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.