How to Approach Reading a Book

This book delineates four levels of reading styles, progressing from the basic reading to inspectional reading, analytical reading, and thematic reading. Each corresponds to distinct methodologies.

While you may have already practiced this approach casually, the author has disassembled, quantified, and standardized the act of reading. This abstraction and synthesis of reading methods can guide and assist many individuals in reshaping their reading behaviors, enhancing reading efficiency, much like the “design patterns” in the programming world.

I encountered this book during my college years in physical form, but it was a hasty library pick that felt somewhat tedious due to its methodological approach. Recently, while browsing on Kindle, I rediscovered it, and halfway through, I regretted not appreciating this remarkable book earlier.

I have now organized my past notes and recent reflections, and I am sharing them with you all.

Basic Reading

At this level, the primary aim is to escape illiteracy, to recognize words, and comprehend their meanings. The fundamental question is, “What is this sentence saying?” Please note that the reading objective determines the approach. If you are faced with a book in a foreign language, even achieving basic reading competency might prove challenging.

Inspectional Reading

This level necessitates systematic skimming and scanning. It empowers you to grasp the essence of a book within a limited timeframe. Inspectional reading encompasses two sub-stages: skimming and scanning.


Skimming is a filtering technique that allows you to understand a book’s main arguments and expressions in a short amount of time. It helps determine if a book merits in-depth reading.

The skimming methodology involves:

  1. Examining the book title, paying special attention to subtitles, and reading the author’s preface. This quickly reveals the book’s main idea.
  2. Perusing the table of contents to gain an overview of the book’s structure.
  3. Checking the index to pre-read essential keywords and discover topics of personal interest.
  4. Reviewing introductions to understand the book’s influence and authority, including back covers, book jackets, endorsements, and translator’s prefaces.
  5. Exploring key chapters, which are those most relevant to the theme. Primarily, these are chapter introductions and final summaries, which convey the author’s core viewpoints.

Following steps 1 through 4 provides you with the book’s main idea and structural framework. Step 5 complements this by offering a summary of the book’s content and core points.

After skimming, you’ll have sufficient information to decide if the book warrants further, more detailed reading. If you wish to proceed with speed-reading, you’ll need to enter the next stage: scanning.


Scanning involves quickly reading the entire book from start to finish after gaining an overview of the book’s main arguments and content. During scanning, do not get bogged down by details or challenging passages. When encountering unfamiliar content, resist the urge to pause for clarification or contemplation. Concentrate solely on the parts you understand.

Traditional education often emphasizes pausing to investigate areas of confusion, adopting a “dig deep” learning method. While this approach has its merits, it is temporarily set aside during scanning. Some questions may initially perplex you, but subsequent chapters may naturally resolve these questions. Others may persist, but that is acceptable. You can revisit and address them during later study sessions. The key is not to disrupt your “reading momentum”.

Extensive time spent on details and difficulties can lead to frequent shifts in cognitive context, increasing the mental effort and patience required for reading. It may also elongate the reading process and risk losing control of the overall book. Sometimes, when you return to a book you’ve read halfway through after some time has passed, it feels like a new book. You must invest time in reconstructing the context of your prior reading and reacquainting yourself with the reading state.

Inspectional reading combines skimming and scanning, enabling you to grasp a book’s main argument and general content within a limited timeframe.

Reading Speed

Reading speed varies among individuals and depends on the level of reading. However, for the specific context of speed-reading, the demand for speed is more apparent and, therefore, is addressed under speed-reading.

From children to adults, the ability to read quickly, such as “reading ten lines at a glance,” often appears to be an extraordinary skill. Books, novels, and television frequently depict protagonists with the “ability to read quickly and remember instantly.” These portrayals reinforce a subconscious belief that faster reading equates to faster learning. Various speed-reading techniques and training programs have arisen as a result.

An excellent speed-reading course should teach different reading speeds rather than blindly pursuing speed without considering your current mastery level. Reading speed should be adjusted according to the nature and complexity of the material.

《How to Read a Book》

Reading speed should adapt to different reading scenarios. The auxiliary goal of reading speed is comprehension. Only when comprehension and reading speed are optimally matched can reading efficiency be maximized.


The extent to which reading speed negatively affects comprehension varies depending on the context. For example, it differs between news articles, information streams, novels, and textbooks. Additionally, within specific sections of a given text, the impact varies. For instance, “Part Three: Reading Different Types of Works” in this book is less affected than “Part Two: The Third Level of Reading - Analytical Reading.”

