Chapter 9 – Determining an Authors Message (part 1 of 3)


The reader must usually come to terms with an author first, before he can find out what the author is proposing, what judgement he is declaring. That is why the fifth rule of analytical reading concerns words and terms, and the sixth, which we are about to discuss, concerns sentences and propositions.

There is a seventh rule that is closely related to the sixth. … [The author’s] propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. … we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.

The seventh rule, therefore, deals with arguments of all sorts. … an argument is always a set or series of statements of which some provide the grounds or reasons for what is to be concluded. A paragraph, therefore, or at least a collection of sentences, is required to express an argument.

There is a grammatical as well as a logical aspect to the order of these rules of interpretation. We go from terms to propositions to arguments, by going from words (and phrases) to sentences to collections of sentences (or paragraphs). We are building up from simpler to more complex units. … There is no other way of discovering the author’s terms, propositions, and arguments.

The movement at this stage of analytical reading – when interpretation is our goal – seems to be in the opposite direction from the movement in the first stage – when the goal was a structural outline. There we went from the book as a whole to its major parts, and then to their subordinate divisions. As you might suspect, the two movements meet somewhere. The major parts of a book and their principal divisions contain many propositions and usually several arguments. But if you keep on dividing the book into its parts, at last you have to say: “In this part, the following points are made.” Now each of these points is likely to be a proposition, and some of them taken together probably form an argument.

Thus, the two processes, outlining and interpretation, meet at the level of propositions and arguments. You work down to propositions and arguments by dividing the book into its parts. You work up to arguments by seeing how they are composed of propositions and ultimately of terms. When you have completed the two processes, you can really say that you know the contents of a book.


Not every sentence in a book expresses a proposition. For one thing, some sentences express questions. They state problems rather than answers. Propositions are the answer to questions. They are declarations of knowledge or opinion. That is why we call sentences that express them declarative, and distinguish sentences that as questions as interrogative. Other sentences express wishes or intentions. They may give us some knowledge of the author’s purpose, but they do not convey the knowledge he is trying to expound.

Moreover, not all the declarative sentences can be read as if each expressed one proposition. … Such sentences can be very difficult to interpret.

We have said enough to indicate what we mean by the difference between sentences and propositions. They are not related as one to one. Not only can a single sentence express several propositions, either through ambiguity or complexity, but one and the same proposition can also be expressed by two or more different sentences. If you grasp our terms through the words and phrases we use synonymously, you will know that we are saying the same thing when we say, “Teaching and being taught are correlative functions,” and “Initiating and receiving communication are related processes.”

We are going to stop explaining the grammatical and logical points involved and turn to the rules.



RULE 7. LOCATE OR CONSTRUCT THE BASIC ARGUMENTS OF THE BOOK BY FINDING THEM IN THE CONNECTION OF SENTENCES. You will see later why we did not say “paragraphs” in the formulation of this rule.

Incidentally, it is just as true of these new rules as it was of the rule about coming to terms that they apply primarily to expository works. The rules about propositions and arguments are quite different when you are reading a poetical work – a novel, play, or poem. We will discuss the changes that are required in applying them to such works later.

Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms with an Author (part 3 of 3)


Spotting the important words is only the beginning of the task. It merely locates the places in the text where you have to go to work. … Let us suppose you have marked the words that trouble you. What next?

First, try to determine whether the word has one or many meanings. If it has many, try to see how they are related. Finally, note the places where the word is used in one sense or another, and see if the context gives you any clue to the reason for the shift in meaning. This last will enable you to follow the word in its change of meanings with the same flexibility that characterizes the author’s usage.

But, you may complain, everything is clear except the main thing. How does one find out what the meanings are? … The answer is that you have to discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words the context that you do understand. The must be the way, no matter how merry-go-roundish it may seem at first.

Most of the words in any English book are familiar words. These words surround the strange words, the technical words, the words that may cause the reader some trouble. The surrounding words are the context for the words to be interpreted. The reader has all the materials he needs to do the job.

We are not pretending the job is an easy one. We are only insisting that it is not an impossible one.

