9 Ways to Better Understand Your Books

Understanding books is important
As a college philosophy major, I find myself spending a large amount of time with a book in my hand. While time constraints are a problem all their own, the greatest problem I face with these sometimes difficult to understand books is actually absorbing the information I wish to retain. I want to be able to understand what the author is attempting to convey both inside and out. I want understand both the large picture and the details.

Instead of just drudging through the books I believe it is important to try to hone my skills of reading; find ways to be able to understand the readings without having to read the texts multiple times. Below are nine tips that I have incorporated into my own book reading endeavors.

Before Reading the Book

1.)Understand What Type of Book You're Reading

Before you even attempt to read the book or text, you should take a moment and reflect upon just what type of book it is. This will allow to be able to perhaps come up with a game plan in relation to that particular text. Depending upon the difficulty of the reading, you may want to do more in the way of planning how you will take it on. Some of these cases are no-brainers; you hardly need to do anything in order to better comprehend a compelling novel. The story does the work for you. On the otherhand, you need to have a clear plan when taking on some sort of textbook. Textbooks usually contain a gigantic resource of facts, ideas, and names and it will be extremely ignorant of a person to think they will be able to read through once and remember everything.

There are some books that may not be clear on this scale between extremely easy and extremely difficult. In my own experience, I found How We Think by John Dewey to fall somewhere in the middle. I read the first couple of chapters fairly easily, but found I wasn't seeing his conception of thought as well as I had liked. I started over with a new plan of taking notes in order to gather the main points.

The difficulty of the book will not always be clear. That is why it is also important to remember tip two.

2.)Know Your Goals Before Reading

What do you want to get out of this book or text? Are you reading it for a class, in order to understand a certain topic? Are you reading it for pleasure, just hoping to gain a new perspective on it? Or perhaps you're gathering information for a Senior Thesis.

The point is that if you don't know what you want to get out of the book, then you most likely will end up with nothing rather than everything. Knowing what you want gives you a focus, a goal, some sort of problem to be understood. Of course, for leisure reading, this is more difficult, but for classes this is essential. You want to gain a way of looking at a certain topic that will allow you to take part in discussion and more or less make your way through the class.

This also finds less importance with the compelling novel and an extreme amount of importance in reading a textbook.

3.)Understand the Hermeneutical Circle

The Hermeneutical Circle is a concept in the study of interpretation which shows the relation of the parts of a book to the whole of the book. In order to understand the parts, you must first know how they fit in the larger scheme of the book. To know the larger scheme, however, knowledge is required of the parts. Both must be referenced to eachother in order to understand the text.

What this means though is that the textual context must be analyzed. It's place in history, author, and language are all important to gain a grasp of the environment the text inhabits.

What to take away from this is to remember to acquire necessary background knowledge about the particular book you would like to read. To do so will help you better understand the parts, and thus, better understand the whole.

While You're Reading the Book

4.)Grab a Pencil

In order to better understand the reading, you should be able to pick out meaningful statements within it. Not every sentence of the book is going to contain a different idea that you should remember. To better help with finding these meaningful parts, it is helpful to make marks in the book with a pencil.

Marking points you find important will help keep your concentration upon the text. This will also aid in attempting to re-analyze and point out significant statements as you will have them marked.

I have found doing this small thing invaluable. It has also supplied me with possible block quotes that I may want to use in writing.

5.)Grab A Notebook

Sometimes just marking in the book is not enough. You may be able to find important statements in the text, but you may not be completely sure just what the author is attempting to convey. For this problem, it is useful to use a notebook to attempt to either summarize or re-state what the author intends.

Doing this forces you, the reader, to attempt to jump into the mind of the author and extract the main points. To be able to state them in different ways shows that the idea has been understood in some way or another; it shows that your reading is going according to plan.

6.)Be Swift Yet Not Hasty

When reading a particular text, it is important that you be persistent in reading it. Keep up a good pace. Set a certain time aside everyday so that you will keep up this pace. It may be even possible to set deadlines for yourself in order to get your butt in gear. A common theme these days is to attempt to read one book a week. Depending upon your current endeavors, this may or may not be possible. Personally, as a college student, a track athlete, and a tutor I find this completely impossible.

In any case, the quicker you read a book (assuming you are attempting to really understand it) the better picture of it you will have at the end. The book will always be in the back of your mind; you will be applying it to daily situations, thinking of it in terms of experience. This is extremely useful and allows you to understand and retain the book better.

There is a limit though to how quick you can be provided you aren't a speed reader. If you get too fast, you will be fatigued easily when reading and your mind will wander even though you may be following along perfectly.

To ensure this doesn't happen, it is important to periodically stop every once in a while and attempt to see if you have retained what you have just read. If not, you had better change your game plan.

After You Have Read the Book

7.)Summarize The Book

After having read the book, it is important to test your knowledge on it. Simply summarizing it works well. A good summarization hits all the keys spots and does not dwell on any certain aspect to long. It forces you to "put things in their place" so to speak and requires you to put everything together as well.

If you've been keeping a notebook, you can just use your notes and marks in the book to achieve this summarization.

8.)Write A Paper Over Some Aspect of the Book

In order to really understand the book, writing a paper over it may be the ultimate way of doing so. It may be in the form of a simple review, but critical analyses work very well. Come up with some topic pertaining to the book that interests you greatly, such as some point the author has made, or perhaps the implications of his ideas.

To do this requires some great reasoning skills. Not only must you come up with possible objections, but you must also be willing to object to your objections, to really take the view of the author and give him a fair trial.

9.)Refine Your Methods

This final step is the most important. If you never critically examine yourself you will not get any better at comprehending what you read. It is important to examine what you retained, why you retained it, and if it is subpar, what you can do in the future to solve this problem.

To examine yourself in this fashion will help you to evolve to your higher standards. You will be able to refine your methods and allow yourself for better reading tough books in the future.

Concluding Remarks

Hopefully these nine tips will help you in some way to enhance your book reading understanding. Personally, as an avid reader I find it interesting to see what works and what doesn't, and to see if I can get any better at this endeavor I love and sometimes hate to do. If you have any more tips or suggestions, or perhaps even criticisms, please comment.

Mitchell Sahlfeld
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