Improving comprehension necessitates advancing to the next level of reading: analytical reading.

Analytical Reading

Analytical reading is the most essential level of reading, involving a thorough, comprehensive examination of a book and the ability to digest and understand it fully.

Clarifying the Structure

Thoroughly comprehending a book’s structure helps you quickly identify its themes and focal points. However, there’s no need to read an entire book to apply these four rules repeatedly; real readers complete all stages in one go.

Classifying the Book (1)

Categorize the book and know which type you are reading. The earlier you discern this, the better, as it will allow you to apply different reading methods. You can establish your classification criteria for books.

For instance: This book falls into the category of practical methodology.

Summarizing the Book’s Content (2)

Summarize the book’s content in as few sentences as possible to express the book’s entire content.

For instance: This book guides and enhances reading efficiency by categorizing reading behavior into four levels.

Understanding the Book’s Structure (3)

Understand the book’s structure and its relationship to the main theme. Create an outline of the critical sections that outline how these parts relate to the book’s main theme. The author also provides an outline template:

  1. The book’s composition, divided by the author into five parts, with the first part discussing one thing, the second part discussing another, the third part discussing something different, the fourth part presenting different viewpoints, and the fifth part addressing other matters.
  2. The section’s composition: The first major section is divided into three stages: Stage X, Stage Y, and Stage Z.
  3. Stage composition: In the first stage of the first part, the author has four key points: the first point is A, the second point is B, the third point is C, the fourth point is D, and so on.

Essentially, this involves breaking down and subdividing a book to help you grasp the main points better. This is just one of the author’s provided templates; personally, I prefer using mind maps.

Addressing the Author’s Questions (4)

Identify the questions the author wants to answer. Every book has its primary theme, and the author’s questions and main theme are typically aligned. However, this step reinforces your focus on content and structure.

Interpreting the Content

Establishing Keyword Consensus (5)

Once the book’s structural outline is clear, the next objective is to identify keywords, eliminate ambiguity, and establish consensus with the author regarding their meaning and message. Since words are an imperfect medium for conveying knowledge, the interpretation of a term can differ depending on the context. Some words are polysemous or require additional context to be understood. To accurately interpret the author’s content and message, you need to identify essential words, seek consensus on them with the author, and not merely rely on the author’s terminology. While important words are relatively scarce and less ambiguous, their significance is paramount. The author often dedicates an entire section to such words. Thankfully, most authors today explicitly clarify potentially ambiguous words and provide explanations for specialized terms. However, it’s crucial to eliminate ambiguity regarding key information, allowing for a correct interpretation of the author’s content. Additionally, inferring word meanings from context is a vital skill.

Identifying the Author’s Main Point

Identifying the author’s main point is an integral aspect of reading. The book devotes considerable attention to this stage. From a certain perspective, the author’s main point directly influences the book’s quality. Further reading on “The Art of Asking Questions” can expand your understanding. The process of finding the main point and relating it to the overall message is crucial, as emphasized in these sections.

Key sentences—these are the most important sentences within the entire argument. They either constitute the author’s judgments throughout the discussion or appear around important keywords. Locating these key sentences is essential for understanding the author’s main point, and fortunately, most authors explicitly highlight them.

Many people believe they know how to read because they can read at different speeds. However, they often pause in the wrong places and read slowly. They pause for sentences that interest them but not for sentences that puzzle them.

《How to Read a Book》

Implicit main points, where the author does not explicitly express their main point, require you to construct the main point from related sentences. “Implicit Main Point” illustrates this process.

If you cannot say what the author’s main point is, you have not understood the author.

《How to Read a Book》

Understanding the main point is essential, and the author’s argument is used to support this point.

The Author’s Answers (8)

After thoroughly understanding the book’s structure, interpreting the content correctly, and finding the author’s main point and argument, you should examine the information you have gathered and formulate deeper questions:

  • Which questions did the author intend to answer, and what solutions did they propose?
  • Did they introduce new questions while attempting to solve problems?
  • Regardless of whether these are new or existing questions, which ones remain unanswered?
  • Among the unanswered questions, which ones did the author acknowledge as unsolvable?

Rational Examination

This chapter delves into critical thinking and the quality of commentary.

