Posted in Book Review, Culture, Philosophy

Art of Reading

“Why the poets use metaphorical language?” One day my friend asked. “Why don’t he used ‘that’ word and instead using ‘this’ word?”

how to read a book

Poets often using ambiguous words and it is quite difficult to grasp the insight behind those words. Good poets gave us time to think of what they have written. They are good with their language and words. In what sense we are different from the animals? The most sensible answer is language, which can be derived to any specific knowledge.

Human is the best at generating language. It is really amazing to see how children can speak the words and understand its meaning. Have you ever wonder how the language can be processed? Linguistics is a sign of civilization. It is a sign of an ancient heritage that can communicate its legacy to us. As the great writers write in their books.

Many books can be summed up into several paragraphs, even only one or two sentences. That’s ordinary writer. But in most cases, many popular or high selling books suffered the same problem. When you read classical books, sometimes you can’t sum it up easily, you can’t make it short. Because too many important points inside. It is as Mark Twain said about the ancient, “The ancients stole all our ideas from us.”

We must have sufficient knowledge to be able to interpret what they are writes. In order to do that, we must form a set of skill of reading. Reading is not a passive activity. Rather, it is active, depending on how we manage the process inside.

Mortimer Adler in the late of 40’s published an interesting book entitled “How to read a book”. He said, “To become a solid reader, we must able to determine our goals. To get information, to get understanding or maybe just for amusement?”

Information deduced from the facts, while insight is internalized when we are trying to understand something. From sort of passage or paragraph, we get the information and we may or may not get enlightened. It depends on our ability in reading. To understand the insight within, we need to explore what an author has to say, we should know what he means and why the author says it. This is why the Art of Reading is matter.

The other things that he mentioned are how we should manage our level of reading. There are several levels in which Adler described. First, elementary reading, and I guess you probably have this set of skill if you can read this passage.

Second, inspectional reading, it is a set of skill that enables us to get the most out of book within a given time. Easily with this level, we can answer, “What is the book about?”

Third, analytical reading, this is prominently for the sake of understanding. We can ask and organize many questions of what we are reading. This level is prominently for the sake of understanding, answering the “why” questions. As Francis Bacon say, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some to be chewed and digested.”

Fourth, syntopical reading. We put more books to understand how to resolve a specific matter. This is the most active compared to the previous set. It is similar when we are doing a research in a certain field and try to gather all the sources and references, put them on a red line to connect the dots we are trying to solve.

An interesting story on why we need to know our level of reading is the story of Ibn Sina. One day Ibn Sina tried to read Aristotle book, The Metaphysics. He read it almost fifty times! and yet he still couldn’t get it. Then he went to a bookstore and offered a book, “Introduction to Metaphysics”, and voila, he understands easily. Sometimes we need an introduction to the subject we are going to engage, especially difficult subject. Books entitled “Bla Bla Bla for dummies, or introduction to Bla Bla” is needed as a prerequisite to understanding a specific subject. As mentioned in his book, Adler gave an example by using textbooks, or introduction books. So that we may understand a specific subject better.

Adler also mentioned about the architecture of the books. We can understand the books by looking at its structure and asking some basic questions, how the books are arranged? What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? What of it? Significant? Important?

If we take a look at the architecture of Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulumuddin, what is the book all about? What is the main theme? We should pinpoint the heart of all chapters in the book. The heart is located in the book 20 of Ihya entitled The Etiquette of Living and the Prophetic Mannerism. This is the main point of whole chapters! Ghazaly put this chapter at the heart of the book precisely. All topics in Ihya is based on the characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

By doing so (understanding the architecture) we can engage more intimately with the author as proposed by Adler. Figuring out what we understand and what we don’t before agreeing with the author. To be able to read is to be able to grasp the understanding and insight from the author.

Read comes from the Old English verb rǣdan, “to advise, interpret, read.” Rǣdan is related to the German raten, “to advise” (as in Rathaus, “town hall”). Even some argue that it also rooted in the same word as the 4th stomach of a ruminant, “to ruminate”, “to chew”. As we read something, we should grasp its insight, reading is “chewing”. We chew and digest the idea on our mind so that we understand it in a comprehensive way.

To able to read in a comprehensive way is the closer we get to become a literate person. Literates are someone who understand what they read and able to articulate their understanding clearly.

The Art of Reading is to be able to catch every sort of communication as well as possible. It is to become a solid literate person!
If people are able to master the Art of Reading, they will have set of skills such as keen on observation, improved memorizing skills, a wide range of imagination, intellect trained in analysis and reflection.


All of those set skills will improve us both personally and for the society, becoming a literate person and establishing a literate society. Moreover, aside from that, the Art of Reading is a matter of discovery, to learn and master something useful from the book. Therefore if we are disposed to go on learning and discovering we must know how to make books teach us well.

The pinnacle of our civilization is when our society leveled up to a certain point of literacy. They became the literate society. The English language has reached its pinnacle in 16-17th century. While Arabic reached its pinnacle on 6-7th century parallel with the growth of Islam.

Interestingly, in Islam, reading have always been a fundamental root in its oral tradition. The first revelation is “read”. Many argue that this verse has a multidimensional context. There is a mystical component in reading the Quran in which it always refers to the person who thinks, ponder and deeply reflect themselves on the verse of the Quran.

Quran is the book of signs. If we want to understand Quran, we must interpret its signs. Thus, reading is the basic foundation on how we can understand signs. Interestingly enough, ayah in Quran addressed either as verse or sign. The implication is that we should always refer both the sign and the verse as a guidance in our life. We should think and ponders all the creation in our surroundings and also the verse as a text itself. This step of thinking and pondering can be achieved when we have our basic foundation, reading, as a habit. In this globalization era, indeed it is time for us to become a solid reader, a literate person and to establish a literate society. Let’s master the Art of Reading!

How many books you have read this past two months? Hopefully, it will become more in the future.


Adler, Mortimer J and van Doren, Charles, How to Read a Book, 1972 ed



Philanthropic Muslim Enthusiast, Engaging in pursuit of knowledge and creativity, love to read books (any kind of books)

6 thoughts on “Art of Reading

  1. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler


    1. Hahaha, thank you njul …. I will be constantly writing articles every month (1-3 articles). Hopefully will do more in the future…

      salam jangar :)))


  2. Nice.

    The topic of language evolution, is one of my amateur observation object. The linguistic evolution is harder than morphological evolution to be traced, because lack of materials evidence, the physical ones. But one thing for sure, our species began using language to define self subject, other subject, and other object, as signal of the presence of mind ( aql and fikr).

    You should join our discussion here, Sir:


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