Ideas on How To Read a Book

Cover of "How to Read a Book (A Touchston...
How to Read a Book

If you’re like me you probably have a list of books you want to read that you can’t seem to make time for. I’ve found some help with that—and a better way to approach most non-fiction books—in How to Read a Book. It was written in the late 30s by Encyclopedia Britannica writer, professor, and philosopher, Mortimer Adler, and could have been a little more accurately titled as How To Read A Book Well.

The art of reading a book well is really the art of active reading. Adler uses the analogy of pitching and catching a ball. The writer is the pitcher and you, the reader, are the catcher. Writers have to know how to correctly control the pitch but, in the end, it’s up to us to catch the ball and catch it well. A successful catch means you’ve lifted yourself up from a state of understanding less of a book to understanding more of it.

What’s great about How To Read a Book is that Adler tells you how to do this. I’ve taken a few ideas from his outline of the second and third levels of reading—the first level being the plain act of reading, the fourth being comprehensive reading on a larger subject to understand a book. These are his simpler ideas of pre-reading that I like to think of as Hacking The Book. Some techniques that take advantage of the structure of well-written books to sort of kickstart the active reading process and knock some books off your reading list that might not be worth your time.

So, here are 7 ideas from How To Read a Book that work for me.

Idea 1. Read The Book Backwards

This would fall under Adler’s second step of what he calls Inspectional Reading but I usually make it my first. Start from the back of the book and find the concluding chapter. What you’re looking for is a summary of the author’s argument. If you don’t understand the argument that’s OK. You might want to read the book to understand it. If you do understand it, and you’re not looking for a review of something you already know, you might want to move on to another book.

I’ll sometimes do this to alleviate my library borrower’s guilt when I’ve taken out way too many books on one subject and don’t have time to read them all. I’ll make sure to at least read the conclusion of each one, making my own quick Reader’s Digest versions.

Idea 2. Read The Table of Contents

If you’re like me you’ve probably spent a large portion of your reading life totally ignoring the Table of Contents. Not good. It’s an outline of the book and taking a moment to study it and look for any patterns or chapters that might be especially important will help you later on.

Idea 3. Judge A Book By It’s Cover

This is part of what Adler calls pigeon-holing a book. To simplify, if there’s a picture of a crying Glenn Beck on a book you can take a good guess at what kind of book you’re looking at and start to get a handle on it. You should also take a careful look at the language and terms used on the book cover copy. In Adler’s day—though I don’t know if this is true or not anymore—the book cover copy was often written by the author and can potentially make a great elevator pitch version of a book’s argument—if it’s written well but your reading of the conclusion and the table of contents will help determine if the book copy is baloney or not.

Idea 4. Read The Index

Yes, read the index. Look for especially important terms or frequent terms. Look a few up. There’s a good chance you’ll catch the the major turning points, or even the crux, of an author’s argument.

Idea 5. Skim The Book

Highlighted words, italics, boldface, illustrations, sub headings. What you want to do here is a really involved skimming of the book stopping to inspect all of these points. Sometimes I throw in the concluding paragraphs from each chapter as I find them.

Idea 6. Read The Introduction

If the introduction of the book has been written by the author, read it now. The inspectional review you’ve already done will help you tune you in and bring you a step closer to understanding the book. If the introduction wasn’t written by the author you can safely ignore it (unless you’ve already read the book and are looking for more understanding)

Idea 7. Only Consider Reading The Book

Reading the book at this point might not be necessary. There’s a very good chance you might have all the information you need from most books by this point. If you think the argument in the book is worth looking into further because you don’t quite understand it yet, awesome. Once you’ve pre-read and analyzed a book you’re ready to fully engage with the author and take on their argument point by point.

There’s more to Adler’s How To Read A Book than this—how to read Literature, Poetry, and Practical books, how to argue with an Author, how to Speed Read. I hope you’ll check it out, read more books, and get more out of them.

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Ian Stewart

Ian Stewart is probably thinking about WordPress Themes right this very minute.

6 thoughts on “Ideas on How To Read a Book”

  1. Hi Ian, I stumbled on this post as I was checking out your html5 Toolbox WordPress theme. (I got your tweet.) As an emerging technology strategist, I have a lot of reading to do. As technology/marketing/social media books are updated, outdated and produced at a very rapid pace, I utilize my library system as much as possible.

    Two Reason
    1. I have a time limit to read the book. I usually can renew if it is not in demand.
    2. If I purchase the title, there is no real urgency to read it. So it usually not read and by the time I do get around to it, the info is not as fresh. (Yes I know when the book is finally in print it is already outdated.)

    Glad to stop by to check out the Toolbox theme and get the tips from this post.

  2. Thanks for sharing the link. I could not agree more. The books I write reviews for are marked and highlighted. The books I borrow, I use large sticky notes for my ideas and comments. The act of writing and note taking makes the concepts sink in and I retain the information better.
    I enjoy the process of reading (or listening) because it is an idea generator for me.

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