There is no rule of thumb for doing this. The process is something like the trial-and-error method of putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The more parts you put together, the easier it is to find places for the remaining parts, if only because there are fewer of them. … A word in place is a term. … Each word put into place makes the next adjustment easier.

You should not forget that one word can represent several terms. One way to remember this is to distinguish between the author’s vocabulary and his terminology. If you make a list in one column of the important words, and in another of their important meanings, you will see the relation between the vocabulary and the terminology.

There are several further complications. In the first place, a word that has several distinct meanings can be used either in a single sense or in a combination of senses. Let us take the word “reading” again as an example. In some places, we have used it to stand for ready any kind of book. In others, we have used it to stand for reading books that instruct rather than entertain. In still others, we have used it to stand for reading that enlightens rather than informs.

Now if we symbolize here, as we did before, these three distinct meanings of “reading” by Xa, Xb, and Xc, then the first usage just mentioned is Xabc, the second is Xbc, and the third Xc. In other words, if several meanings are related, one can use a word to stand in for all of them, for some of them, or for only one of them at a time. So long as each usage is definite, the word so used is a term.

In the second place, there is the problem of synonyms. The repetition of a single word over and over is awkward and boring, except in mathematical writing, and so good authors often substitute different words having the same or very similar meanings for important words in their text.

We can express the symbolically as follows. Let X and Y be two different words, such as “enlightenment” and “insight.” Let the letter a stand for the same meaning that each can express, namely, a gain in understanding. Then Xa and Ya represent the same term, though they are distinct as words. When we speak of reading for “insight” and reading “for enlightenment,” we are referring to the same kind of reading because the two phrases are being used with the same meaning. The words are different, but there is only one term for you as a reader to grasp.

This is important, of course. If you supposed that every time an author changed his words, he was shifting his terms, you would make a s great an error as to suppose that every time he used the same words, the term remained the same. Keep this in mind when you list the author’s vocabulary and terminology in separate columns. You will find two relationships. On the one hand, a single word may be related to several terms. On the other hand, a single term may be related to several words.

In the third place, and finally, there is the matter of phrases. If a phrase is a unit … Like a single, it can refer to something being talked about in some way. … It follows, therefore, that a term can be expressed by a phrase as well as by a word.


This has been a hard chapter to write, and probably a hard one to read. The reason is clear. The rule of reading we have been discussing cannot be made fully intelligible without going into all sorts of grammatical and logical explanations about words and terms.

In fact, we have actually done very little explaining. To give an adequate account of these matters would take many chapters. We have merely touched upon the most essential points. We hope we have said enough to make the rule a useful guide in practice. The more you put it into practice, the more you will appreciate the intricacies of the problem. You will want to know something about the literal and metaphorical use of words. You will want to know about the distinction between abstract and concrete words, and between proper and common names. You will become interested in the whole business of definition: the difference between defining words and defining things; why some words are indefinable, and yet have definite meanings, and so forth. You will seek light on what is called “the emotive use of words,” that is, the use of words to arouse emotions, to move men to action or change their minds, as distinct from the communication of knowledge. And you may even become interested in the relation between ordinary “rational” speech and “bizarre” or “crazy” talk – the speech of the mentally disturbed, where almost every word carries weird and unexpected but nevertheless identifiable connotations.

You may never wish to go further. But even if you do not, you will find that your comprehension of any book will be enormously increased if you only go to the trouble of finding its important words, identifying their shifting meanings, and coming to terms. Seldom does such a small change in a habit have such a large effect.

Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms with an Author (part 2 of 3)


So far we have been proceeding negatively by eliminating the ordinary words. You discover some of the important words by the fact that they are not ordinary for you. That is why they bother you. But is there any other way of spotting the important words? Are there any positive signs that point to them?

There are several. The first and most obvious sign is the explicit stress an author places upon certain words and not others. He may do this in many ways. He may use such typographical devices as quotation marks or italics to mark the word for you. He may call your attention to the word by explicitly discussing its various senses and indicating the way he is going to use it here and there. Or he may emphasize the word by defining the thing that the word is used to name.

