“Speed Reading” That Works: How to Intelligently Skim a Book

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension”

— Mortimer Adler

This article is part of our series on how to read a book.

The second level of reading concerns inspectional reading, a concept from The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler.

Inspectional Reading

There are two types of inspectional reading: systematic skimming, also known as pre-reading or intelligent skimming, and superficial reading.

Intelligently Skimming

The first type of inspectional reading is systematic skimming, which you can easily put into practice today. Here’s how you start:

Read the cover and preface. Start with a quick read of the cover, publishers blurb, and the preface to get a feel for the scope of the work. This will not only prime your brain for what you might read in its entirety, but it will help you mentally place the book in a category.

Read the table of contents, which will give you a feel for the map of the book. Where is the book taking you? How are you getting There? It’s amazing how many people just dive in reading without even glancing at the table of contents and yet, the author spends considerable time coming up with the table of contents (as that’s the spine of the book). With non-fiction books you often can’t sell them without having a detailed table of contents.

Understand the language of the book. This means skimming the index. Not only will this give you an idea for the range of topics covered but it will also tell you the other people the book connects to and the jargon used in the book.

Identify the pivotal points. At this point, you have an overview of the jargon and the journey the author is taking you on. It should be relatively easy to identify the pivotal chapter to the argument. Dive into these reading bits and pieces. How are they structured? How connected is it to the rest of the book? Is this a place you want to end up? Turn the pages and dive in here and there with a few paragraphs or even pages.

Read the end. Authors generally do a good job summarizing their work in the last few pages. This where they sum up what they think is most important about their work.

Listen to an interview. While this has nothing to do with the actual book, interviews can be a great way to get the gist of a book in 30m or so. Authors do so much promotion now that its relatively easy to find interviews. And of course, they use the best examples from the book in these interviews.

Deciding to Read a Book

That’s how you intelligently 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 intelligent skimming will:

  • save you a lot of time because most books are not worth reading
  • offer knowledge of the book’s blueprint and contents so you know where to find stuff if you need it in the future
  • and improve retention, if you decide to read the book in its entirety because you’ve primed your brain with the contents.

Superficial Reading

The second part of inspectional reading is superficial reading. This is used when you’re tacking a book that’s notably above your level. Most of us stop when we’re confused and ponder what’s being said but a superficial reading means that you quickly read start to finish without stopping to ponder the things you don’t understand. The reason this works is that by reading the book start to finish, you’ll have a great overview of what’s going on. You might only understand 25% of what’s going on but that’s better than nothing. Should you decide to go back and re-read the book, a lot of the things that gave you pause the first time would have been resolved. If you stop and go over everything you don’t understand on your first reading, you get lost. Sure you finish the book but you’ve lost sight of where you’ve been and where you’ve come.

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?”