5 Steps to Make the Most of Your Reading

It is a pleasure to introduce James Sia as a guest author here at the Society of Honor. He brings the wisdom of youth to the blog, something that we of many years may at times fail to appreciate.

James resides in Mindanao and has been following our discussions for some time. The subject matter of his article is extraordinarily important. Reading. I hope you enjoy the post. JA


reading-01by James Sia

“Have any of you read How to Read a Book?”

This was the question our English teacher asked in class some years back, and I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. It turned out that the funny-sounding book did exist, and was authored by American academics Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Unfortunately, I styled myself as being a seasoned reader, and assumed I had no need for such a book; I was a lot more self-assured and foolish back then, you see. It was only after I suffered through my philosophy classes and the tons of readings that came with them that I came to this awful realization: maybe I haven’t really mastered reading as a skill.

Thankfully, I remembered the book with the silly title, got myself a copy, and began to read it. I discovered that all along, I have been reading philosophical texts and other serious works as I would a novel or a travel guide – which is wrong. I might have finished my first book at a very young age, but in the years that followed since then, what I’ve actually been doing was scan my eyes across page after page and hope that eventually something sticks and takes root. That might have worked for The Little Prince and The Three Musketeers, but Plato’s Republic, Dostoyevsky’s novels and others like them are a completely different ball game. Long story short, had it not been for How to Read a Book, yours truly would have gotten frustrated and quit exploring works by the great thinkers a long time ago.

A great and worthwhile book, according to Adler and Van Doren, “is the kind of book you should seek out if you want to improve your reading skills, and at the same time discover the best that has been thought and said in our literary tradition.” They are referring to the Western literary tradition, but we here in the Philippines have been under the Western sphere of influence for so long it’s now an inseparable part of our identity. We might as well learn from the best works of that canon and grow stronger in mind and in spirit – as individuals and hopefully as a people, too.

So how does one go about reading such books? How to Read a Book offers plenty of advice, all of them good – I urge you to buy a copy, especially if you want to take your reading to the next level. Meanwhile, here is my understanding of their method:

  1. Know what kind of book you’re reading. Is it prose or poetry? Fiction or nonfiction? Practical or theoretical? Social science or satire? History or moral philosophy (or both)? Et cetera. Knowing the genre of the work you’re about to read will inform you on the approach you should take as you delve deeper into it. For example, you can’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as you would a cookbook – it’s a crude example, but you get my drift.
  1. Go through the table of contents, and quickly skim through the book. For you to better understand what a book is all about, it helps to take a look at how it’s structured. Examining the table of contents will give you a preview of the concepts and ideas discussed in the book, as well as their progression. Hopefully, the book you are about to read is well-ordered. “A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts,” write Adler and Van Doren. Personally, I have found that it also helps to skim through the book, quickly looking for key statements and frequently-occurring terms while skipping huge chunks of the text, to give you a feel of the work and to help you get more comfortable with it before you really go to work on it.
  1. Take notes if you have to. You may mark the book and write in the margins – but only if the book is indeed your property, and not borrowed from the library or someone else. Otherwise, use a notebook. Making notes is a good way to bring ideas “between the lines” to the forefront, plus you get to stay alert and focused as you read. If you have a more serious motive for reading a book – say, for your dissertation – then you ought to make even more detailed notes complete with an outline, definition of terms, summaries, your personal annotations, etc.
  1. Make sure you understand what the author is saying. If you’ve put a lot of effort into taking careful notes, then determining the author’s message should be easier for you at this point. Some texts can be troublesome, though – most notably philosophy. “Philosophers are notorious for having private vocabularies,” the authors write. Some philosophers redefine certain words, like Paul Tillich did when he took an everyday word like “faith” and defined it as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” Other thinkers prefer to coin new terms for their concepts. I’m using philosophy as an example here, but special terms pop up in other genres too. And it’s not just terms that can be difficult – be on the lookout for confusing statements and puzzling arguments, too.
  1. Arrive at your own conclusions about the book. The authors regard reading as “a kind of conversation” – now that you’ve arrived at the end of the book, and have done everything you could to understand it, you may now “talk back” to the author. Do you agree or disagree with the work? What are your reasons for doing so? Is reading-02it because a certain concept was not well-explained? Or perhaps the book’s conclusion does not follow from its premises? And so on. Different principles apply to other genres: for instance, a work of fiction might be badly written, or have glaring plot holes. In any case, make sure you understand the work before you criticize it. When it comes to disagreeing with a book (and I believe this also applies to interactions other than reading), Adler and Van Doren admonish thus: “When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously and contentiously.”