Every field of knowledge has its own technical vocabulary. … If that author has not pointed out the words himself, the reader may locate them through having some prior knowledge of the subject matter.

Where a field of knowledge has a well-established technical vocabulary, the task of locating the important words in a book treating that subject matter is relatively easy. You can spot them positively through having some acquaintance with the field, or negatively by know what words must be technical, because they are not ordinary. Unfortunately, there are many fields in which a technical vocabulary is not well established.

Philosophers are notorious for having private vocabularies. … [they] often find it necessary to coin new words, or to take some word from common speech and make it a technical word. This last procedure is likely to be most misleading to the reader who supposes that he knows what the words means, and therefore treats it as an ordinary word. Most good authors, however, anticipating just this confusion, give very explicit warning whenever they adopt the procedure.

In this connection, one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it. When you find an author telling you how a particular word has been used by others, and why he chooses to use it otherwise, you can be sure that word makes a great difference to him.

We have here emphasized the notion of technical vocabulary, but you must not take this too narrowly. The relatively small set of words that express an author’s main ideas, his leading concepts, constitutes his special vocabulary. They are the words that carry his analysis, his argument. … these are the words that are most important for him. They should be important for you as a reader also, but in addition any other word whose meaning is not clear is important for you.


The trouble with most readers is that they simply do not pay much attention to words to locate their difficulties. They fail to distinguish the words that they do not understand sufficiently from those they do. All the things we have suggested to help you find the important words in a book will be of no avail unless you make a deliberate effort to note the words you must work on to find the terms they convey. The reader who fails to ponder, or at least to mark, the words he does not understand is headed for disaster.

If you are reading a book that can increase your understanding, it stands to reason that not all of its words will be completely intelligible to you. If you proceed as if they were all ordinary words, all on the same level of general intelligibility as the words of a newspaper article, you will make no headway toward interpretation of the book. You might just as well be reading a newspaper, for the book cannot enlighten you if you do not try to understand it.

Most of us are addicted to non-active reading. The outstanding fault of the non-active or undemanding reader is his inattention to words, and his consequent failure to come to terms with the author

Chapter 8 – Coming to Terms with an Author (part 1 of 3)


You are now ready to go on to the next stage, which also comprises four rules of reading.

Coming to terms is the first step beyond the outline. … For a term is the basic element of communicable knowledge.


A term is not a word – at least, not just a word without further clarifications. … If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms.

For the communication to be successfully completed, therefore, it is necessary for the two parties to use the same words with the same meanings – in short, to come to terms. When that happens, communication happens, the miracle of two minds with but a single thought.

You cannot find terms in dictionaries, though the materials for making them are there. Terms occur only in the process of communication. … we can think of terms as a skilled use of words for the sake of communicating knowledge.

RULE 5. FIND THE IMPORTANT WORDS AND THROUGH THEM COME TO TERMS WITH THE AUTHOR. Note that the rule has two parts. The first part is to locate the important words, the words that make a difference. The second part is to determine the meaning of the words, as used, with precision.

As we have pointed out, each of the rules of interpretive reading involves two steps. … we may say that these rules have a grammatical and logical aspect. The grammatical aspect is the one that deals with words. The logical step deals with their meanings or, more precisely, with terms. So far as communication is concerned, both steps are indispensable. If language is used without thought, nothing is being communicated. And thought or knowledge cannot be communicated without language.

This business of language and thought – especially the distinction between words and terms – is so important that we are going to risk being repetitious to be sure that main point is understood. The main point is that one word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words. Let us illustrate this schematically in the following manner. The word “reading” has been used in many senses in the course of our discussion. Let us take three of these senses: By the word “reading” we may mean (1) reading to be entertained, (2) reading to get information, and (3) reading to achieve understanding.

Now let us symbolize the word “reading” by the letter X, and the three meanings by the letters a, b, and c. What is symbolized in the scheme by Xa, Xb, and Xc, are not three words, for X, remains the same throughout. But they are three terms, on the condition, of course, that you , as reader, and we, as writers know when X is being used in one sense and not another. If we write Xa in a given place, and you read Xb, we are writing and you are reading the same word, but not in the same way. The ambiguity prevents or at least impedes communication. Only when you think the word as we think it, do we have one thought between us. Our minds cannot meet in X, but only in Xa or Xb or Xc. Thus we come to terms.


