Learn a Book’s Best Ideas in 20 Minutes

Why you don’t need to read an entire book to learn from it.

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

In The Creative Habit, author and choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.” Tharp, probably like us, reads for specific, transactional, purposes. For example, she’s often looking for concepts, patterns and situations that will connect with her audience. If you’re reading with a similar goal of learning in mind, making time to read is important, as is deciding what to read.

Author Laura Vanderkam proposes that you could spend the time you’re reading articles (like this one) on reading books. It’s a great idea, save for one possibility: most of the books you and I are considering probably aren’t really worth reading in full. Authors might write books for all sorts of reasons (e.g., prestige, fame, money, etc.), which gives them a reason to write a book when the idea could have been communicated in an article.

“Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension,” authors Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren say in their book, How to Read a Book. “It is wasteful to read a book slowly that deserves only a fast reading; speed reading skills can help you solve that problem.”

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1. Look at the title page and read the preface.

Notice the subtitles, indications of the book’s scope and goals, and how the author frames the subject.

2. Study the table of contents.

Look for the chapters most interesting or challenging to you; they might be the ones likeliest to answer the questions you’re asking, or dive deep into the topics that resonate with you.

3. Check the index.

Look at the subjects the author references, as well as the terms with the largest numbers of references, to get an idea of what is important in this book.

4. Read the publisher’s blurb on the back cover (or the inside flap of a hardcover).

If it’s all fluff, then maybe the book is as well.

5. Look at the chapters most important to the book’s argument.

If there are summaries in the opening and closing pages of the chapters, read them carefully.

6. Read the conclusion.

As you turn through the book’s pages (guided by the table of contents or a reference from the index), read a couple of paragraphs at a time, never more than several pages in sequence. Read the conclusion; there’s a chance the main points of the book are summarized there.

Adler and Van Doren also recommend four questions to keep in mind as you skim through your book:

What is the book about as a whole?

What is being said in detail and how?

Is this book true, in whole or part?

What of it?

With an inspectional reading, you may be able to make very educated guesses about the four questions, but you won’t be able to answer them accurately until you’ve read the whole thing and clearly understand the author’s points.

However, you will be in a position to decide you know enough about the book to know you don’t need to know it better; maybe it doesn’t answer the questions you want it to answer, or it’s not a book that challenges you, and you’re better off reading something else.

As you inspect the book, treat it like you’re having a conversation with the author. You can respond to what you read by writing in the book, or copying the best quotes into a commonplace book. I typically also set a timer for 20 minutes when I skim a book, and recommend you do the same; the deadline keeps me moving forward.

In describing the way she reads, Tharp writes, “I have to ‘own’ it. I scribble in the margins, I circle sentences I like and connect them with arrows to other useful sentences. I draw stars and exclamation points on every good page, to the point where the book is almost unreadable. By writing all over the pages, I transform the author’s work into my book — and mine alone.” Adler and Van Doren, proponents of taking notes and connecting recurring arguments and ideas together, would approve.

Despite scratching only the surface of the book, finding the best 5% of a book and reading it, is better than reading 0% of it and leaving it stuck on your shelf for years (a situation I’m all too familiar with).

After inspecting books in the past few weeks, I learned about and implemented a new, very useful, note-taking system, unearthed new references on a research topic, and picked up a book I’d partially read and found it resonated much more. The new insights and energy I got from the books were well worth the 20 minutes I spent giving each of them an inspectional reading (less than an episode of The Office on Netflix).

That’s certainly not to say you should speed read through everything, nor to ever make time to read a book in full for understanding or pleasure. Speed typically comes with its own costs; in this case, the tradeoff with speed is one of reading comprehension.

Inspectional reading provides, at best, a superficial understanding, and is not a replacement for reading a whole book. After my initial 20 minute timer rang, I dug deeper into parts of the books I was inspecting, curious to learn more. I’ll quote Adler’s and Van Doren’s philosophy on this: “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”

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