Chapter 5 – How to Be a Demanding Reader (part 2 of 2)


There are three quite different kinds of notes that you will make in your books as well as about them. Which kind you make depends upon the level at which you are reading.

The questions answered by inspectional reading are: first, what kind of book is it? Second, what is it about as a whole? And third, what is the structural order of the book? … You may and probably should make notes concerning your answers to these questions, especially if you know that it may be days or months before you will be able to return to the book to give it an analytical reading. The best place to make such notes is on the contents page, or perhaps on the title page.

The point to recognize is that these notes primarily concern the structure of the book, and not its substance. We therefore call this kind of note-making structural.

Then, during an analytical reading, you will need to give answers to questions about the truth and significance of the book. The notes you make at this level of reading are, therefore, not structural but conceptual. They concern the author’s concepts, and also you own, as they have been deepened or broadened by your reading of the book.

What kind of notes do you make when you are giving several books a syntopical reading – when you are reading more than one book on a single subject? Again, such notes will tend be conceptual; and the notes on a page may refer you not only to the other pages in that book, but also to pages in other books.

There is a step beyond that, however, … That is to make notes about the shape of the discussion. We prefer to call such notes dialectical. Since they are made concerning several books, not just one, they often have to be made on a separate sheet of paper. Here, a structure of concepts is implied – an order of statements and questions about a single subject matter.


Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules. This is the way the artist or craftsman in any field differs from those who lack his skill.

Now there is no other way of forming a habit of operation than by operating.

Knowing the rules of an art is not the same as having the habit.

Incidentally, not everyone understands that being an artist consist in operating according to rules, … No matter how original his final production, no matter how little it seems to obey the “rules” of art as they have traditionally been understood, he must be killed to produce it. And this is the art – the skill or craft – that we are talking about here.


Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.

Learning to ski is one of the most humiliating experiences and adult can undergo (that is one reason to young). After all, an adult has been walking for a long time … but as soon as he puts skis on his feet, it is as though he had to learn to walk all over again.

Howe can you remember everything the instructor says you have to remember? … how can you think about all that and still ski?

The point about skiing, of course, is that you should not be thinking about the separate acts that, together, make a smooth turn or series of linked turns – instead, you should merely be looking ahead of you down the hill. … In other words, you must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them well. But in order forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts.

It is the same with reading. Probably you have been reading for a long time, too, and starting to learn all over again can be humiliating. But it is just as true of reading as it is of skiing that you cannot coalesce a lot of different acts into one complex, harmonious performance until you become expert at each of them.

We say it here merely because we want you to realize that learning to read is at least as complex as learning to ski. If you can recall your patience in any other learning experience you have had, you will be more tolerant of instructors who will shortly enumerate a long list of rules for reading.

We hope we have encouraged you by the things we have said in these pages. It is hard to learn to read well. Not only is reading, especially analytical reading, a very complex activity – much more complex than skiing; it is also much more of a mental activity. … It is much harder to think of mental acts, as the beginning analytical reader must do; in a sense, he is thinking about his own thought. Most of us are unaccustomed to doing this. Nevertheless, it can be done, and a person wo does it cannot help learning to read much better.

Chapter 5 – How to Be a Demanding Reader (part 1 of 2)


THE ESSENCE OF ACTIVE READING: The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks

We have already discussed active reading extensively in this book. … But we have not yet gone to the heart of the matter by stating the one simple prescription for active reading. It is: Ask question while you read – questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.

There are four main questions you must ask about any book

  1. WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.
  2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
  3. IS THE BOOK TRUE, IN WHOLE OR IN PART? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.
  4. WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.

The four questions stated above summarize the whole obligation of a reader.

Knowing what the four questions are is not enough. You must remember to ask them as you read. The habit of doing that is the mark of a demanding reader. More than that, you must know how to answer them precisely and accurately. The trained ability to do that is the art of reading.


If you have the habit of asking a book question as you read, you are a better reader than if you do not. But, as we have indicated, merely asking questions in not enough. You have to try to answer them. And although that could be done, theoretically, in your mind only, it is much easier to do it with a pencil in your hand. The pencil then becomes the sign of your alertness while you read.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake – not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author. 