We are now prepared to put flesh on the rule that requires the reader to come to terms. How does he go about doing it? How does he find the important or key words in a book?

You can be sure of one thing. Not all the words an author uses are important. Better than that, you can be sure that most of his words are not. Only those words that he uses in a special way are important for him, and for us as readers.

An author uses most words as men ordinarily do in conversation, with a range of meanings, and trusting to the context to indicate the shifts. Knowing this fact is some help in detecting the more important words.

Contemporary writers will employ most words as they are ordinarily used today, and you will know which words these are because you are alive today. But in reading books written in the past, it may be more difficult to detect the words the author is using as most people did at the time and place he was writing.

Nevertheless, it remains true that most of the words in any book can be read just as one would use them in talking to one’s friends.

If you do understand the passage, you will, of course, know which words in it are the most important. If you do not fully understand the passage, it is probably because you do not know the away the author is using certain words. If you mark the words that trouble you, you may hit the very ones the author is using specially. That this is likely to be so follows from the fact that you should have no trouble with the words that author uses in an ordinary way.

From your point of view as a reader, therefore, the most important words are those that give you trouble. It is likely that these words are important for the author as well. However, they may not be.

It is also possible that words that are important for the author do not bother you, and precisely because you understand them. In that case, you have already come to terms with the author. Only where you fail to come to terms have you work still to do.


Chapter 7 – X-Raying a Book (part 2 of 2)


Let us turn now to the other structural rule, the rule that requires us to set forth the major parts of the book in their order and relation. … The third rule involves more than just an enumeration of the parts. It means outlining them, that is, treating the parts as if they were subordinate wholes, each with a unity and complexity of its own.

A formula can be stated for operating according this third rule. It will guide you in a general way. According to the second rule, we had to say: The whole book is about so and so and such and such. That done, we might obey the third rule by proceeding as follows: (1) The author accomplished this plan in five major parts, of which the first part is about so and so, the second part is about such and such, the third part is about this, the fourth part is about that, and the fifth part about still another thing. (2) The first of these major parts is divided into three sections, of which the first considers X, the second considers Y, and the third considers Z. (3) In the first section of the first part, the author makes four points, of which the first is A, the second B, the third C, and the fourth D. And so and so forth.

You may object to this much outlining … The rule looks as if it required an impossible amount of work from you. In fact, the good reader does this sort of thing habitually, and hence easily and naturally. He may not write it all out. … But if he were called upon to give an account of the structure of the book, he would do something that approximated the formula we have discussed.

We have stated the rule here for the ideal case. You should be satisfied if you make a very rough approximation to what is required.

Rule 2 – the requirement that you state the unity of a book – cannot be effectively followed without obeying Rule 3 – the requirement that you state the parts that make up that unity.

A very simple example will show what we mean. A two-year-old child, just having begun to talk, might say that “two plus two is four.” Objectively, this is a true statement; but we would be wrong to conclude from it that child knew much mathematics. In fact, the child probably would not know what the statement meant, and so, although the statement by itself was adequate, we would have to say that the child still needed training in the subject. Similarly, you might be right in your guess about a book’s main theme or point, but you still need to go through the exercise of showing how and why you stated it as you did. The requirement that you outline the parts of a book, and show how the exemplify and develop the main theme, is thus supportive of your statement of the book’s unity.


RULE 4. FIND OUT WHAT THE AUTHOR’S PROBLEMS WERE. The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers.

It is your task as a reader to formulate the questions as precisely as you can. You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts. … Which are primary and which secondary? Which questions must be answer first, if others are to be answered later?

You can see how this rule duplicates, in a sense, work you have already done in stating the unity and finding its parts. It may, however, actually help you to do that work. In other words, following the fourth rule is a useful procedure in conjunction with obeying the other two.

