How to Read a Book and Become a Better Reader!

-Nishant Kolgaonkar, Head, Human Resources- SOTC Travel


One day in the library of my MBA institute, I came across a book which had a  unique title – ‘How to Read a Book’. I was quite intrigued  and painstakingly managed to read it. Published in 1940 by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, I contains a wealth of information about reading. Basically the authors suggest that there are four levels of reading a book — Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical and Syntopical.

I would like to share some secrets which I gleaned from the book that will motivate you to read books and become a better reader!

So how does one read a book?

  • Start with the author. Who wrote the book? Read his or her bio. If you can find a brief interview or article about the author or interview about the book or book review online, read that quickly. It will give you a sense of the person’s bias, perspective and general information about the book.
  • Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents. What’s the big-picture argument of the book? How is that argument laid out? By now, you could probably describe the main idea of the book to someone who hasn’t read it.
  • Read the preface, introduction and the conclusion. The author makes their case in the opening and closing argument of the book. Read these three sections word for word but quickly. You already have a general sense of where the author is going ( preface), and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion).
  • Read/skim each chapter. Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last. If you get the meaning, move on. Otherwise, you may want to read the whole paragraph. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself.
  • End with the table of contents again. Once you’ve finished the book, return to the table of contents and summarize it in your head. Take a few moments to relive the flow of the book, the arguments you considered, the stories you remember, the journey you went on with the author.

Throughout my reading, I try to make mental notes in preparation for my conversation with the author. Where do I agree? Where do I disagree? What questions are still simmering? What might I want to discuss with others or think more about in the coming days? What more information I need to search?

Here’s the interesting thing about reading a book like this: while it’s much faster than traditional reading (it takes me 1–2 hours to read a book, instead of the usual 6–8), and most importantly you will be able to retain far more. That’s because you’re not simply reading the material; you’re actively engaging with it. Your mind is alert the whole time, and you’re able to see the book more holistically. You’re not just taking it in; you’re figuring it out.

How to be a better reader

Most of the reading difficulties will be caused by a problem listed below. Of course, when two or more of these problems happen together, our chances of understanding will be even smaller.

  • the text has many unknown words
  • the text has long, complicated sentences
  • the text is about a topic you know nothing about
  • the text is about a topic you find boring
  • the text has small print, long paragraphs, no pictures
  • the text has been badly written
  • you are feeling tired
  • you are distracted

You can’t do anything about the print of book or fonts. But you can certainly curb the distractions.

The secret lies in understanding books and not reading it word – for – word like fiction books. Fiction demands that we enter a world of the author’s making, inspiring a more immersive experience. Nonfiction or business books— at least the type we tend to read to support our work as professionals , managers and business leaders — makes a point and asks us to learn from it. As readers, we gain momentum with each book we read. The more we read, the more quickly we can understand their perspectives. In other words, the more books we read, the faster it goes. You must note that reading the PR materials is insufficient for understanding a book, and executive summaries are awful. I have never read an executive summary that came close to conveying what’s interesting and useful about an author’s work.

So how can we read a book or more a week?

  • Think of reading as a necessity, not a luxury and hence always have a book with you.
  • Know your reading purpose – The way you read a book or a text depends very much on your reasons for reading it.
  • Stop reading books you don’t enjoy – Read what you want to read, not what you feel pressured to read
  • Choose the appropriate reading speed – The following speed reading methods will be the best choice:
  • Skimming – this is reading a text quickly to find out what information it contains. Check the bibliography or references in the end. You should skim when, for example, you want to check if a text has the information you need to answer some questions or write a project. It is often enough to look at the first (and last) sentences in each paragraph.
  • Scanning – this is reading quickly to find a specific piece of information. You should scan when, for example, you are looking for the answer to a question which you know is in the text.
  • Choose the right place to read – You can’t really expect to understand a difficult book if you are trying to read in the same room with the television on and your little kid distracting you. Try to find a quiet and comfortable place with good light, and your dictionaries and other materials nearby.
  • Choose the right time to read – Early morning before breakfast, or before going to sleep, or during afternoons are supposedly the best time to read
  • Reduce the number of potential distractions as best you can – Turn off the TV and silence the notifications on your mobile phones.
  • Make a to do list of books to read (or digital queue) – Buy several good books and just keep them somewhere where you can have a look every day. Whenever you are free, get hold of one of them and start going through a few pages.
  • Do remember to mix it up – Read both fiction and non-fiction on any subjects – mix up with business books, novels, articles and magazine
  • And don’t forget to read every day – minimum 40 pages  before you hit the bed, if you want to achieve the goal of reading a book every week

The point is to make books your lifelong companion and not an object of pleasure for a day or two.

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” – Ernest Hemingway