Yesterday in an informal, non-academic situation an upperclassman approached me with, “Professor Fritz, I have a question.” Generally that means the question has something to do with school. I enjoy this kind of interaction, so I was eager to hear her problem. Her concern was a five page paper on a book she had not read. She needed help figuring out how to read an entire book and write a report in a couple busy days. So, I passed on some of the most practical wisdom I received from my mentor, Dr. Robert Clinton.

You don’t have to read every word in a book to “read a book.” In fact, to linearly read a book from front to back can be a waste of time. There are too many books that should be read to approach them in such a time consuming manner. Instead, we should expedite reading.

Dr. Clinton teaches that we should read purposefully. That is, we should have an idea of what we want to get from a book before we read it. Knowing what we want to get from a book helps us choose our reading strategy for that book. Then he proposes that we read on a continuum, from scan to study with four steps in between. Each of the six steps of the reading continuum requires a different reading strategy.

Here are the steps that I generally follow when reading an academic book.

  1. I carefully study the cover and dust-cover of the book. What can I learn about the author, his or her point, and the process to prove that point from the material that was placed on the outside of the book? Often you can gain a pretty good understanding of the contents of the book from this first step. I judge a book by its cover.
  2. I carefully study front matter of the book. Are there endorsements? What do they say? What is written in the introduction, preface, and table of contents. This material will generally give you a pretty good understanding of where the book wants to take you and how it intends to get you there. Sometimes the first chapter is really an introduction. If that is the case, I carefully read it.
  3. I look over the material at the back of the book. Is there a “conclusion?” If so, I read that. What appendices are included? What can I learn about the book and its contents from the concluding material?
  4. By this point, I have a pretty good idea about the author’s message and how the argument is organized. This knowledge equips me to accurately determine how deeply I want to delve in. Sometimes I quit at this point. Other times I proceed with skimming the book, spending more time in the places that are particularly interesting. If I am really interested in what the author is saying, I will begin reading from the front.
I explained to the student that she could probably get the gist of the book by following these steps to the skimming point which would probably take her an hour or so. This would give her enough knowledge to write a good paper and intelligently engage in the class discussion.