Over the last month, I’ve found myself regularly coming back to a specific chapter in a book I’m reading. The writing was dense, but that wasn’t as much the cause as I would have liked it to be. It was my ability to step into imagining what the writing was describing that slowed me down. And consequently, my ability to make meaning of what I was reading.
It wasn’t sufficient to read it, I had to play with the description and try to find a way to apply it to experiences I’ve had. It meant to use the reading I had done as a lens and apply it to a variety of situations. In essence, using the reading by applying it served to transform how I could understand what I had read.
As Mortimer J. Adler once described it, there are four levels of reading a book. The first two levels he described related to the basic ability to read and capture the essence of the book. The next two levels were concerned with understanding the topic using analytical reading and comparing the book with others through syntopical reading. These levels describe the difference between the way we read a book to put it into the context of its subject and gain an analytical understanding of it and the way we try to put the book into a broader context of the known literature on this topic.
However, how analytical reading leads to meaning-making depends on what one is reading. To be able to perceive or develop meaning, the reading must be brought into its context and most often requires stepping into a process allowing for an in-depth engagement with the topic. In other words, learning the topic and stepping into a process transforming what has been understood during the analytical reading into some kind of practical understanding.
It’s a process that requires coming back to the reading multiple times. Every time one reads the same document again, new elements will be discovered. Often, it is only once the text has been read and engaged with several times, that it becomes possible to move from the analytical reading level to the syntopical reading level.