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.