“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves,
and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction
— Mortimer Adler
This article is part of our series on how to read a book.
The second level of reading concerns inspectional reading and is from How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
There are two types of inspectional reading: systematic skimming or pre-reading and superficial reading.
Systematic skimming shouldn’t take much time to master. Adler offers some suggestions about how to do it:
1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at its preface. Read each quickly. Note especially the subtitles or other indications of the scope or aim of the book or of the author’s special angle on his subject. Before completing this step you should have a good idea of the subject, and, if you wish, you may pause for a moment to place the book in the appropriate category in your mind. What pigeonhole that already contains other books does this one belong in?
2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip. It is astonishing how many people never even glance at a book’s table of contents unless they wish to look something up in it. In fact, many authors spend a considerable amount of time in creating the table of contents, and it is sad to think their efforts are often wasted.
3. Check the index if the book has one— most expository works do. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and of the kinds of books and authors referred to. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up at least some of the passages cited. The passages you read may contain the crux— the point on which the book hinges— or the new departure which is the key to the author’s approach and attitude.
4. If the book is a new one with a dust jacket, read the publishers blurb.
5. From your general and still rather vague knowledge of the book’s contents, look now at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument.
6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter. Above all, do not fail to read the last two or three pages, or, if these are an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book. Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages.
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That’s how you skim a book. Once you get some practice, it should take at most, an hour.
Skimming helps you reach to a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention? Why? Unless you’re reading for entertainment, if you can’t answer that question you can toss the book. Mastering this technique will save you a lot of time, offer knowledge of the books blueprint, and make it easier, should you decide, to read the rest of the book.
The second part of inspectional reading is superficial reading.
In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.
… What you understand by reading the book through to the end— even if it is only fifty percent or less— will help you when you make the additional effort later to go back to the places you passed by on your first reading. And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to.
The tremendous pleasure that can come from reading Shakespeare, for instance, was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, As You Like It, or Hamlet, scene by scene, looking up all the strange words in a glossary and studying all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never really read a Shakespearean play. By the time they reached the end, they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole.
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Superficial reading is the first step towards analytical reading – that is, understanding and interpreting a book’s contents.
Inspectional reading should be able to answer the questions, what kind of book is it? what is it about? and what is the structure, or blueprint, of the book “whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?”