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Systematic Reading: a quick guide to getting past intimidation

Systematic Reading: a quick guide to getting past intimidation

Reading books is arguably one of the most worthwhile things you can do with your time. But despite knowing this, many simply don't do it. There are a slew of reasons why this may be the case, one of which I'll tackle--and propose a solution to--here.

Reading can be intimidating. Books--especially those worth reading--can be difficult to read and digest for numerous reasons. Factor in shortening attention spans and an overwhelming selection of what to read and it's no surprise many choose news feeds over Thoreau.

To narrow our focus, let's look at the intimidation factor. For a book to really benefit you, it must pose a challenge. Just like with lifting weights, if the weight is too light, you don't gain anything. If a book is too easy, you're not learning, not growing. But a challenging book doesn't have to be intimidating, you just need to know how to approach it. Enter Mortimer J. Adler's Inspectional Reading technique from How to Read a Book. With the inspectional reading approach, you can get 75-80% of the value of a book with 10-20% of the time commitment.

The Process of Inspectional Reading

This approach works well for anything nonfiction; everything from journal articles to textbooks to pop psychology and centuries-old philosophy. The Adler approach is, in step with How to Read a Book itself, a little dense and bloated, so I've summed it up a bit. Pick up a nonfiction book, a pencil, a notebook, and follow along:

Step One - The Metadata

Familiarize yourself with the book. This seems obvious, but it's important. Read the title, the subtitle, and the synopsis on the inside cover/back of the book. Give the author a quick google if you're not already familiar with them. On the top of a fresh page in your notebook, write down the title and author.

Step Two - The Structure

Review first the table of contents and then the index. Get first an idea of the structure of the book and then an overview of what the author seems to deem important. This can be indicated by page space, especially in the index. Anything with a lot of instances in the book is probably important to their argument. Write these concepts/words down in your notebook.

Also, look for anything, in particular, that jumps out at you, anything that sparks particular interest. During Step Two, feel free to flip to a referenced page of any item of importance or interest and skim over the page. If anything makes you go "huh, how about that," write that down.

After completing Step Two, you should have a pretty good, if vague, idea of how the book is structured, what arguments/points the author is trying to make, and what particular items of interest you may find. You've also created a de facto index of your own in your notebook.

Step Three - Systematic Skimming

Now, starting at the beginning, skim through each chapter/section. I recommend reading the preface of the book, the introductory paragraph to each chapter, the final paragraph of each chapter, and the concluding chapter of the book. In between these, rapidly skim everything else. Look for anything the author is deliberately calling attention to via bold or italicized text, illustrations, etc. Look for key phrases such as "in summary," or "to sum things up" and so on. Most good nonfiction writers will repeat their key points a few times.

Take notes as you go along, write down page numbers of sections you want to revisit, jot down words you may not know. When you're finished, see if you can sum up the main point/key value of the book in a few sentences. Congratulations, you just read a challenging book even if you didn't read every single word.

For a lot of books, you can just stop here. You've gained 75-80% of the value in a fraction of the time. Move on to the next book. Some books, though, will grab your attention and you'll want to dive in for a close read. Go for it! You'll find this to be likely very rewarding as you already have a really strong foundation of knowledge built from the inspectional reading.

In Conclusion

Books can be intimidating but they needn't be, not with the correct approach. Don't be afraid to skim, just do it systematically. Reading a book isn't doing a service to the author, it's about doing a service to yourself. If you can get most of the benefit with a fraction of the investment, go for it. That just means there's more time for more books. Happy reading.