How to read a book

July 2nd, 2008 by james

My typical day can be divided roughly into thirds: part administration, part analysis/thinking, and part reading. And while I like the new ideas that come with reading, it can be awfully tedious at times. Who wants to spend all day plowing through a big stack of papers and books, especially now that it’s summer? So while this title may be a bit jokey, I’m going to share some serious tips for how to speed up your reading of the most time-consuming materials: books.

Academic books come in basically two varieties: textbooks and “paper” books. Textbooks are perhaps the most familiar: they’re mainly used at undergraduate level, they have lots of useful reference information and chances are you’ve got a few dog-eared favourites sitting on your shelf right now. Reading these is pretty easy. Don’t. No really – if you’ve had to buy a textbook or get it from the library, chances are there was one thing you wanted to look up. Use the index, find what you wanted and you’re done (maybe a quick flip through to see if there’s anything else interesting).

But then what about “paper” books, i.e. the big meaty books that need to be read properly, books that are really extended versions of a journal paper? I’ve found that when doing a literature review in a new field there may be 10 to 20 of these “paper” style books on my reading list and it can take ages to read them all cover to cover. And, unlike a reference book, you often don’t know what you’re looking for. So where should you start?

  1. Recognize that “paper” books are written like papers. They almost always have an introduction, a literature review/theory section, followed by data, and a discussion/conclusion. PhDs tend to follow this pattern too.
  2. Read the introduction. This will tell you about what the book covers, and if well-written, it will often paraphrase the main conclusions. Authors tend to stick their most quotable lines here (or in the conclusion) so use some Post-it index labels to mark interesting sections. Most importantly, the introduction will almost always contain a detailed chapter map, explaining the content of the following chapters. Use this to guide your further reading.
  3. Read the literature review. This is optional really. If you’re new to a field, these sections can provide excellent summaries of the main debates in the field and identify who to look-up for further reading. But if you know the lay of the land already, feel free to skip this section. Or alternatively, apply these techniques recursively on the chapter itself, reading the introduction and conclusion sections to get an overall feel for things.
  4. Cherry-pick from the data chapters. By flipping through the data chapters, and by reading the introduction and conclusion, you should know which of the substantial chapters are going to be most relevant to you. Read these, add labels where necessary, and skim through the other sections.
  5. Read the conclusion. This will help you to satisfy yourself that you haven’t missed anything interesting and should provide a good summary the main themes. Again be on the look out for quotable quotes.

As for the actual reading, some people do find speed-reading useful and others prefer to slog through the old-fashioned way. There are no real short-cuts here: read carefully and make sure you understand what you do read.

I can’t guarantee that, by using these tips, you won’t miss anything useful but I’ve found that they let me get through a 300+ page “paper” book in about an hour, with a good grasp of the content. That’s a significant time saving and leaves you much more time for the important things in life, like sunny Friday afternoons.

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7 Responses to “How to read a book”

  1. John AdkinsNo Gravatar Says:

    Take a look at Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book _How to Read a Book_ for some additional ideas about systematic reading techniques. I use several chapters from this with my Historiography students and they suggest that it makes processing works for a literature review much easier. Cheers.

  2. Felipe BeloNo Gravatar Says:

    For those of you into productivity. We invite you to check the App we will be releasing for the iPhone:

    We define it as: Know WHAT to-do, WHEN to-do it and WHERE.

    I am a robotics researcher, and I developed the App with my academics needs on mind. So I really hope you will enjoy it!

  3. Matthew CornellNo Gravatar Says:

    Thanks for the article. There’s a bunch of good resources and suggestions in the replies to my post: How To Read A Lot Of Books In A Short Time

  4. Jim DaviesNo Gravatar Says:

    I think my blog posting is complementary with this one, on how to process what you read:

  5. HerbNo Gravatar Says:

    This is a really good post. It puts reading and productivity in perspective and you could even say its a motivating post.

  6. MAX WEISMANNNo Gravatar Says:

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

  7. SandyNo Gravatar Says:


    thank you for posting these tips to get through volumes of work in record time. One of the other things I like to do when reading up is read the first sentence of the paragraph. This usally helps me to decide whether I need to keep reading, or if I can move on the the next one.

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