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Practical PKM

📚 How to Read Like a Pro (& Amplify Your Reading Gains)

Published about 2 months ago • 6 min read

In this edition of Practical PKM:

  • How to use the 4 Levels of Reading to get more out of books you read
  • An example of how I use MOCs to connect ideas
  • Details on my upcoming Reading Masterclass
  • A cool Obsidian plugin to streamline creating book notes
  • My book notes from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

“How to Read a Book has to be the stupidest book title I’ve seen!”

That was my first impression when my friend Joe originally picked this Mortimer Adler classic for Bookworm.

Turns out, it’s been one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. But it did take some time for the lessons to really sink in for me as I figured out a more modern way to implement them.

But now, 188 book note mind maps later(!), I realize how it has revolutionized the way I read books (and multiplied the value I get out of them).

The biggest lesson? Knowing that there are different levels of reading and understanding how to shift between them.

Why We Need to Learn How to Read (Again)

You likely haven’t thought about how to read since you were taught the mechanics in elementary school.

But there’s a big difference between reading to comprehend and reading to understand.

The latter requires more effort, but provides an exponential return on your reading investment.

It’s also possible that you enjoy reading, but haven’t read a book in a long time. (Audiobooks don’t count 😉)

That’s because in school we were always being told what to read. Once the assignments stop, we find something more "fun" to do.

Which is a shame, because reading (even non-fiction books) can be incredibly enjoyable as long as you know why you’re reading.

So there are 2 limiting beliefs we naturally assume:

  1. “Reading is hard” (or “Reading is too much work”)
  2. “I don’t know what to read”

The result? We don’t read. Whenever we have a spare moment or two, we reach for the slab of glass in our pocket instead. Even though books give us easy access to some of the best ideas shared by some of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.

The first step to mining this wealth of knowledge? Find something useful to read.

How to Pick a Book

When it comes to picking a non-fiction book to read, I recommend you read to solve a problem you’re experiencing. If you believe a book may help alleviate some pain you are currently feeling, you’re more likely to engage with it and get more out of it.

Framed another way, pick a book about something that you’re curious about. Curiosity is simply stopping to consider something out of the ordinary that appears useful or interesting. Curiosity is what creates motivation to read, but requires you to take time to think about things by breaking away from the constant drip of dopamine that social media feeds provide.

Once you find a book that you’re motivated to read, the next step is to change how you engage with the book by implementing Mortimer Adler’s 4 Levels of Reading.

The 4 Levels of Reading

The 4 Levels of Reading are a useful framework for getting more value out of a book. Understanding how each level works and applying it to the type of book that you’re reading can help you understand the author’s arguments more fully and decide for yourself what you’re going to do with them.

Here’s a brief summary of the four levels and how to use them.

Level 1: Elementary Reading

This is the basic level of reading that is taught in school. At this level, you’re simply trying to comprehend the words that are being used and what the sentence is saying.

You already know how to do this, assuming that you’re reading these words 😂

Level 2: Inspectional Reading

This is the second level where you’re trying to figure out what the book is all about. At this level, you might practice systemic skimming where you read the preface, study the table of contents, check the index, and read the inside cover. You may dip in and out of the book, but never more than a paragraph or two — you’re just trying to familiarize yourself with the author’s position to decide if the book is worth your time before you sit down to read.

Level 3: Analytical Reading

This is where you start to ask many organized questions as you do your best to grok the author’s arguments and wrestle with what’s being said. There are 4 rules for analytical reading:

  • Understand what kind of book you are reading
  • State what the book is about as briefly as you can.
  • Enumerate the major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  • Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve

I do this by creating a mind map as I read the book in MindNode. I use different emoji to denote key ideas (🔑), quotes I want to remember (💬), and a-ha moments (💡), then transfer my notes to Obsidian when I’m done and write a 3 sentence summary at the top of the note.

Level 4: Syntopical Reading

This is the highest level of reading and requires the most effort. Also known as comparative reading, this is where you read several books on a topic and compare the contrasting ideas and arguments.

For example, a long time ago I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg where he explained his habit cycle:

But this never really sat well with me (I prefer to believe we have some agency in between the Cue and the Routine.) Then I read Atomic Habits by James Clear where he introduced a new model with a 4th step:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Routine
  4. Reward

But what determines whether we give in to the craving or can withstand the temptation? It wasn’t until I read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg and understood the Fogg Behavioral model that I understood how and why certain prompts worked in certain situations:

Side note: this is the purpose of MOCs for me Obsidian (Maps of Content). I use them as a place to lay out my notes & ideas and use opinion notes to help me codify my thoughts on a topic. It’s not the canonical application for MOCs, but it fits very nicely with an influential mental model for me (The Map is Not the Territory).

The end result? I spend a lot more time wrestling with the books that I read, but the value of the notes and ideas I get them is exponentially higher.

Getting Started

It really doesn't take that much time or effort to start getting more out of the books that you read. If I were to leave you with a single takeaway from this newsletter, it would be this:

Create a consistent reading habit.

Set a goal to read just 15 minutes per day. Pick a book that interests you, and read it for 15 minutes as part of your evening shutdown routine. I like to do this while I'm sipping my Bedtime Tea. It's a daily ritual that I look forward to every night.

But the time of day really isn't important. The consistency is.

Something Cool: Book Search Plugin

Speaking of moving book notes to Obsidian, there’s a cool plugin available to help you apply templates to new notes by searching an online database using the Google Books API called Book Search. You simply run the command, search for the book you want, and hit enter to create a new note using a configured template that pre-fills your desired metadata.

Unfortunately, I don’t like the way a lot of the metadata is formatted so I don’t use much of it. For example, I like to link to the author’s names in the metadata but the plugin combines the names of multiple authors when adding them. But I do like how you can add the cover image and how you can add a book straight from the Command Palette. I just don’t use all the features because I have my own very particular way of adding metadata (including my personal book ratings) to my notes.

If you just want to pipe in the information from books though, this plugin is incredible. And even if you don't use a lot of the metadata stuff, it's still a useful plugin for streamlining the process of creating new notes for books that you read.

Book Notes: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

Seeing as how this whole newsletter is about reading, it’s only fitting that I share my notes from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.

When we first read this book for Bookworm, I honestly didn’t really like it all that much. But over the years since, I've gained increasing appreciation for how transformational this book has been. While I don’t follow Mortimer Adler’s method exactly, I’ve applied the principles in developing my own system for taking notes on the books that I read.

This was one of the first book notes mind maps I ever made back in 2018. My method has evolved a little bit (I use more emoji now and my mind map layout is slightly different), but it’s cool to see how well my system has held up over the last 6+ years.

If you want to download my notes for yourself, click here.

— Mike

P.S. What's your favorite non-fiction book? I'm always looking for recommendations 🙂

Practical PKM

by Mike Schmitz

A weekly newsletter where I help people apply values-based productivity principles and systems for personal growth, primarily using Obsidian. Subscribe if you want to make more of your notes and ideas.

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