I’d like to share with you a useful skill I picked up from a one-of-a-kind book called How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. Jim Rohn hipped me to this book years ago in one of his recorded seminars, and it’s very much worth a read. In philosophical yet accessible language (Adler was a philosopher who aimed his work at the average person), Adler dissects the art of reading and explains how to do it well. His system is multilayered, but one of the steps he recommends is quite straightforward and can be used immediately: skimming.
I used to feel that a nonfiction book should be read in the same way as a fiction book—front to back—and that anything else was, more or less, cheating. I’m wiser now. The ability to correctly skim a nonfiction book is a seriously useful skill. There are simply more books out there than there is time to read them, and they aren’t all good. We need a way to systematically separate the wheat from the chaff, and Adler’s method is straightforward, fairly quick, and easy to remember.
Skimming isn’t only about testing a book’s mettle. Skimming a book before reading it also helps us extract more value from it, though this may seem strange. By reviewing the book’s main arguments before reading it more deeply, we’re mentally preparing to receive them. What is the author trying to say? It’s a good idea to have an answer to this question before diving in.
Steps to skimming
Read the preface. Read it quickly, Adler suggests. The goal here is learn what the book is about and mentally “place it on a shelf” next to other books you’ve read about similar topics. Where does this book fit in with other books you’ve read?
Read the table of contents. Adler compares studying the table of contents to poring over a road map before taking a trip. Okay, so the analogy has broken down somewhat in the era of Google Maps, but you get the idea. What territory will you be traveling through? What will the author be covering?
Read the index. Again, quickly. What specific topics are covered in this book? The index tells us. If the index of a new book contains references to a half-dozen of your favorite authors, thinkers, and subjects, that’s a good sign! If virtually nothing in the index looks familiar to you, this book may be a challenging one or not useful to you at the moment. When you find a term that seems particularly important to the book’s argument (which should now be emerging in your mind), Adler suggests looking up a passage or two in order to see how the author makes her central points.
Read the pivotal chapter. Which chapter seems to be the most important? A good nonfiction book will often spend its first few chapters reviewing conventional wisdom and its last few chapters talking about the implications of the author’s Big Idea. But somewhere in the middle is the pivotal chapter, or maybe more than one. Find such a chapter and give it a quick read. You may not understand most of it, and that’s okay.
Read the end. It all comes together in the end, or it should, and a neat summary of the author’s argument can be expected. Adler says it better than I can here:
Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages. You do not want to miss this, even though, as sometimes happens, the author himself may be wrong in his judgment.
The whole process takes anywhere from 30-60 minutes, and you can remember the steps using the acronym PTIPE (Preface, Table of contents, Index, Pivotal chapter, End).
Adler’s method of systematic skimming gives us a tool for evaluating a potential read and quickly getting the gist of books we’re about to read (or decide not to read). Consider making it a part of your reading habit.