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.