Reading Efficiently

by David Barker

How to read a non-fiction book

Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.

Seneca, Roman dramatist, philosopher and politician (5 BC – 65 AD)

The usual reason for reading a non-fiction book is to learn something. Maybe you have picked up a book on management skills. Maybe your boss suggested that you read a particular book. Or maybe you just want to improve your general knowledge.

Simply reading the book from cover to cover is most definitely not the best way to learn. Instead, you should use the following technique of ‘active reading’ to read the book in the most efficient way and ensure that you maximise your learning. A fast reading speed is worthless unless you retain what you learn.

Step 1 – think

The first step is to think about your reasons for reading this book. Ask yourself the following questions and take the time to jot down some answers.

  • What do you want to learn from this book?
  • What specific questions do you have about the subject?
  • What do you already know about the subject?

This last point is very important because of the way that our brains work. Facts and ideas are lodged in our memory by attachment to facts and ideas that are already there. So by thinking about the subject before starting your reading you will prime your brain and make it more receptive to the material that you are about to read.

Step 2 – preview

Once you know why you are reading the book, and what you hope to learn, you should preview the book. You can learn a lot about a book by quickly looking at the elements listed below.

Fly leaf, back cover, endpapers

These usually summarise the book in just a few words as well as telling you something about the author.

Table of contents

This is the map that guides you through the book. Most chapter titles are self explanatory and many tables of contents provide a quick summary of the contents of each chapter.

Foreword, preface, introduction

These sections usually explain the rationale of the book and why the author chose to write it. The introduction will often explain how the author intends the reader to use the book (for example, stating whether each chapter builds on the previous one or the chapters may be read independently).

Conclusion

If the final chapter is called ‘Conclusion’ or ‘Summary’, skim this as well.

Glossary

If the author has included a glossary of terms, browse through it to see whether or not the terms used are already familiar to you. If they are not, make a note to come back to the glossary to review it in more detail.

While previewing the book, it is also worth seeing whether notes are placed at the bottom of each page, collected at the end of each chapter or combined at the end of the book. Is there a bibliography, and are you familiar with any of the works listed? Are there illustrations, diagrams, photographs and so on? All this will help when you come to read the book by giving you a good understanding of how it is put together.

Read the ending first

When we were young we were told to read a book from front to back and not to cheat by skipping to the end to find out ‘whodunit’. But if you know what the conclusion of a book is, it becomes much easier to follow the author’s arguments through the text and you will learn and retain more.

The process of previewing a moderately-sized non-fiction book should take no more than about ten minutes. When you have finished the preview, you should then go back to your questions from Step 1.

Now that you know something about the book and what it contains, will your objectives be met and your questions answered if you go on to read the book? If the answer is no, then you can stop right there – and save yourself a lot of time. You have invested only about 15 minutes in thinking and previewing (and probably learnt something), which is a lot less time than most people spend ploughing through the first few chapters of a book word by word before giving up because they are bored or lose interest.

The 50-page rule

Some sources suggest that when reading a book, if you are struggling by the time you get to page 50 (or 100) then you should give up at that point. Unfortunately, if the book is a non-fiction book, the relevant information to your needs may be found after page 50. By performing a proper survey, you will understand the structure of the book much better, and may even decide to start reading it half way through.

Step 3 – skim (repeatedly)

Assuming that you have decided that there is value in further study of the book, you should now skim the entire book rapidly. Read the first and last paragraphs of each chapter in full, but skim over the rest of the text. Review any tables, pictures, and diagrams. Your aim at this stage is to understand the key ideas and major subordinate ideas of the book, as well as picking out the key facts. You should spend between five and ten minutes per chapter. At the end of each chapter take two or three minutes to make notes of what you have learnt, but also jot down further questions that have been prompted.

If you own the book then, as you skim, you can highlight or underline key passages that you want to return to.

At the end of this step, review your notes as well as your original questions and objectives. You might find that you have now done enough, but more likely you will find areas that you need to go back to in order to get a better understanding, so repeat this step, reading selectively and reading difficult passages more slowly. Keep adding to your notes and your questions.

After two or three passes, each one becoming more focused on particular parts of the book, you will find that you have extracted what you need to.

Step 4 – review

When you have finished reading the book, do not stop there. The most important step in ensuring long-term retention of information is still to come. Make a final review of your notes and questions. Some questions might remain unanswered, providing you with a starting point for further reading later.

You will now have read the book in a total time that is a lot less than if you had read from cover to cover in the normal way, but you will have understood and memorised a lot more than usual. It is now important that you consolidate that learning by coming back to your notes after one day, one week and one month.