How to Read A Book: A Student’s Guide to Non-Fiction


University professors love to assign mounds of reading. Looking at the book lists for your classes and realizing it’s impossible to get through them  by term’s end is a sucky yet common experience. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Why do they do this, though? Are they just a bunch of sadists in tweed coats? How could they possibly think students have time to read five books for one class? Don’t they know that means 25 books a term?

Here’s secret number one: your profs don’t even have time to do that much reading. Yes, they’re full-time in the learning game. But mostly they’re busy preparing lectures, grading, attending committee meetings,  answering emails, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Occasionally they do some research.

So if they can’t keep up with the readings — or least can’t afford to spend roughly 168 hours a week with their nose in a book — why do they assign so much to you? Are they all gathered by the departmental Xerox machine snickering into their walnut pipes about the suffering they’ve managed to inflicted on you?

Well the truth is they have a technique. And for some reason nine out of ten of them don’t think to share it.

It’s strange. Everyone gets instruction in writing via feedback on the papers they write. But little is taught about how to read a book.

But that all changes when you begin your doctorate. (Not that you need to get a PhD, that’s just where I learned this.)  Once you’ve been through four years of undergrad courses and two years of Master’s seminars and thesis writing, then — and only then! — will they bestow upon you the secret knowledge. [Cue awesome gong sound.] It’s the knowledge that would’ve saved you unending hours of pain muttering curses at wordy textbooks in hipster coffee shops. It’s the knowledge of how to read.

I don’t mean read-read. We all know how to do that. I mean how to rip the guts out of a 300-page non-fiction book in an hour. Yep, that’s often how long your professors spend on a book. One hour.

How in tarnation is that possible? It’s a technique born of necessity, but it works. In the course of a PhD program you’ll have to complete “comprehensive exams” that test you on the contents of 150-200 books. You’ve got one year to get that reading done. When you factor in weekends, holidays, sick time, and days you inevitably must devote to tasks other than reading, you might be left with 200 days in a year to work on that. Which means you’ve got to get through a book a day.

So you’ve got to get through that book quickly. Simple math precludes reading it cover-to-cover. There just isn’t enough time.

This, however, is a good thing. Because reading cover-to-cover often leads to drowning in details without seizing the book’s main point. Ever have that problem where you read a book and then some asks you what it was about? Uhh, it was, um, it’s was about like, uh, this guy. And he was, um, he was  the president, of like this country? Yeah, I think I’ll have to go back…

That’s what comes of passively reading front-to-back. Novels are a different animal and need to be read one word after another. They build suspense all the way through, and if you don’t follow the structure outlined by the writer, you’ll spoil the whole business.

But non-fiction is designed differently. Especially academic work. There’s no suspense. Any author worth his or her salt will expose the main ideas in the prologue or introduction, and will summarize them in the conclusion. This applies to the entire book and to each chapter. In other words all the key information is found at the extremities. So that’s where you should start.

Reading non-fiction is like eating pizza. You need to nibble on the edges and work your way in. Unless you want to get sauce all over your face.

I’m not saying you should ignore the deep dark interior of the work you’ve been assigned. I’m just suggesting you approach your reading in a different order. An ideal reading order might look like this:

  1. Read the prologue. This is usually only a couple of pages. By the end of this, you should already have heard about the book’s main ideas. Note them down.
  2. Read the conclusion. If it’s a long, read the last paragraph first. This is where the author should give the last word on what this book is really about and why it matters. And those are the things your professor wants you to know.
  3. Read the introduction. This will also lay out the book’s main questions and will suggest how the author intends to answer them.

If you’ve done this, you should have a clear idea of what the book is about. These are the  sections that reveal the high-level, conceptual elements of the work. The lack of detail in these chapters is a good thing. It allows you to zero in on what’s  important. Then, when it comes time for class discussion, written responses, mid-terms, or final papers, you know you’ll be on the mark. Your prof is far more likely to appreciate your  grasp on the book’s main point than your ability to cite random details.

From this point, you can delve deeper as time allows and as the nature of your course assignments require. Do this as follows:

  1. Identify the chapters you are going to examine. If the table of contents shows that the book is divided into parts, choose at least one from each part.
  2. Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter you’ve chosen. From this you should be able to seize the essence of the chapter material.
  3. If you want to go further, identify all the chapter subsections. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each one. Continue reading if necessary, or if the book is so good you actually want to.

Of course some books lack proper introductions and conclusions. These books suck to read. These books are chrono-monsters. They eat your time without mercy. The only way to heal the wounds they cause is by writing a critical-yet-polite email to the author:

Dear Evil Genius,
I’m interested in your ideas but I found your book inaccessible. Might you think of including more comprehensive introductions and conclusions in your future work?
Some Frazzled Twenty-Year-Old
p.s. You owe me four hours.

To conclude, please don’t send this post to your angry professors when they discover you didn’t read all the material. No one likes a grouch in a tweed coat.

Anyway, I’m not advocating  you skip your readings. By all means, if you have the time, read every page. But start at the edges. That way, by the time you reach the steamy jargon-jungle at the book’s heart, when details supporting the book’s thesis are assailing you left and right, you might actually know what that thesis is.

At the very least, instead of showing up completely unprepared because you didn’t have time to read those three seminar papers front-to-back, you’ll have skimmed the intros and conclusions while busing to class. If you do it that way, who knows? You might even get more than a simple attendance mark out of the session.

If you do execute this “pizza reading” technique, make sure to perk your ears up on the last Sunday before final grades are due, right around midnight. Somewhere your professor will be madly marking your term paper, and you just might hear a soft noise. That, dear student, is the sound of happy tears falling on tweed.


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