Adler and Van Doren have more to say in How to Read a Book, such as tips on reading specific genres such as history, science and mathematics, and imaginative literature – the method I’ve described above does not have to be applied to every text you read, just the ones that truly matter to you. While the authors had the great books of the Western canon in mind first and foremost, their advice also applies to works from Eastern traditions such as our own and many others. You can also apply some of the tips to much lighter reading such as blog posts and news articles, too.  How to Read a Book is a must-have and must-read for lovers of books and lifelong learners.


29 Responses to “5 Steps to Make the Most of Your Reading”
  1. edgar lores says:

    I am less formalistic in my approach to a book. I have at least four criteria in selecting a book to read and evaluating it.

    1. The first is a rule of thumb: I must have read and liked a previous work of the author. This is almost a surefire guarantee. To be sure, I have been disappointed at times, but not so much that I would resist buying a book from a favorite author. Thus, on my bookshelf, you will find the entire oeuvre of such authors such as Lee Child, Robert Silverberg, Jack Whyte, and Michael Connelly.

    1.1. A corollary is that a book must be guaranteed by an author I like. So to me, the blurbs on the book jacket are more important than the table of contents. Now, this is a less surefire method but still reliable.

    2. A second is another rule of thumb: the book must at least be touted on the Internet. This at least leads us to interesting books. However, before the Internet was born, before Goodreads, NPR, Amazon and Oprah’s List, there was a good book guide that listed all the old classics and modern day classics and contained a synopsis of each. It’s been years since I saw a copy of that guide book, but at the beginning of my reading internship if made me aware of the most respected books in different genres.

    3. But even without these guides, the method I employed was to read, like a bloodhound sniffing at faint scents, the first sentence, the first paragraph and, if so allowed by the bookstore, the first few pages. If I was hooked by the narrative or the style, or if I could suspend disbelief, I was a goner. This is how I used to discover books, and it used to give me great pride to make discoveries before the authors become well known. Such as Ian Fleming, John Fowles and Chaim Potok.

    4. The fourth is not about selecting books but about evaluating them. This fourth more applies to non-fiction. As I read, I keep track of my internal reaction, my bullshit detector. The process is simple, and I either receive a Yay or a Nay. Many are the times that I wished I could give up on a book, but my innate sense of respect and frugality kept me going through to the underwhelming end.

    There is another good book on how to read a book: “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose. It concentrates more on the elements of a book such as character, narration, and dialogue.

    • James Sia says:

      Much appreciated, Ed!

      • andy ibay says:

        I didn’t know what and how to read I just read, read, read until I grew old reading. I knew then where to go; to GOODWILL books store and ALEMARS in Avenida Rizal and Miranda Book Store near corner Ascarraga (now Recto Ave.) and Quezon Boulevard. I always have my snack at Alemars family-owned by former classmate Jose Agaton Sibal. At work in Ermita I spent lunch break browsing at Erehwon.

        In high school I spent lots of days during after afternoon class traversing Recto from Quezon Blvd to Star theater close to Divisoria browsing second hand books of whatever. I followed USIS library from Escolta to Aurora Blvd to corner A. Mabini and Padre Faura to Buendia Avenue (now Gil Puyat Ave.). MOSCOW NIGHTS is the worst porno I read, the proper one: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

        It is easy to remember authors and thinkers whom I can’t understand like SPA lived as contemporaries? About 400 years Before Christ. SPA stands for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates like Jesus Christ did not leave behind any written works. They don’t have to. Theirs is power more powerful than the pen.

        As OFW I have to fly to my former college to prove (because I don’t want to pay) I have returned the only copy of an old text book on Regional Economics; for drama after checking the shelves I asked the Chief Librarian to come with me to see the book in its shelf. Then I took the book to the Director who was a friend. Those drumbeating or beating the drums for regionalism or federalism might want to have a crash course on Regional Economics.

        Some good (hopefully) part of me is me because of books. If I can have a book with my name, I will dedicate it to a library.

  2. ylbnoel says:

    thanks for sharing this, and thanks for sharing your love for books!

  3. karlgarcia says:

    Thanks James, toast to lifelong learning 🍷

  4. sonny says:

    Thanks to James. I’m always on the look out for endorsements like this, i.e specific titles and authors, and why. I’ve always enjoyed reads by Mortimer Adler and know of Mr Van Doren. I will be looking for the title suggested. Thanks to Joe also for finding James.

  5. chempo says:

    Thanks James, it sorts of brought me back to my younger years for a while. Back then most of mour materials were sourced from libraries, either from the humble collection in schools, or what we call our national libraries. For novels loaned from libraries, I never fail to check out the final pages first. Great is the frustration when you read a novel to the end only to find the last pages missing.

