How to Read a Book

Posted on March 14, 2020

A while ago I read How to Read a Book, the guide to extracting information from non-fiction books first published in 1940. Like many older books, there are parts of it that haven’t aged well, and in a particularly ironic fashion the book is quite verbose. I thought it might be useful to compile a short and simple step-by-step guide to efficiently reading non-fiction.

Imagine a book as an object with two dimensions: scope and detail. If you read the entire book cover to cover, you will learn about the full scope covered, in the level of detail of the book.Well, not really. Performing a single, cover to cover reading usually does not suffice to extract everything from a book.

But many books are several hundred pages long, and active reading demands attention and energy.

You can compromise on either of those dimensions (or both). If you just read the first half of the book, you are compromising on scope, as there is a whole second half of the subject you did not cover at all. If instead you want to compromise on detail, you should read “outside-in”, starting with strategic skimming and delving in deeper afterwards.

Start by getting a vague idea of everything covered in the book, going more and more into detail at each step. At any step you can stop and decide if the next level of details is worth the additional time required, but the knowledge you have extracted at that point is likely more useful than if you had compromised on scope.

The outside-in method is also useful for picking out books to read at a bookstore, as you can just start with the first few steps right there, and buy the book if you want to continue.

Simply follow these steps below, as long as you feel like gaining deeper understanding is worth the additional time. Ideally you want to have a way of taking notes, both to capture sections or topics to investigate further, but also to aid active reading.Active reading is one of these barely defined terms, but what I’m trying to express is the notion of thinking about the text as you read it, and actively trying to take in information. I might publish a piece on note-taking in the future.

  1. Read the back cover, and any other summaries and publisher blurbs.
  2. Read the table of contents, note the scope and structure. Identify the important and pivotal chapters.
  3. Read the preface.
  4. Scan the index and references for anything interesting to look at, both inside and outside this book.
  5. Read the opening and closing parts of the pivotal chapters, usually about a page each.
  6. Read the final part of the book containing content, such as a conclusion chapter or section.
  7. Pick a handful of random sections throughout the whole book and read a page or two each.

At this point you should have spent between 30 minutes and one hour, and have answers to these questions:

  • What is the book about, and which scope does it cover?
  • Are there any additional topics or works to investigate outside of its scope?
  • Which conclusions or opinions does it offer?

The last question is particularly important if you want to continue, as it sets the context of this book in comparison to others covering the same subject. Authors have different backgrounds and biases, which colour their works.A good example is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which does hold some value for everyone, like the notion of the task inbox, but also contains a lot of absurd examples and use-cases which clearly show the kind of life he’s living, and the priorities he has.

The more thorough levels of reading take a lot more time, but can be useful if you want to get a deeper understanding of the subject. There are two more steps you can take to gain more insight:

  1. Continue reading the chapters, actually reading entire chapters now.
  2. Use other works covering the same subject and cross-reference the important points as you come across them. This allows you to get different viewpoints on the individual points.This is what Adler calls “syntopical” reading, which is a whole discipline on its own. I won’t cover it here, but you can find plenty of material online, and How to Read a Book also has a more detailed explanation.

If you get this deep into a subject, the first few steps will be very quick to perform, as you are already familiar with the subject, so you only need to find answers to the questions above before delving in deeper.