How to read a book

In the past year or so I’ve changed the way I read factual books. Previously, I approached factual books much like fiction: start at the beginning, read on through, finish at the end, and hope I remembered it. I became increasingly frustrated, though, by my inability to recall key information that I’d found fascinating, perhaps just a day earlier, let alone weeks or months earlier. In the same way that I never bother to really learn the names of characters in novels, I realised I wasn’t learning the information I thought I was from my books. My new approach helps me get so much more out of the books I read, but is still a work in progress.

I got the basis of my new approach from reading a few blog posts and then a classic book on the subject: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Lincoln Van Doren 

Now, that is a long, and somewhat dry, book and I found it quite confusing in parts. However, it’s provided a solid basis on which to develop a technique that now works for me.

Pre reading

One of the biggest changes for me was to start actively ‘pre reading’ books. This means I read the title and think about what it means. I read the contents page and try to understand how the book is structured. I think a little about the questions that might be answered by the book, and the questions I want answered by the reading of the book. Then I read the introduction, and skim through the rest of the book, getting a sense of what each chapter is about, reading the first paragraph or so of each chapter, and paying attention to any pull quotes or other aspects that jump out at me.

This takes between 10 minutes to an hour depending on the book, but is amazingly effective in providing an overview of what the book is and what you might get out of it.

Based on this pre reading, I try to establish how useful the book will be, and how complicated. I am used to thinking of books as authoritative, but of course not all books are created equal, so this element of starting to really engage with what I think about the book is really important and has been challenging for me.

Reading the book

Once I’ve established the level at which I want to engage with the book, I start reading it more fully. At this point, the greatest addition I’ve made is to hold a pencil in my hand and to mark in the margin the bits that jump out as crucial to the argument of the author, or most interesting to me. A lot of writing includes a lot of explanation around the edges, and context, and some chapters may be interesting in passing, but not worthy of repetition. I mark the areas that I think I might want to find again, or which strike me in some way.

This shift to assessing what I’m reading as I read it has made a big difference to my ability to remain attentive and embed key points in my mind. And of course is really useful when I want to find a bit again.

Taking notes

And finally, when I’ve finished the book, or as I’m going if it’s particularly new to me, or long, I might take notes. Not all books warrant this, and I tend to only write notes when I think I’ll want to review a summary of the key points or actions. I write my notes on A6 note cards and paperclip them together. I’m not totally sold on this approach, but the advantages are that the notes can normally tuck in the book while I’m taking them, and double as a bookmark, and the handwriting means I’m not tied to a computer or screen, and I think the tactile element makes it sink in more. I find them more engaging to review than typed notes, as well.

Strengths of the approach

The key strength with this approach is that it’s relatively versatile, depending on the level of engagement I want to make with a book. I can stop at the pre reading stage, or take comprehensive notes, and there are levels in between.


It’s not perfect, though. The note taking element in particular can be long winded and become boring. I think I’ve not quite cracked this yet.

And confusing structures or concepts can stay confusing without serious attention. That is, it doesn’t magically solve comprehension problems.

It’s also atrocious for reading ebooks. I used to like reading factual books on my Kindle, but it was this that led me to realise I need to change. I was reading and reading, but not remembering. I have started buying all my factual books in print format now.

What next?

I’ve been reading this way for nearly a year and it’s still a work in progress. So, comments and advice welcome. I’d especially love to be able to go back to using the Kindle, so thoughts on that would be particularly useful.

2 Replies to “How to read a book”

  1. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and 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—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot 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:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  2. I’m allowing this comment and link through for reference in case anyone is interested. (I watched the trailer and it’s not to my taste, personally.)

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