Magnificent Monograph Monday: How to Read a Book

There’s a good plug over at Near Emmaus blog for How to Read a Bookwhich my friend Ian recommended to me, and which just came in the mail today. Especially any of you going back to school, see what Near Emmaus has to say about the book. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard multiple times now in recent weeks that it’s a good one.

Always read the conclusion first: More about how to speed read


I’ve learned a few more things about speed reading since I first started. In addition to what I already posted here, here are a few more methods I’ve found to be effective. I have always thought of myself as a slow reader and serial book non-finisher. If I can do these things, just about any other reader can. The below observations have come with further practice.

I read the conclusion before I read the book. I wrote before, “I glance through the entire book I’m about to read before diving in.” I’ve fine-tuned this process a bit. I still look at the table of contents and try to find the thesis of the book (if there is one) in the introduction and first chapter. Now–spoiler alerts be danged–I also read the conclusion or last chapter before reading the book. This way I know where the author is trying to go, and I can better evaluate along the way how he or she is doing in getting there. This is particularly useful for writing book reviews.

Along similar lines, I read the beginning and end of each chapter before I read that chapter. This works especially well for well-written books. I can then head into a chapter with a better idea of its thesis and conclusion. This applies only to non-fiction, which is all I’ve been reading as of late. Of course it would be a bad way to read a mystery novel!

I especially push myself to read faster with familiar subject content. Speed reading is all about consistently pushing oneself to read faster than is comfortable. I seek to really take advantage of this when I’m already familiar with the subject a book treats. For example, I can read a book on ethnic identity much faster than I could read a book on how to repair a car.

I read the first and last line of a given paragraph the most slowly. This presupposes good writing, but who of us is going to deliberately read a poorly written book? I slow down just a bit at the beginning and end of each paragraph to make sure I’m tracking well with the author.

I read chunks of words, not single words at a time. I actually saw one Website refer to this as “chunking.” (No, I thought, chunking is what my baby daughter does on my shoulder when I burp her.) HT to Brian Davidson for his comment in my last post about this. This goes along with the idea I mentioned earlier of “silencing the inner narrator’s voice” you may hear as you read. One thing I’m working on now–which may prove impossible–is reading whole clauses at a time. This is difficult to do when reading something for the first time (identifying what constitutes a clause takes a little work). But reading at least three or four words at a time helps speed things along.

In speed reading, “practice makes perfect” applies. Or, in this case, practice makes faster.

How to Speed Read (Or, at least, how I am learning to speed read)

I have often watched in awe as my wife sped through the book she was reading while I slogged through mine. But I have been teaching myself to speed read lately. The number of books I’ve been able to review for Words on the Word in the last month is perhaps evidence that what I’m trying is working.

Here’s what I’m doing to increase my reading speed:

  • I am pushing myself to read faster than is comfortable for me. This may sound like an obvious thing to do; it is. And it works great. I am still at the stages of sacrificing a bit of comprehension for the sake of speed, but my comprehension is already increasing as I practice more.
  • I try to discipline myself not to go back over words I’ve already read. It’s a temptation to go back, especially since I’m pushing myself to read faster, but it defeats the purpose. Keep moving forward.
  • I “silence the inner voice” that I hear when I read. I got this idea from the speed-reading site Spreeder (as well as the above two thoughts). At first I thought it just sounded cheesy, but then I realized they were right. Spreeder makes the point that when many of us first learned to read, we read out loud. With time we could read silently, but still with an inner voice pacing us. This means we will only ever read as fast as we can speak. But I want to be able to read faster than that. So far, so good.
  • I read as fast as I possibly can for less essential reading. If I’m reading a theology book for class or reviewing a commentary for this site, I can’t generally afford to lose comprehension. But if I’m reading a newspaper or magazine article, or something online, or a book for fun, I try to really push myself.
  • I glance through the entire book I’m about to read before diving in. I actually learned this from one of my college philosophy professors. Even 10 minutes glancing through the book, looking carefully at the table of contents, and poking around for the thesis in the introduction or first chapter helps me frame the book in such a way that I can better read it quickly.
  • I try to speed read when I’m well-rested. Ha. We just had our third child. “Well-rested” is relative here. But I do find that I speed read much better in the morning or early afternoon than at, say, 10:00 at night.
  • I don’t beat myself up if I decide to slow down for a section. Especially when comprehension and eventual recall is important, I let myself slow down if I need to. No need to stress.

As an encouragement, let me say that if a previously slow reader like me can learn to speed read, you can too! I had to demystify the process by just trying… and then trying some more. It’s not as hard or magical as it seems. But it sure makes reading more enjoyable, and I get to read more of what I want.

UPDATE: More lessons learned on speed reading here.