Skim reading: How to read a difficult book or article

Dr Anna Marie Roos, University of Lincoln

[partially adapted from and inspired by Mortimer Adler (1940, rev. 1972), How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education]

Sometimes, people find that the book or article which they open with high hopes of enlightenment turns out to be beyond their grasp. Actually, any book intended for the general reader can be understood if you approach it in the right way. What is the right approach? The answer lies in one important rule of reading. You should read a book or article through superficially before you try to master it.

First, read the handy author’s introduction; this will give you background information that you may find helpful, or at least some context.

Then, look first for the things you can understand and refuse to get bogged down in the difficult passages. Read right on past paragraphs, footnotes, arguments and references that escape you. there will be enough material which you can immediately grasp … even if it is only 50 percent or less – that will enable you to understand the book or article in part.

A variation on the method of giving a book a first superficial reading is the technique of skimming. You will never get from skimming what reading and study can give you, but it is a very practical way of dealing with the mass of books available to you. By skimming you can get, often with surprising accuracy, a general sense of the contents of a book or article.

For skimming or reading, the following steps are a good way to begin giving a book or article the once-over.

  1. Look at the title page and preface and note especially the sub-titles or other indications of the scope and aim of the book/article or the author’s special angle. What you are doing here is looking for the author’s argument, his main theme. It is crucial to get this to understand the book or article.
  1. Study the table of contents to get a general sense of the article’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip.
  1. Check the index for the range of subjects covered or the kinds of authors quoted. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look them up. You may find the key to the author’s approach.

Now you are ready to read the article or skim through it, as you choose. If you vote to skim it, look at the chapters which contain pivotal passages or summary statements in their opening or closing pages. Then dip into a page here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in a sequence. Thumb through the book/article in this way, always looking for the basic pulse beat of the matter.

One word of warning: If you use this approach and start to skim through a book or article, you may end up discovering that you aren’t skimming it at all. You are reading it, understanding it and enjoying it. When you put it down, it will be with the realisation that the subject wasn’t such a tough one after all.

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