Here are some devices that can be used:

  1. UNDERLINING – of major points; of important or forceful statements
  2. VERTICAL LINES AT THE MARGIN – to emphasize a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underlined
  3. STAR, ASTERISK, OR OTHER DOODAD AT THE MARGIN – to be used sparingly, to emphasize the ten or dozen most important statements or passages in the book. You may want to fold a corner of each page on which you make such marks or place a slip of paper between the pages. In either case, you will be able to teak the book off the shelf at any time and, by opening it to the indicated page, refresh your recollection
  4. NUMBERS IN THE MARGIN – to indicate a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument
  5. NUMBER OF OTHER PAGES IN THE MARGIN – to indicate where else in the book the author makes the asame points, or points relevant to or in contradiction of htose here marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong together. Any readers use the symbol “Cf” to indicate the other page numbers; it means “compare” or “refer to”
  6. CIRCLING OF KEY WORDS OR PHRASES – This serves much the same function as underlining
  7. WRITING IN THE MARGIN, OR AT THE TOP OR BOTTOM OF THE PAGE – to record questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raises in your mind; to reduce a complicated discussion to a simple statement; to record the sequence of major points right through the book. The endpapers at the back of the book can be used to make a personal index of the author’s points in order of their appearance.

After finishing the book and making your personal index on the back endpapers, turn to the front and try to outline the book, not page by page or point by point (you have already done that in the back), but as an integrated structure, with a basic outline and an order of parts.


Chapter 4 – The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading (part 2 of 2)


Our point is really very simple. 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.

With regard to rates of reading, then, the ideal is not merely to be able to read faster, but to be able to read at different speeds – and to know when the different speeds are appropriate. Inspectional reading is accomplished quickly, but that is not only because you read faster, although in fact you do; it is also because you read less of a book when you give it an inspectional reading, and because you read it in a different way, with different goals in mind.  Analytical reading is ordinarily much slower than inspectional reading, but even when you are giving a book an analytical reading, you should not read all of it at the same rate of speed. Every book, no matter how difficult, contains interstitial material that can be and should be read quickly; and every good book also contains matter that is difficult and should be read very slowly.


Speed reading courses properly make much of the discovery that most people continue to sub-vocalize for years after they are first taught to read. Films of eye movements, furthermore, show that the eyes of young or untrained readers “fixate” as many as five or six times in the course of each line that is read. (The eye is blind while it moves; it can only see when it stops) … Even worse than that, the eyes of incompetent readers regress as often as once every two or three lines – that is, they return to phrases or sentences previously read.

All of these habits are wasteful and obviously cut down reading speed. They are wasteful because the mind, unlike the eye, does not need to “read” only a word or short phrase a time. The mind, that astounding instrument, can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a “glance” – if only the eyes will provide it with the information it needs. … Once it is done, the student can read as fast as his mind will let him, not as slow as his eyes make him.

Place your thumb and first two fingers together. Sweep this “pointer” across a line of type, a little faster than it is comfortable for your eyes to move. Force yourself to keep up with your hand. You will very soon be able to read the words as you follow your hand. Keep practicing this, and keep increasing the speed at which your hand moves, and before you know it you will have doubled or trebled your reading speed.


But what exactly have you gained if you increase your reading speed significantly? It is true that you have saved time – but what about comprehension?

Concentration is another name for what we have called activity in reading. The good reader reads actively, with concentration.

But concentration alone does not really have much of an effect on comprehension, when that is properly understood. … This limited kind of comprehension, in fact, is nothing but the elementary ability to answer the question about a book or other reading material: “What does it say?”

To make this clearer, let us take an example of something to read. Let us take the Declaration of Independence. … It occupies less than three pages when printed. How fast should you read it?

The second paragraph of the Declaration ends with the sentence: “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” The following two pages of “facts,” can be read quickly.  It is not necessary to gain more than a general idea of the kind of facts that Jefferson is citing, unless, of course, you are a scholar concerned with the historical circumstances in which he wrote. Even the last paragraph … can be read quickly. This is a rhetorical flourish, and it deserves what mere rhetoric always deserves. But the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence require more than a first rapid reading.

We doubt there is anyone who can read those first two paragraphs at a rate much faster than 20 words a minute. Indeed, individual words in the famous second paragraph – words like “inalienable,” “rights,” “liberty,” “happiness,” “consent,” “just powers” – are worth dwelling over, puzzling about, considering at length. Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or even years.

