How to Read a Book

Even with the advent of internet articles (like this one), Kindles, iPads, online magazines, and all sorts of multimedia, it’s still a good idea to read books.  In fact, more books are being published today than ever before.  And many of us find ourselves in contexts where reading widely is important.

So how do you read lots of books?  Some people can just read super fast.  Line by line, they plow through a 300-page book in a couple of hours.  Good for them.  We will classify them as super-savants and move on to discuss the rest of us mere mortals.

For several years I’ve used a method I call the “Reading Pyramid,” which provides five categories of reading.  Perhaps it will be helpful for you.  Here goes:

1. Gone in 60 Seconds

Want to boost your reading to 100,000 words per minute?  Move from skimming to skipping.  The most efficient way to read most books is to not read them.  Truth is that with all the books we could read, being picky about the ones we do read is smart.

2. Judge a Book by Its Cover

Often familiarity with a book is all you need.  Read the title and subtitle, the author’s bio, the inside flaps, and the back cover material.  I’m surprised by how much I can learn about a book and from a book by simply reading the outside material.  I find it helpful to read this material thoroughly (slowly) so I can choose to read more of the book or not.  Either way, I win.  If I choose not to read the book, I often know enough about it to discuss it or choose to read it later. If I choose to read the book soon, I have a good foundation for moving through the book more quickly.

3. Let Others Do the Heavy Lifting

Especially in the age of online resources, you can find summaries, reviews, and opinions that help you get the best-of-the-best from a book without ever cracking the cover or paying the cover price.  Of course, you must be discerning when tapping into these resources (Does the reviewer have an agenda?  Is the summary an attempt to sell the book?  Does your colleague’s opinion hold weight given what you know about him or her?).

4. Skimming and Skipping

With a book in hand (perhaps in a bookstore, if you remember what those look like), you can get a lot from a book if you know how to skip and skim.  Start with the cover material (see #2).  Next, read the table of contents to get a feel for the content and the layout of the book.  Then, hit the chapters that seem most interesting to you, noting any callouts, diagrams, boldface material, or chapter summaries.  Not all books are designed for this kind of skimming, but more and more are.  Take advantage of a well-designed book.

5. Do a Deep Dive

For those books you want to read thoroughly, you still have options beyond reading every single word on every page.  Here are some criteria I use for how best to read those select books that make it to the top of the pyramid.  You can think of this as pyramid at the top of the pyramid (notice I suggest reading every word of a book on the rarest of occasions)

  • Pleasure or Treasure?  If you’re reading a book of short stories, or that latest crime novel, or whatever your fun reading genre happens to be), then every word is the way to go.  After all, why miss any of the fun?  But if you are reading in order to gain new insights (treasure), reading every word might not be the best option.  Instead, look for the most prized parts of the book and read only those.
  • First and Last. Chapters.  A simple practice for getting 75% of what an author is trying to share is to read the first and last chapters of the book.  You could stop with just those two chapters, or you could use what you learn to target the rest of your reading.
  • First and Last Paragraphs.  Another helpful shortcut is to read only the first few paragraphs in a chapter as well as the final few paragraphs.  Depending on how the book is written, this practice can be a real time-saver.
  • Only the Best Chapters.  For most non-fiction books, there are entire chapters that can (and should be skipped).  Be discerning and read only those chapters that best fit your interests.  For the other chapters, skip or skim.
  • Read Every Word.  Now we’ve reached that rare air where only the best, most worthy books bask in the glow generated by your full and unwavering attention.  These are the books that are so important, so well-written, and so meaningful that they require and/or deserve that you devour every page, paragraph and period.

These are my suggestions for making the most of your reading.  What best practices have you found helpful?  Please share with the rest of us (we promise to read every word!).

About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.

