How Do Leaders Read So Much?

Leaders read.  They don’t just read a little here or there, either.  People who want to lead others into a mission far greater than themselves realize their need to grow.  The problem is most people want to learn and grow, but they aren’t willing to do what it takes to get there.

In one of the last books I read  on President George W Bush, it made a point about how many books he read each year.  Apparently, in his last year in office, President Bush read somewhere around 100 books.  One of his senior advisors, Karl Rove, beat him that year, reading around 125.

So how do they do it?  I mean, President Bush didn’t exactly have one of the loosest schedules.  He wasn’t able to stay up late each night, knowing that he could sleep late the next morning.  Instead, I think the answer has more to do with how he read, as opposed to how much time he spent reading.

When I began grad school, one of our first required texts was, “How To Read A Book.”  At first glance, the idea of reading a book came across to me as offensive.  Was I really spending money taking a course that required me to read a book about reading a book?  Little did I know it would have a profound impact on me as a spiritual leader.

A well-known seminary president told a friend of mine that most people who struggle in seminary do so because of issues surrounding reading.  They simply can’t keep up.  It’s not that these well-meaning students can’t read big words; it’s that they can’t consume the volume of books that is being thrown their way.  They need a new way of reading.  So did I.

In “How to Read A Book,” the authors break reading down into four levels of reading.  They are:

Level 1 – Elementary Reading – We all remember learning the basics of reading.  For some of us, we are passing those down to our own kids as well.  At this level, the question asked of the reader is, “What does the sentence say?”  First, we identify the words, and then we seek to understand what they mean when they are strung together.

Many readers have various kinds of difficulties reading at this level.  Most of these difficulties are mechanical, and can probably be traced back to early instruction in reading.  Overcoming these mechanical difficulties allows us to read faster; therefore, most speed reading courses concentrate at this level.

Level 2 – Inspectional Reading – This level is characterized by an emphasis on time.  When reading at this level, one is given a certain length of time, and asked to get as much out of the book as possible – within the allotted amount of time.

Some people might consider this level to be skimming or pre-reading.  Inspectional reading is more of an art of skimming systematically.  When reading at this level, your aim is to examine the surface of the book, and to learn as much as possible from that surface understanding of the material.  That is often a good amount of information.  At this level, instead of asking the question, “What does the sentence say?” the reader is asking, “What is the book about?”

Level 3 – Analytical Reading – This is thorough reading.  Francis Bacon once said,

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Reading a book analytically is like chewing up a book slowly and then digesting it.

Level 4 – Syntopical Reading – This is the highest and most complex type of reading.  Some people call this level “comparative reading” as well.  When reading syntopically, a reader is reading many books and places them in relation to one another and to the subject with which they all revolve.  The reader is eventually able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.  Think Phd student working on a thesis paper here.

So why is all that important?  I would bet any of you reading this – that always have a pile of books you want to read but can’t get to – are stuck in a poor version of Level 1 or Level 3 reading.  Either you are just trying to read faster to no avail, or you haven’t realized that not every book needs to be snuggled up with.

We could use spending more time in Level 2 reading.  Instead of reading books like text books, we could read them for the nuggets that are within them.  Once we get those nuggets, then we can move on to the next book.  And on those rare occasions we come across a gem, then we ought to grab a cup of coffee, get nice and cozy in a comfortable chair, and slowly digest all the author has for us.

Which level describes the way you read the most?



  1. Ben Humeniuk October 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Kevin, I totally glossed over that part in “Decision Points.” Great reminder.
    I gallop around between 2 and 3, but I remember being challenged by a Russian author named Vladimir Nabokov. He asserted that you won’t truly read a book until you read it twice– once to get the gist (Level 2) and once to get the richness (Level 3).

    • Kevin East October 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

      So true. I’ve heard that quote somewhere as well. I like the distinction you’ve made between the two types of readings. Good word.

  2. Julie Gumm October 11, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    Does this mean I can’t keep making fun of my husband for really never “finishing” a book? He reads the table of contents, skims, maybe really reads one or two chapters and then 3 months later I find the book with a pencil or pen still stuck in it somewhere. I’m not sure that qualifies as Level 2 either.

    • Kevin East October 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

      Ha. Yes, my bookshelf probably resembles that of your husband’s somewhat. I would call that a poor version of level 2. It is an incomplete picture. I am posting tomorrow on one option of what Level 2 reading could look like. Stay tuned….

  3. Joshuanador October 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Hey Kev. This is dynamic. Sooner we will have a Proffesor Kevin East. But seriously, the rapid reading book is revolutionizing the way I learn from a book.
    This is great stuff

    • Kevin East October 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

      No professor here, but I agree – learning to read in a different way opens up a whole new world.

  4. lran October 13, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    Great post Kevin! Such a good point: saying “I read a book” doesnt have to mean Read every word. I’ve been wanting to read more, and I think this will really help. Thx!

    • Kevin East October 14, 2011 at 12:45 am #

      I used to scoff at people who said they read a book when I knew they didn’t read EVERY word. I guess I was trying to keep them to the same standard I gave myself – focused on the small things as opposed to trying to grasp the greater ones.

  5. Karl Dahlfred December 20, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    this is great. I wish I had read this 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve done a B.A., M.Div., & Th.M. I have figured out some of the inspectional reading tactics in recent years but wish I’d known them earlier

  6. Michael Rogers February 5, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    Hey Kevin, I read every word of books because I appreciate the writing process as much as the reading process. If they kept in in there I trust them that it’s worth my time. In college, I “read” books and got good grades, but there was no joy in it for me. At this point, I think I’m in level three: digesting a ton and drawing connections to my life and what I already know.