The problem of speed reading, then, is the problem of comprehension. Practically, this comes down to defining comprehension at levels beyond the elementary.  It is worth emphasizing, therefore, that it is precisely comprehension in reading that this book seeks to improve. You cannot comprehend a book without reading it analytically.


Every book should be read no more slowly that it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.

Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea; it is necessary when you do not know whether the book you have in hand is worth reading carefully.

Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through.

However, you should keep in mind during our discussion of the third level of reading – analytical reading – that inspectional reading serves an important function at that level, too. The two stages of inspectional reading can both be thought of as anticipations of steps that the reader takes when he reads analytically.

Chapter 4 – The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading (part 1 of 2)


The first thing to realize is that there are two types of inspectional reading. They are aspects of a single skill, but the beginning reader is well-advised to consider them as two different steps or activities. The experienced reader learns to perform both steps simultaneously, but for the moment we will treat them as if they were different.

INSPECTIONAL READING I: Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading

Let us assume two further elements in this situation, … First, you do not know whether you want to read the book. You do not know whether it deserves analytical reading. Second, let us assume that you have only limited time in which to find all this out.

In this case, what you must do is skim the book, or, as some prefer to say, pre-read it. … You may discover that what you get from skimming is all the book is worth to you for the time being. …  But you will know at least what the author’s main contention is, as well as what kind of book he has written, so the time you have spent looking through the book will not have been wasted.

  1. LOOK AT THE TITLE PAGE AND, IF THE BOOK HAS ONE, AT ITS PREFACE. Read each quickly. … Before completing this step you should have a good idea of the subject, and, … What pigeonhole that already contains other books does this one belong in?
  2. STUDY THE TABLE OF CONTENTS to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip.
  3. CHECK THE INDEX. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and the kinds of books and authors referred to. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up at least some of the passages cited. (We will have must more to say about crucial terms in Part Two. Here you must make your judgment of their importance on the basis of your general sense of the book, as obtain from steps 1 and 2). The passages you read may contain the crux – the point on which the book hinges – or the new departure which is the key to the author’s approach and attitude.
  4. READ THE PUBLISHER’S BLURB. It is not uncommon for the authors to try to summarize as accurately as they can the main points in their book. Of course, if the blurb is nothing but a puff for the book, you will ordinarily be able to discover this at a glance. But that in itself can tell you something about the work

Upon completing these first four steps you may already have enough information about the book to know that you want to read it more carefully, or that you do not want or need to read it at all. … You are now ready to skim the book, properly speaking.

  1. LOOK NOW AT THE CHAPTERS THAT SEEM TO BE PIVOTAL TO ITS ARGUMENT. If these chapters have summary statements in their opening or closing pages, as they often do, read these statements carefully.
  2. TURN THE PAGES, DIPPING IN HERE AND THERE, READING A PARAGRAPH OR TWO, SOMETIMES SEVERAL PAGES IN SEQUENCE, NEVER MORE THAN THAT. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter. Above all, do not fail to read the last two or three pages of the main part of the book. Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages.

You have now skimmed the book systematically; you have given it the first type of inspectional reading. You should know a good deal about the book at this point, after having spent … at most an hour with it. In particular, you should know whether the book contains matter that you still want to dig out, or whether it deserves no more of your time and attention. You should also be able to place the book even more accurately than before in your mental card catalogue.

Incidentally, this is a very active sort of reading. It is impossible to give any book an inspectional reading without being alert, without having all of one’s faculties awake and working. How many times have you daydreamed through several pages of good book only to wake up to the realization that you have no idea of the ground you have gone over? That cannot happen if you follow the steps outlined here – that is, if you have a system for following a general thread.

You will be surprised to find out how much time you will save, pleased to see how much more you will grasp, and relieved to discover how much easier it all can be than you supposed.


Approached in the right way, no book intended for the general reader, no matter how difficult, need be a cause for despair.

What is the right approach? … That rule is simply this: In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you. If you let yourself get stalled, you are lost. In most cases, you will not be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once.

Most of us were taught to pay attention to the things we did not understand. We were told to go to an encyclopedia or some other reference work when we were confronted with allusions or statements we did not comprehend. … but when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

If you insist on understanding everything on every page before you go on to the next, you will not get very far. In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points. … You will not be reading wall on any level.


Chapter 3 – The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading


No aspect of schooling has been more severely criticized than reading instruction.