17 thoughts on “How to Read a Book

  1. Disappointed. I have enjoyed and found useful most of the items on Transformed, but this article is disappointing. There is so much to be found in the innermost parts of so many books that I am surprised you would give this kind of advice. I think I am most disappointed in the fact that the advice seems to say that we should read every word of our fun books, but skim and skip in others. Apply that to the rest of life and ministry and see what you get. It sounds too much like the movie Click. I agree to be selective as time is precious, but dig in to as many as possible to find all the treasure and not just what is on the surface.

    1. Hi Aaron,
      Thanks for posting. I did not mean to give the impression that we should read every word of only fun books. Instead, I assume we will read every word of fun books AND that every book we deem worthy. I think a discerning approach will not just help us know which books to “skip and skim” but to also know which ones to read thoroughly. But this is just my approach. Your approach might be to read every word of every book you can, which is fine if that works for you.
      BTW, I loved the movie Click. I watched every minute of it. 🙂

  2. This reminds me of M.J. Adler’s book ‘How to Read a Book’. Contrary to Aaron above I appreciate your points. There is so many books and so much literature available now days and not all of it is worth your time. Sometimes you must be selective (especially those of us who do research). If someone learns how to recognize whether a book is worth their time it will make them more efficient, well-informed readers.

    1. Pop Quiz… who’s the co-author of “How to Read a Book” and what movie revolves around him (and a scandal!!)?

      1. Van Doren. He’s the guy the Movie ‘pop quiz’ (nice pun, by the way, Chad) was based on about a guy who got all the answers to a gameshow given to him.

        1. pop quiz: who should have read on through the comments of this article before posting the answer to the question about Van Doren as if he was the first one to answer?

  3. I have never noticed the co-author is the man from the quiz show scandals in the 1950s. What a brilliant mind to be used so deceptively.

  4. I do use skimming under certain circumstances. However, I do it with caution, especially if I plan to use the information I read somewhere else. While you can get the basic idea of a book with the techniques you describe, they have what could be bad consequences. What if a key point is in the middle that you skipped? I once read a book for review and I was very off-put by a comment the author made. If I had skimmed that book I may have missed his short explanation some 40 pages later, which made the statement earlier comment better.

    As for the other suggestions, I never buy/read a book unless I’ve read the back cover/jacket flap, the Table Of Contents, possibly the Introduction, and a few reviews. A practive I’ve learned when reading reviews is to read at least 2 or 3 reviews that gave a high rating, and 2 or 3 of the reviews that gave it a low rating. This way you get to see both the best and worst things pointed out before you begin. You may even find that, for you, the worst things that have been pointed out are a deal-breaker… then you can practice “Gone in 60 Seconds.”

    I’d also caution when reading reviews that if a low rating is given and there is no written review, or all it says is “This was terrible” or something to that effect… skip that review. That person could have an agenda, or they could just be a troll (internet term) out to cause trouble. Same for positive reviews that only say how great the book is, but not much else. If there is no substance to the review, it’s not helpful… move on to the next one.

  5. Chad, thanks for this. I too think there is good discernment in realizing when it may be poor stewardship of time to read every word of a book. That’s hard for me, however, given my goal oriented mentality sometimes “I just can’t leave this book unfinished!” This gave me a new perspectove of what “reading” can be.

    I’ve written a similar article at my site as well, though it deals more with comprehending and retention.

    Let me know what you think. It’s a system (said loosely) that seems to work well for me and is founded upon some principles in MJA’s book, using some modern day technologies.

  6. To be honest, I’ve skipped over the content of many books and even with the non-fiction books I’ve written, I would strongly encourage readers to read the stuff they really need and skip the rest. In the last book I wrote, the whole of the second half is designed with that in mind. But when I read about this approach in this post (most of which I skipped), I am struck by how arrogant it seems for us to say that we can skip sections of a book because the author has nothing for us in those sections. On the other hand, the fact is that no author can write a book that is tailored for every reader. People who are new to a subject will need different information than a reader who has experience with the subject. Many books have information for both.

  7. In college I learned to do #4 really well. Usually, I actually learn and retain more by skimming and skipping than by reading.

    I am so used to skimming and skipping that I struggle to slow down and actually read works of fiction.

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