July 25, 2020 / VOLUME NO. 115
How to Read a Book

“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,” says Charlie Munger.

To master a subject, you must read.

Yet not all reading is created equal.

Reading for entertainment is not the same as reading for information. And reading for information is not the same as reading for understanding.

The goals are different.

People who read for entertainment can occupy themselves for hours. People who read for information are good at trivia. People who read for understanding gain wisdom.

Also, the process is different.

Reading for entertainment requires elementary reading — comprehending words. Reading for information calls for inspectional reading — perusing a book for facts and anecdotes. Reading for understanding demands analytical reading — “thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading — the best reading you can do,” write Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

The third type is the most taxing, but it’s also the shortest route to mastery. It requires you to choose wisely. Life is too short to read bad books, they say. Researching books is the same as researching restaurants. It’s deliberate. To eat the best meal, you must pick the best place.

Once you’ve chosen a book, you must read it actively — highlighting, annotating, bookmarking. Analytical reading isn’t a monologue; it’s a conversation between author and reader.

Analytical reading requires thinking, too. Understanding the author’s argument, not just reading their words. Allowing the knowledge to seep into the deepest recesses of your brain. Like the Borgs in Star Trek, analytical reading allows you to assimilate the author’s knowledge into your own.

Finally, it calls for triangulation. You’ve arrived at the right answer, you learn in law school, when you find multiple credible sources all saying the same thing. That’s the vanguard of understanding.

A student at Columbia University once asked Warren Buffett how to become a successful investor.

“Read 500 pages like this every day,” Buffett answered.

“That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will.”

John J. Maxfield / editor in chief of Bank Director
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