A young man or woman who cannot read very well is hindered in his pursuit of the American dream, but that remains largely a personal matter if he is not in school.


It is now widely accepted that there are at least four more or less clearly distinguishable stages in the child’s progress toward what is called mature reading ability. The first stage is known by the term “reading readiness.” This begins at birth, and continues normally until the age of about six or seven.

Reading readiness includes several different kinds of preparation for learning to read.  Physical readiness involves good vision and hearing. Intellectual readiness involves a minimum level of visual perception such that the child can take in and remember an entire word and the letters that combine to form it. Language readiness involves the ability to speak clearly and to use several sentences in correct order. Personal readiness involves the ability to work with other children, to sustain attention, to follow directions, and the like.

In the second stage, children learn to read very simple materials. … Basic skills are introduced at this time, such as the use of context or meaning clues and the beginning sounds of words.

It is incidentally worth observing that something quite mysterious, almost magical, occurs during this stage. At one moment in the course of his development the child, when faced with a series of symbols on a page, finds them quite meaningless. Not much later – perhaps only two or three weeks later – he has discovered meaning in them; he knows that they say “the cat sat on the hat.” How this happens no one really knows, despite the efforts of philosophers and psychologists over two and a half millennia to study the phenomenon. Where does meaning come from? How is it that a French child would find the same meaning in the symbols “le chat s’asseyait sur le chapeau”? Indeed, this discovery of meaning in symbols may be the most astounding intellectual feat that any human being ever performs – and most humans perform it before they are seven years old!

The third stage is characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and by increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context clues.

Finally, the fourth stage is characterized by the refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired. … This, the mature stage of reading should be reached by young persons in their early teens. Ideally, they should continue to build on it for the rest of their lives. … That they often do not even reach it is apparent to many parents and to most educators. … The very emphasis on reading readiness and on the methods employed to teach children the rudiments of reading has meant that the other, the higher, levels of reading have tended to be slighted.


We have described four levels of reading, and we have also outlined four stages of learning to read in an elementary fashion. What is the relation between these stages and levels?

It is of paramount importance to recognize that the four stages outlined here are all stages of the first level of reading as outlined in the previous chapter.

We mention all this because it is highly germane to the message of this book. We assume that you, our reader, have mastered the elementary level of reading, which means that you have passed successfully through the four stages described.

The difference between aided and unaided discovery comes into play here. Typically, the four stages of elementary reading are attained with the help of living teachers. … Only when he has mastered all of the four stages of elementary reading is the child prepared to move on to the higher levels of reading. Only then can he read independently and learn on his own. Only then can he begin to become a really good reader.


Traditionally the high schools of America have provided little reading instruction for their students, and the colleges have provided none. … they are not designed to take the student beyond the first level or to introduce him to the kinds and levels of reading that are the main subject of this book.

This, of course, should not be the case. A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers. … Often, however, three or four years of graduate study are required before students attain this level of reading ability, and they do not always attain it even then.

One should not have to spend four years in graduate school in order to learn how to read. … that adds up to twenty full years of schooling. It should not take that long to learn to read.

What is wrong can be corrected. Courses could be instituted in many high schools and colleges that are based on the program described in this book. There is nothing arcane or even really new about what we have to propose. It is largely common sense.

Chapter 2 – The Levels of Reading


There are four levels of reading

The first level of reading we will call Elementary Reading

At this level of reading, the question asked of the reader is “What does the sentence say?”

The attainment of the skills of elementary reading occurred some time ago for almost all who read this book.  Nevertheless, we continue to experience the problems of this level of reading, … for example, whenever we come upon something we want to read that is written in a foreign language

The second level of reading we will call Inspectional Reading. It is characterized by its special emphasis on time.

Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” … “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

We do want to stress, however, that most people, even many quite good readers, are unaware of the value of inspectional reading. They start a good book on page one and plow steadily through it.  They are thus faced with the task of achieving superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it. That compounds the difficulty.

The third level of reading we will call Analytical Reading.

If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time.

Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it.

Analytical reading is hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment. Analytical reading is preeminently for the sake of understanding.

The fourth and highest level of reading we will call Syntopical Reading.

When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. … the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

Let it suffice for the moment to say that syntopical reading is not an easy art, … The benefits are so great that it is well worth the trouble of learning how to do it.