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A Typology of Book-Reading – Part I: Modes of Concentration

In the first part of this article series, I identify fourteen different types of book, which I classify by their required mode of concentration; whilst also providing examples and photographic samples to support the description of each type.

So many types of book—but what are the types of reading?


Over the course of the years during which I have been reading books regularly, a particular categorization of book-types naturally formed in my mind. Specifically, it is based on the distinct kinds of concentration I found to be demanded by different books. These different kinds of concentration can be thought of as different modes of reading; and the classification of them in this sense may be useful for a regular reader of books to consider and refer to, towards a more conscious and informed practise of book-reading.

The fourteen book-types I have identified, termed, and will classify here are the Technical, Referential, Deep, Philosophical, Harrowing, Dissonant, Illustrated, Voluminous, Benign, Conversational, Narrational, Allegorical, Anthological, Pictorial.

Three-Fold Classification

The classification here is divided into three elements:

Being the name I have given to indicate the character of the book classified in this context, i.e. by the kind of reading experience it demands or engenders.

Mode of Concentration
Being the term I have given to indicate the particular reading experience produced by that book-type.

Being three divisions of book-types, based on the level of challenge generally posed by each type—either due to the degree of concentration it demands; or to the necessary endurance of the characteristics particular to its reading experience.

The book-types to be described represent the essence of that type; and it should be remembered that books are often combinations of two or more of these types, which thus modifies the concentration mode. Therefore, this classification is best considered as a basic guide, rather than a definitive one; and as being intended to enhance the reader’s awareness of the various, distinct characteristics of the different reading experiences entailed in reading particular types of book.

Examples and Samples

In support of the classification, I have included examples of each book-type, by way of photos and descriptions. They are not necessarily the best examples; and the sample pages I have photographed are not always the most illustrative of the book-type described—but on the whole I think they are well representative of the types; and I hope they will afford the reader a more useful reading of the typology.

Tier 1 (Most Challenging)

Technical (Book-Type)

The Nervous System, by Peter Nathan (1982) – Although it generally entails much effort, the reading of a Technical Book – at least once in a while – can be an intellectually beneficial and enlightening practiseparticularly books concerned with understanding the human body: for it is the vehicle through which we experience the world.

Initiate Language (Main Characteristic)

Being based on what I refer to as the ‘initiate language’ of its particular field (generally, one of the many sciences), the Technical Book therefore requires the comprehension of uncommon concepts; the short-term remembrance of these concepts; and the frequent/cumulative relating and integrating of these concepts to each other.

Laborious Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The Technical Book thus demands a high level of concentration; the concentration-mode of which can be called Laborious Comprehension—in that the reading experience is akin to academic study, i.e. the reader, being the ‘student’, is especially dependant on the author’s ‘teaching’ of the subject, including the definitions and explanations of the various elements involved.

Referential (Book-Type)

History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides (431 BC) – Ancient history, I find, is a good subject for which to utilize reference books—mainly to enhance the context of the main text, by the support of extra definitions, illustrations, and information;and thus it is in this sense, a Referential Book.

Multitude of Elements (Main Characteristic)

The Referential Book is ‘referential’ in the sense that it involves a multitude of elements – most commonly: people, places, and/or events – which thus makes beneficial (although not necessary) the use of multiple reference books to support one’s understanding of the various elements discussed in the book: The frequent use of atlases, dictionaries, and encyclopaedias – not only general ones, but specialized ones of direct relevance – can valuably enhance the learning experience of the subject being read.

Limited Momentum (Mode of Concentration)

The Referential Book thus demands a high level of concentration, given that one reads with the intent to extensively use the support of reference books. This concentration-mode can be called Limited (Sacrificed) Momentum—in that the flow of reading the book’s text is frequently interrupted, thereby inhibiting the momentum of reading comprehension speed.

Deep (Book-Type)

The Technological Society, by Jacques Ellul (1964) – I find Deep Books invigorating to read every so often; for the authors display a rare ability to communicate not only with such depth of expression, but to do so in a continuous stream from beginning to end—a torrent of meaning.

High Density of Meaning (Main Characteristic)

The Deep Book is one in which the author’s writing contains a high density of meaning: Generally, his language will be based on familiar words; and usually, will be assisted by the technical terms of his field, or that he himself has coined for the exposition of his thesis. However, despite that the language is semantically uncomplicated, an exceptional depth of meaning is created by the selection and arrangement of the words: the author’s rare ability to formulate penetrating expressions.

