze and which books you might want to skim over for a little bit of content that might be interesting or useful to you possibly, or you might simply want to set books aside. So this is inspectional reading.

Inspectional reading involves looking at the information that helps you to categorize a book and the information that helps you to get the gist of a book, to understand the rough argument that an author is making and the types of evidence-based that they’re drawing on. And to work out whether to read it.

So you’re looking at things like the title page, what’s the title of the book, including the sub title. Those are often remarkably revealing, look at the table of contents, thumb through an index. If they have an index in particularly for something like a preview of the book available, or if you’re near a library, you can go and see the physical book too. Go through the index and try and look at a couple of, of the key terms, key references, and see how the authors making their arguments. 

See if it’s worth your time or if they’re primarily going to be repeating things that you already know. For some books, it’s also worth reading the whole book superficially. So this is what speed reading teachers. This is reading a book as fast as you can, while understanding at least the gist of the majority of it, skip over the bits that you don’t understand. 

There’s no need at this stage to understand every intricacy and have it have a firm grasp on all the terms. All your trying to do is understand whether the book is worth your time, whether it’s worth investing a few hours of your time. In really getting to grips with the book or whether an inspectional glance is enough for you.

And if a glance is enough, maybe make some notes and then go, the book’s done . You don’t need every book, there are so many books out there. We have to filter them somehow. And this is a very useful method of doing it. 

The other really key piece of advice at this stage is never read reviews.  If  you can manage to do that, you’ll get a much more precise impression of how useful the book is for you rather than how useful the book is for other people’s projects and other people’s learning. So avoid reviews. If you can spending 15 minutes looking at books in this frame is far more useful than spending 15 minutes glancing through reviews and waiting for one to catch your eye.

You can use services like Blinkist or other book summary services , which try and give a more lengthy summary kind of 15 minute, five to 15 minute glance at books, you know, go through my past videos as well. And other, other YouTube short videos about books as a way into this.

But it can’t really replace the inspectional reading steps. So there’ll be plenty of books that I’ve talked about that have been impactful for me and useful for me and I think might be useful for you in achieving something like what your aspirational self is. If it like it lines up with mine, but they might not be right for you.

You need to make that decision. Don’t let other people make it for you. That’s what the inspectional reading stages about. It’s a filtering process. It’s you doing your own filtering not letting other people do it for you

Stage three is the  analytical stage. This is where you really work out what a book says and you work at how the author is arguing in far more detail. And first of all, you need a kind of overall impression. What’s the book about how can you classify it according to the kind of, kind of the book and according to the content, the topic base, as far as your own reading is concerned, particularly, but also in general. Try and sum the book up in a sentence or two, get the gist of the argument. You should be able to almost do this from the inspectional reading stage, but as you read in more detail, you go through the book again, reading each page and passing each paragraph. You will get a better impression of what the author is really trying to say.

And the key thing to draw out actually of Adler and van Dorens discussion is the problems. So what is the problem that the author is trying to solve?  In recent books this will probably be, blandly stated for you and because very simple reading styles are catered to in most modern literature, but in older books, you will have to discover the problems quite often. 

Sometimes you’ll get this very clearly in a book that the author hasn’t solved the problem, what they’ve done is they’ve opened a new avenue for research or they’ve offered you a series of, of interesting insights that you can then take on and work with yourself. In other cases. Authors will claim success and you’ll be questioning whether that’s true or not, but don’t judge until you have got to this stage until you have got to the point where you understand the key terms the author is using as they’re using the key propositions and the kind of arguments and how that, how that all fits together as a whole.

What you should come out with when you’ve done a full analytical reading is essentially a lengthy book summary. So a breakdown section by section of a book and the arguments that are made in each chapter, potentially, certainly some of the details, some of the things that arrested upon and some of the key terms that are used throughout, and when you’ve got that, you have an asset for learning from later, these are the, that by the time you get to analytical reading, what you’re really doing is saying this book is worth my time.

The fourth level of reading is when you have a problem you want to solve, this can be a problem for yourself, or it can be a problem you’re trying to solve in public for other people as well. And this is what Adler refers to a syntopical reading. So this is the reading that involves compiling a bibliography of books related to a topic or question, but the real difficulty with syntopical reading is the volume of information out there on any question. This book was written in 1972, and there was far too much information for them then on any topic. So you have to filter it heavily at every stage. You also have to define a very neat problem because there are so many sources of information out there that if you start with the general theme, You will be overloaded. 

And even the filtering process would take a lifetime, let alone the actual reading process of trying to dip into each of these books and extract what you need from them.  For syntopical reading you’re not so much trying to get to grips with each book as a whole, as an individual unit, you’ll come across some that you want to do that, and you want to read fully analytically, but syntopical reading involves more dipping into books to extract information, it’s probably a type of reading many people are more familiar with today, especially those of us who who’ve had a university education.

 (3- Syntopical Reading) 

The  other things to talk about with syntopical reading are firstly bringing authors to terms, which is an interesting phrase. What you’re trying to do is translate between how different people talk about the same topic. So if you’re interested in a topic on human behavior and you read a book from economics psychology, and biology, you will get three different approaches to how humans behave and your job as a reader, as a, as somebody who’s trying to understand a topic or a problem is to translate those into a set of terms that you can use. But to do so without completely twisting their meaning.  

The aim for Adler and Van Doren is to maintain a stance of what they call dialectical objectivity. So you’re trying to use the authors initially to form a composite argument of what they’re saying on the topic, find where they’re different, find, where they agree, find where the topics of contention are within that question. And then after you’ve looked at the literature base, come up with your own point of view.

It’s a very scientific approach to reading. It’s very much an attempt to remove yourself as a reader from what you’re doing until you have understood what other people have said on the topic. And that is a very useful way to think about reading what you’re trying to do first. With good books with filtered books or with topics that really matter to you is you’re trying to understand what other people think first, before you respond and before you integrate it into yourself, you need to understand before you do and give those things.