A good book deserves active reading, but active reading does not entail pausing to contemplate what you have already understood. It requires you to critique, provide criticism, and genuinely engage with the material.

Someone who cannot independently exercise judgment cannot learn anything. Perhaps they can be trained, but they cannot be educated. Therefore, the best learners are the best critics.

《How to Read a Book》

  1. Fully grasp the book before forming conclusions.
  2. Express your opinions rationally; avoid baseless arguments.
  3. Respect the distinctions between knowledge and personal viewpoints. Base judgments on objective theoretical foundations rather than personal opinions.

Analytical reading (steps 1 to 11) concludes here: clarifying the book’s structure, accurately interpreting the author’s content, identifying the author’s main point and argument, summarizing the author’s questions and solutions, and engaging in a rational discussion of your reading experience.

Thematic Reading

Thematic reading involves focused reading on a specific theme. This approach is particularly useful in professional settings, where in-depth research on a particular field or specific problem requires an extensive collection of books and materials. Using inspectional reading for each book in such cases would significantly decrease reading efficiency. Therefore, thematic reading is employed.

The prerequisite for thematic reading is a well-compiled theme and corresponding booklist. Emphasizing once more: your focus should be on your theme of interest, not the books you read.

After gathering your booklist, the first step is to use inspectional reading to assess all the books on your list. Inspectional reading serves two primary purposes:

  1. It provides you with a clear concept of the theme you wish to study. This aids in focused analytical reading of select books in the list.
  2. It helps eliminate books that are unimportant or irrelevant to your research, streamlining your reading list.

Second, you need to identify relevant sections of the books. Remember, your primary goal is not to understand the entire content of each book but to determine how each book can assist with your theme.

In thematic reading, books serve you, not the other way around.

《How to Read a Book》

Third, lead the authors to a consensus with you. Unlike analytical reading, where you reach a consensus with a single author, now you are dealing with multiple authors. These authors will not use the same keywords or reach the same consensus. It is your responsibility to establish this consensus, rather than following theirs.

Fourth, determine the main point and list questions. Whether or not the authors have explicitly addressed these questions, you should assume they have answered them or have attempted to do so.

Sometimes we must accept the fact that a question may be so vague or ambiguous that it cannot be answered. If, in fact, we can get by without answering any of the questions at issue, it may be that we had no problems in the first place.

《How to Read a Book》

Fifthly, in response to inquiries, delineate the primary and ancillary topics.

The author arranges various viewpoints on each issue alongside different topics. Keep in mind that there may not necessarily be a specific topic among various authors or within a single author. At times, you need to interpret their perspectives on matters beyond the author’s primary concern to construct such topics.

"How to Read a Book"

Sixthly, conduct a hierarchical analysis and discussion regarding the topics. Sometimes a question may not possess a definite answer, yet we can still record the analytical process as an outcome and as a valuable research foundation to assist others.

Concerning the truth we can discover and the answers to the questions we can find, it is more accurate to say that it is based on the discussion itself, which is clearly ordered. We must pose specific questions in a particular order and be able to discern why this order exists. We must expound upon the different answers to these questions and provide the reasons. Furthermore, we must be capable of identifying the basis for classifying the answers in this manner from the books we have examined. Only when we accomplish all of this can we claim to have analyzed the discussion of our questions and truly comprehend the issues.

"How to Read a Book"

On Good Books

Reading for information, just like reading for entertainment, cannot assist in your intellectual growth. While it may appear that you have progressed, it is only because your mind now possesses information it did not have before you read this book. However, your intellect remains fundamentally unchanged; only the quantity of your reading has altered, with no improvement in skill.

"How to Read a Book"

Reading a good book, on the other hand, will yield rewards for your efforts. The best books provide the greatest returns. These rewards come in two forms: firstly, when you successfully read a challenging and excellent book, your reading skills inevitably improve. Secondly, over the long term, this is even more important: a good book can teach you about the world and yourself. You gain not only an improved ability to read but also a deeper understanding of life. You become wiser, not just more knowledgeable, as books that merely provide information do. You become a sage, with a profound appreciation and insight into the eternal truths of human existence.

"How to Read a Book"

You must seek out books that hold special value for you. Such books can teach you much about reading and life. These are the books you will want to read and reread. They are the ones that will aid in your continuous growth.

"How to Read a Book"