Note: Authors with this ability of continuous depth of expression are, as I have found, most usually either French (as in this case) or German; and in any case, not English. Of further note is that I expect such works contain an even higher density of meaning in their original language than does their English versions, in which at least some of the meaning will be ‘lost in translation’ (indeed, I have read an eminent German philosopher complain about this very fact—in an entire preface to an English translation of his book!)

Careful Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode of the Deep Book can be called Careful Comprehension—in that one often needs to consciously focus or re-focus on a passage (or even a single sentence), reading or re-reading it with heightened deliberateness in an effort to grasp its intended meaning—to a satisfactory degree, at the least.

Tier 2 (Highly Challenging)

Philosophical (Book-Type)

Thorough Argument with Intense Definition (Main Characteristic)

Primarily, the Philosophical Book is one in which the author has formed an entire treatise on – what is essentially or explicitly – his philosophy; and which typically consists of exhaustingly thorough argument, including an intensity of definition (i.e. establishing or clarifying the meaning of words and concepts). Secondarily, the Philosophical Book is one which consists of the discussion of subject(s) in an essentially philosophical manner, i.e. without the author forming a philosophical treatise.

Athletic Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

Thus, the Philosophical Book often demands a concentration-mode that can be called Athletic Comprehension—in that the reader should possess both the intellectual fitness and attitudinal discipline to optimally benefit from the ongoing elaboration and definition of terms.

Harrowing (Book-Type)

The Nazi Doctors – A Study in the Psychology of Evil, by Robert Jay Lifton (1986) – Unsurprisingly, writings concerning the Holocaust have supplied literature with an entire Harrowing sub-genre, i.e. a seemingly endless succession of what I would call the Harrowing Book.

Inherently Unpleasant (Main Characteristic)

The Harrowing Book is one concerned with a subject matter that is inherently unpleasant; or, one that involves unpleasant things to a considerable degree. Most commonly, such unpleasantness is in the form of vivid depictions of human suffering; which may also include cruelty (e.g. atrocities).

Endurance Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode of the Harrowing Book can be called Endurance Comprehension—in the sense that the reader must endure the depressing and perhaps disturbing atmosphere that is distinctive of the experience entailed in reading such books.

Dissonant (Book-Type)

The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas S. Szasz, M.D. (1974, Revised Edition) – The most significant kind of Dissonant Book (such as this one) puts forth a perspective that directly conflicts with an aspect of the dominant ideology in society; and therefore, it represents a modern (i.e. secular, democratic) form of heresy. A less significant kind of Dissonant Book is one that does not conflict with official ideology, but a minority one, such as an orthodox religion; and therefore, its dissonance is socially limited.

Supremely Undesirable Notions (Main Characteristic)

Found most often in the form of the exposé, the Dissonant Book is based on notions supremely undesirable—which can be so either in the general sense, or in the personal one. That the undesirability is “supreme” amounts to the notion(s) being worldview-disrupting – if not worldview-shattering – from the perspective of the reader.

Tolerating Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The essential conflict with acceptable worldviews that is characteristic of the Dissonant Book thus produces a concentration-mode that involves (and properly, demands) a Tolerating Comprehension—in the willingness and ability to tolerate acute psychological discomfort. This discomfort is inevitably created when immersing one’s mind into a stream of thought or information that is directly in conflict with beliefs or understandings fundamental to the consonant living of one’s life—in effect, to enter into a realm of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and to engage with it for a considerable duration (in following the exposition through to its conclusion).

Illustrated (Book-Type)

Image-Based Text (Main Characteristic)

The Illustrated Book so named here is that in which the text is not merely accompanied by illustrations, but in which the reader is prompted to frequently switch from reading text to viewing images (which themselves may be accompanied by their own subtext)—a process that demands the synthesizing of textual meanings with their corresponding images.

Interactive Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode of the Illustrated Book can thus be called Interactive Comprehension—in that comprehension involves reciprocal activity between textual-reading and pictorial-viewing modes.

Tier 3 (Moderately Challenging)

Voluminous (Book-Type)

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer (1959, 1964) – The ‘voluminousness’ of the Voluminous Book is immediately evident in its form (although that doesn’t stop it from boasting about it on the cover!)

Extraordinary Length (Main Characteristic)

The Voluminous Book is named so in reference to its extraordinary length, being a broad or exhaustive treatment of a subject—which is defined here as being in the form of, or amounting to, three or more average-length books (or 800+ pages).

Protracted Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The Voluminous Book thus generates a concentration-mode that can be called Protracted Comprehension—in the necessary endurance of one subject matter discussed extensively.