If you know the kinds of questions anyone can ask about anything, you will become adept in detecting an author’s problems. They can be formulated briefly: Does something exist? What kind of thing is it? What caused it to exist, or under what conditions can it exist, or why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? What are the consequences of its existence? What are its characteristic properties, its typical traits? What are its relations to other things of a similar sort, or of a different sort? How does it behave? These are all theoretical questions. What ends should be sought? What means should be chosen to a given end? What things must one do to gain a certain objective, and in what order? Under these conditions, what is the right thing to do, or the better rather than the worse? Under what conditions would it be better to do this rather than that? These are all practical questions.


  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

Chapter 7 – X-Raying a Book (part 1 of 2)


Recognition of the need to see the structure of a book leads to the discovery of the second and third rules for reading any book.


This means that you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible. To say what the whole book is about is not that same as saying what kind of book it is. (That was covered by RULE 1.) … To find out what a book is about in this sense is to discover its theme or main point.

But it is not enough to acknowledge this fact vaguely. You must apprehend the unity with definiteness. … Do not be satisfied with “feeling the unity” that you cannot express.


You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many the consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many.

There is a difference between a heap of bricks and the single house they can constitute. … There is a difference between a single house and a collection of houses. A book is like a single house … having many rooms … of different sizes and shapes, … with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part. Each has its own structure and interior decoration. But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected … by what architects call a “traffic pattern.” Because they are connected, the partial function that each performs contributes is share to the usefulness of the whole house.

A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts. Each major part has a certain amount of independence. … But it must also be connected with the other parts – for otherwise it would not contribute its share to the intelligibility of the whole.

As houses are more or less livable, so books are more or less readable. … That is one of the reasons why the best books are also the most readable.


Let us return now to the second rule, which requires you to state the unity of the book.

Let us begin with a famous case. You probably read Homer’s Odyssey in school. The story of the man who took ten years to return from the siege of Troy only to find his faithful wife Penelope herself besieged by suitors. It is an elaborate story as Homer tells it, full of exciting adventures on land and sea, replete with episodes of all sorts and many complications of plot. But it also has a single unity of action, a main thread of plot that ties everything together.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, insists that this is the mark of every good story, novel, or play. To support his point, he shows how the unity of the Odyssey can be summarized in a few sentences.

A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight; suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he himself arrives; he makes certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them.

“This,” says Aristotle, “is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode.”

After you know the plot in this way, and through it the unity of the whole narrative, you can put the parts into their proper places. … The plot of Tom Jones, for instance, can be reduced to the familiar formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. … To recognize this is to learn what it means to say that there are only a small number of plots in the world. The difference between good and bad stories having the same essential plot lies in what the author does with it, how he dresses up the bare bones.

Be guided by the prospectus the author gives you, but always remember that the obligation of finding the unity belongs finally to the reader, as much as the obligation of having one belongs to the writer. You can discharge that obligation honestly only by reading the whole book.

Chapter 6 – Pigeonholing a Book

PART TWO: The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading


Everything that we will say about reading books applies to reading other materials of the kinds indicated. … when we refer to the reading of books, that the rules expounded refer to lesser and more easily understood materials, too.



You must know, for instance, whether you are reading fiction – a novel, a play, an epic, a lyric – or whether it is an expository work of some sort. Almost every reader knows a work of fiction when he sees it. Or so it seems – and yet this is not always easy. Is Portnoy’s Complaint a novel or a psychoanalytical study? Is Naked Lunch a fiction or a tract against drug abuse, similar to the books that used to recount with horrors of alcohol for the betterment of readers? Is Gone with the Wind a romance or a history of the South before and during the Civil War? Do Main Street and The Grapes of Wrath belong in the category of belles-lettres or are both of them sociological studies, the one concentrating on urban experiences, the other on agrarian life?

All of these, of course, are novels; all of them appeared on the fiction side of the best-seller lists. Yet the questions are not absurd. Just by their titles, it would be hard to tell in the case of Main Street and Middletown which was fiction and which was social science. There is so much social science in some contemporary novels, and so much fiction in much of sociology, that it is hard to keep them apart. But there is another kind of science, too – physics and chemistry, for instance – in books like The Andromeda Strain or novels of Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke. And a book like The Universe and Dr. Einstein, while clearly not fiction, is almost as “readable” as a novel, and probably more readable than some of the novels of, say, William Faulkner.

