In this post, we’ll cover:
“All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.” – Mortimer Adler
In 1940, Mortimer Adler published the bestseller How to Read a Book.
In it, he explained the science of reading a book – how to consume content and retain what you read. It quickly became the primary reference for people interested in learning how to read better.
Adler broke down his reading process:
The biggest practices Adler taught don’t just apply to reading books. In the era of the internet, they apply just as much to content you’ll encounter online – essay series, blog posts, ebooks, newsletters, and articles.
Since 1940, Adler’s book has sold over half a million copies – because these principles are so important to improving the value of your reading habit. In this article, we’re going to break down how his principles apply to learning and reading on the internet – and how they can apply to your own self-directed learning process.
Regardless of the type of content you’re consuming – books, blog posts, or newsletters – the same basic principles of a good reading habit apply.
The most important thing is to make reading a habit. If you aren’t reading consistently, none of these principles will matter.
Once you’ve begun reading regularly, your content consumption will only be valuable if you both understand and retain what you read. You need the content you’re engaging with to make sense, and you need that information to stick.
To achieve both of these ends, critically engaging with the work is important.
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler shared a few practices that can help with your comprehension and retention:
These practices also apply to your reading on the internet:
Inspectional reading: before you read a full article, essay, or ebook, skim through it and get a sense of what it’s going to cover. Read its headings and subheadings (and its table of contents if it has one) and get a sense of where the author plans to take you. This gives everything you read more context once you start reading line-by-line.
Think of this like looking at a map before you take a trip. When you understand how where you are fits in with the rest of the world, it gives more context to the specific location you’re experiencing.
Agreeing or disagreeing with the author: as Adler said, the best reading is active. Just because an author posits a thought doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Don’t read a book and nod your head; consistently ask yourself how what you’re reading maps with your own opinions and understandings.
Making a work your own: highlight, annotate, take notes. The best works in your personal library are the ones that look like you’ve had an entire conversation in the margins. Don’t be afraid of marking up the things you’re reading (more on that later!)
“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.” -- Mortimer Adler
Before you agree or disagree with something you read, you must first make sure you understand it.
A good test of understanding is reiterating what you’ve read in your own words. If you can explain a concept you’ve read about without using any of the words used in the original (besides necessary proper nouns or verbs), you clearly understand it.
If you can’t reiterate it in your own words, you should keep reading – and hold off on your own opinions until you can.
This rule of understanding is part of why a writing habit – even if only in the form of taking notes – is such a valuable part of learning. When you sit down and write about what you’re learning, you’re reformulating the concepts into your own words, which helps with your comprehension.
There are three steps to reading comprehension:
If you consistently practice these three steps, you’ll ensure that you’re clearly comprehending the content that you’re reading.
There are a few simple practices you can use to improve your process for reading on the internet.
These practices take very little time to implement, but they’ll have a significant impact on your comprehension and retention of what you read – and how useful the information is that you’re intaking.
Highlighting is a great practice to help you organize and retain information. It makes it easier to re-read and cross-reference something, because it allows you to pick up the most critical pieces of information on your second pass through a piece. It’s an important piece in the science of how to remember what you read.
If you’re studying a topic, you’re going to want to internalize the most important points in a piece. Highlighting helps pull out and emphasize those key ideas.
It’s valuable to highlight:
As Adler said, “All genuine learning is active, not passive.” As you’re reading, you should be critically thinking about the content you’re consuming – and sometimes that’s going to lead to insights and observations that you want to jot down.
Annotations are valuable for noting:
This is important not only for helping you remember what you read, but also for helping you remember what you thought about what you read.
As you’re reading, you should also be collecting deeper insights on the ideas covered in the work.
Think about the difference between annotations and notes as a matter of specificity. Annotations reference specific lines in a piece, while notes can capture your broader thoughts as you’re reading.
Take notes on:
Don’t get lost writing notes that are too complex. If you make it complicated and time consuming, you’ll be less likely to do it – and that’s not really the point.
For your notes to be effective, you just need to make sure they’re specific enough to be clear and easy to understand.
The most important step in translating learning to knowledge is the critical thinking you do about the content you’re consuming.
Synthesis is an important part of the knowledge-integration process.
According to Merriam-Webster, synthesis means "the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole.”
In the context of organizing ideas, that means
As you synthesize ideas, you start actively engaging with the content you covered. You move from engagement to ownership.
If you consistently put all of these steps into practice: highlighting, annotating, notetaking, and synthesis – you’ll quickly enhance your reading practice. You’ll comprehend better, retain more, and find it easier and easier to use your learning in your day-to-day life.
That’s what all of us here at Edvo are doing!