Benign (Book-Type)

How to Read a Film – Movies, Media, Multimedia, by James Monaco (2000, 3rd Edition) – The Benign Book is of a subject matter that is free from the concerns of life; and is most commonly one concerned with a form (or multiple forms) of entertainment.

Inconsequential Subject Matter (Main Characteristic)

The Benign Book is named so in the topical sense, being a non-fiction book based on a subject matter or theme of a relatively inconsequential nature (i.e. relative to works in which the discussion involves matters carrying social or psychological implications). The Benign Book is represented by those that critique, or analyse the form of, entertainment arts – such as cinema, television, and music – specifically with a design to enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of these mediums and their works; and ultimately, to enhance the enjoyment of such arts (hence, this type excludes critiques which are based on social commentary, as this carries social implications).

Relaxed Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode afforded by the Benign Book can be called Relaxed Comprehension—in that the motive to learn and understand is here connected to a motive of enjoyment, ensuring a light-hearted atmosphere for comprehension.

Conversational (Book-Type)

Simplified Language and Form (Main Characteristic)

Best represented by non-fiction books written for the popular market, the Conversational Book is characterized by a relaxed formality of language, with simplified presentation and form (in relation to more scholarly works, which make little to no concessions for the appeal of a wider audience).

Fluid Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode thus engendered by the Conversational Book can be called Fluid Comprehension—in that it affords an increased momentum of reading comprehension, relative to a more scholarly work addressing the same topic.

Narrational (Book-Type)

Narrative Mode of Exposition (Main Characteristic)

Any book that is based on the narrative mode of exposition, and thus essentially takes the form of a story – be it a fictional or factual one, i.e. novel, history, or biography – is here named the Narrational Book.

Continuous Momentum (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode produced by the Narrational Book can be called Continuous Momentum—in that it features a structure and language designed to engross the reader, rather than being designed to prompt examination and contemplation.

Allegorical (Book-Type)

Symbolism (Main Characteristic)

The Allegorical Book is one that is partly or wholly representative of indirectly expressed meaning(s) – i.e. that it is composed of symbolism. Books here considered as being in the mode of allegory can be in the form either of novels, or of religious/mythological texts.

Note: Allegorical Books – be they in the genre of fiction, religion, or mytho-history – are rarely declared as being allegorical; and therefore, this characteristic is ultimately one that the reader must discern for himself.

Oblique Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

The concentration-mode of the Allegorical Book can therefore be called Oblique Comprehension—in its necessity to perceive and decode the inexplicit narrative, as well as to self-assemble the allegorical ‘conclusion’.

Anthological (Book-Type)

Diversity of Content (Main Characteristic)

The Anthological Book is one that is in the form of a diversity of writings, such as Anthologies or Collections of essays, poems, or short stories.

Note: I would also here classify books that form collections of quotes, excerpts, or definitions—especially when organized into chapters of different themes.

Precluded Momentum but Manageable Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

By nature, the Anthological Book precludes reading momentum, in that entries are short and, at the most, indirectly connected, i.e. it does not form the usual continuity between its parts, as is found (and expected) in typical books. However, the Anthological Book’s form offers the opportunity of self-navigation, in that the reader can skip entries or chapters that are of no immediate interest to him; as well as the opportunity to be adaptively selective, in that he can at any time choose which entries to read from amongst those that interest him (i.e. without being tied to a particular sequence).

The concentration-mode of the Anthological Book can thus be called Managed Comprehension—in that it generally offers a flexible level of concentration.

Pictorial (Book-Type)

Primarily Visual (Main Characteristic)

The Pictorial Book is one that is based primarily on visual content, i.e. a profusion of images accompanied by textual indicators and comments. The Pictorial Book referred to here is represented best by the ‘Coffee Table book’, which is designed for viewing as opposed to reading; and secondarily, by the Graphic Novel (usually compiled of a comic book series of stories), being in the form of minimal text designed to guide the literally illustrative artwork.

A Brief History of Album Covers, by Jason Draper (2008) – ‘Coffee table books’ (such as this one) are one form of Pictorial Book, as the main content is the images; whilst the text is kept to a minimum, and is designed to concisely guide the viewing experience.

Visual Comprehension (Mode of Concentration)

Thus, the concentration-mode of the Pictorial Book can be called Visual Comprehension—in that the mode of comprehension is essentially a mode of viewing, not of reading.

In Part II of this Typology of Book-Reading, I categorize the most common subjects in literature, and classify their Moods for Comprehension.

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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