An expository book is one that conveys knowledge primarily, “knowledge” being construed broadly. Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in the meaning of knowledge and is an expository work. As with fiction, most people know an expository work when they see it. Here, however, the problem is not to distinguish nonfiction from fiction, but to recognize that there are various kinds of expository books. It is not merely a question of knowing which books are primarily instructive, but also which are instructive in a particular way. The kinds of information or enlightenment that a history a philosophical work afford are not the same. The problems dealt with by a book on physics and one on morals are not the same, nor are the methods the writers employ in solving such different problems.

How do you go about following the rule, particularly in its last clause? … you do so by first inspecting the book – giving it an inspectional reading. You read the title, the subtitle, the table of contents, and you at least glance at the preface or introduction by the author and at the index. If the book has a dust jacket, you look at the publisher’s blurb.


In 1859, Darwin published a very famous book. … The book was about the theory of evolution, and the word “species” was in the title. What was the title?

Probably you said The Origin of Species, in which case you were correct. But you might not have said that. You might have said that the title was The Origin of the Species. Recently, we asked some twenty-five reasonably well-read persons what the title of Darwin’s book was and more than half said The Origin of the Species. The reason for the mistake is obvious; they supposed, never having read the book, that it had something to do with the development of the human species. In fact, it has little or nothing to do with that subject, which Darwin covered in a later book, The Descent of Man. The Origin of Species is about what its title says it is about – namely the proliferation in the natural world of a vast number of species of plants and animals from an originally much smaller number of species, owing mainly to the principle of natural selection. We mention this common error because many think they know the title of the book, although few have actually ever read the title carefully and thought about what it means.

The reader who ignores all these things has only himself to blame if he is puzzled by the question, What kind of book is this?

Important as reading titles is, it is not enough. The clearest titles in the world, the most explicit front matter, will not help you to classify a book unless you have the broad lines of classification already in your mind.

The title will not tell you, nor all the rest of the front matter, nor even the whole book itself sometimes, unless you have some categories you can apply to classify books intelligently.

The main distinction, we said, was between works of fiction, on the one hand, and works conveying knowledge, or expository works, on the other hand. Among expository works, we can further distinguish history from philosophy, and both from science and mathematics.

The trouble is that as yet we have no principles of classification. … For the moment, we want to confine ourselves to one basic distinction, a distinction that applies across the board to all expository works. It is the distinction between theoretical and practical works.


To make knowledge practical we must convert it into rules of operation. We must pass from knowing what is the case to knowing what to do about it if we wish to get somewhere. This can be summarized in the distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

Inspectional reading … becomes necessary when, as is sometimes the case, it is impossible to classify a book from its title and other front matter. In that case, you have to depend on signs to be found in the main body of the text. By paying attention to the words and keeping the basic categories in mind, you should be able to classify a book without reading very far.

A practical book will soon betray its character by the frequent occurrence of such words as “should” and “ought,” “good” and “bad,” “ends” and “means.” … In contrast, a theoretical book keeps saying “is,” not “should” or “ought.”

Let us caution you against supposing that the problem is as simple as telling whether you are drinking coffee or milk. We have merely suggested some signs whereby you can begin to make discriminations. The better you understand everything that is involved in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, the better you will be able to use the signs.


The traditional subdivision of theoretical books classifies them as history, science, and philosophy.

If you walked into a classroom in which a teacher was lecturing or otherwise instructing students, you could tell very soon whether the class was one is history, science, or philosophy. … and it would make a difference to you to know this, if you were going to try to listen intelligently to what went on.

In short, the methods of teaching different kinds of subject matter are different. Any teacher knows this. Because of the difference in method and subject matter, the philosopher usually finds it easier to teach students who have not been previously taught by his colleagues, whereas the scientist prefers the student whom his colleagues have already prepared. And so forth and so on.

Now, just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and their readers is the same as that between teachers and their students. … Hence, if we are to follow them, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner.

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.