  6. NHerrera says:


    Imagine all the books ever written by mankind. Then, there is the first item to consider. How do I pick the book and for what purpose. Simply said: put the six honest serving men of Rudyard Kipling for the purpose: WHAT, WHY, WHEN, HOW, WHERE AND WHO — the most important to my mind being WHY do I go about picking a book or a set of books.

    For a retiree like myself, I may have decided to use X% of my time to read the “best” 500 books — not using one’s ideas of best, but using suggestions, of which there are many, and my own taste — that I missed reading while actively working. I am helped in this by the technology of the computer and the internet. Then having picked a candidate book, I go through it using sensible ideas such as suggested in this blog article of James Sia and the other commenters, probably not buying the book if it does not come to my taste — since ideas about the book and table of contents are available online, etc.

    • edgar lores says:


      I agree: the WHY is the most important.

      Books have many uses. They can be used:

      o As decoration
      o To practice correct posture and balancing
      o To increase one’s height in able to reach something
      o To conk somebody in the head
      o As gifts
      o To roll-up tobacco
      o To prove somebody wrong
      o To record one’s brilliant or so-so ideas
      o To record one’s passage through life
      o To impress people
      o As a conversation starter
      o To form a club
      o As kindling

      I’m talking mostly about physical books of course. Ebooks are not much used for the above purposes except to learn, to entertain one’s self, and to pass the hours.

      You bring up a good point about the number of books we can consume. I started reading real books at the age of 14. I used to be a fast reader and could finish a book in a couple of days. Now it takes me 2 or 3 weeks to complete one. Of course, if I am reading a thriller, no more than a week will pass. Assuming I have read, on average, three books a month, I have packed in my brain about 2,000 books. That seems to be a low figure. I have moved house several times, and I can remember well the effort of packing books, leaving books, and giving away books.

      One would think I should now concentrate on unread classics. But, no, the impetus to discover new wonders and new worlds beckons.

      • NHerrera says:

        Hahaha. I like your list of items books may be used for. 🙂

        In my mind I know precisely whose head I will conk with a physical one-book comprehensive encyclopedia. Please don’t ask me whose head because I cannot tell a lie.

      • James Sia says:

        You could use the really heavy ones for weightlifting. Hehe.

        • edgar lores says:

          James, Nice.

          We’ve been kidding around but we haven’t defined the real purpose of books.

          Books are the containers of mankind’s wisdom, vessels of knowledge and wonder and mirth to be passed down the ages to succeeding generations.

          That… and to conk someone on the head.

  7. arlene says:

    I always consider books my friends. I again took up the reading challenge on Goodreads. I am on my 85th book out of the 100 I wanted to read. There is an eclectic mix of authors that I like. When I’m touched by a good story, i try to look for more of that author. Classics, paranormal, fiction, psychology contemporary, YA books – I read them all.

  8. Thea says:

    Growing in a poor family of seven in the far away land, I had limited access to books and have to be contented with Darna, Hiwaga, Liwayway,etc. borrowed from Aling Trining, our neighbor who had “komiks” for rent,that was because our weekly subscription of Asia Magazine and Free Press was halted. I should say,komiks were the only available and affordable materials for our past time during that era.
    For now, I have to catch up and read whenever I have time. I am into Joyce Carol Oates for the past 2 years. I have 10 of her books now. I read whatever subject comes interesting to me.

    @James Sia, thank you.

  9. NHerrera says:

    Off topic but may be related in the sense that viewing for information is to me a “cousin” to reading for information; and more importantly posting this consistent with Joe’s revised policy on comments:

    I have revised the terms to remove a certain “Joe America” from the title and sponsorship of the blog … Any of the principal authors may make decisions on excluding trolls or otherwise striving for a high quality conversation. Political articles and commentary are now permitted, as I am no longer a principle to them … Commenters are free to speak their minds as long as comments are respectful and not that hideous name-calling and propaganda that is so common in discussions these days.


    I watched a portion of today’s continuation of the Senate Investigation on extra-judicial killings.

    I am disappointed with one of my favorite Senators, Sen A Cayetano. His former poise and tone of questions to a witness is sorely missing. To use an oft repeated phrase, he was trying too hard. What is that recently popular word? He has metamorphosed to my great disappointment, for a former great admirer of the man.

    • edgar lores says:

      NHerrera, The tension was so great that I was expecting Trillanes to draw a gun and shoot Cayetano right on the spot. Great theater all around.

      I think Edgar was a credible witness — uneducated, limited, but truthful within the bounds of his ken.

    • chempo says:

      A few months in the wrong camp changes a man completely. You might say the subject of the senate enquiry is a catalyst, the meta that Cayetano injested.

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