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How to Read Non-Fiction Books

One may read for entertainment, information, or understanding. Here I consider how to read non-fiction books with the goal of gaining understanding about a topic. These approaches may apply to shorter works, but few will apply to fiction.

Many non-fiction books are repetitive, disorganized, incorrect, inconsistent, or merely irrelevant. Thus the first step of reading a book is to deduce how worthwhile it is.

Start by skimming the preface, introduction, and concluding chapters. Study the table of contents. If available, use the index can help locate passages relevant to the topic you wish to understand.

A book may only be worth a quick skim, or perhaps not reading at all. Good books are worth reading critically. One advantage of reading classics is that many people, or at least many dead white men, decided they are worthwhile. Thus you are less likely to waste time reading them.

Even if you decide a book is worthwhile, first read it straight through, avoiding the urge to ponder it too deeply or to look up footnotes or unfamiliar words. In this manner you can get through even a long book quite quickly. Then, critically read the book a second time.

The best way to read critically is to ask questions of the author, and to write responses to these questions. Asking questions makes you engage with the author’s ideas. These questions are a good place to start:

  1. What is the author saying?
  2. Do I agree, in whole or in part?
  3. Is it significant?

You can ask these of an entire book as well as for parts of the book.

How often has someone asked you what a book is about and you have been unable to provide a good summary? Identifying and succinctly stating a book’s key points is difficult. If you can do so, you have answered the first question. (Many bad books have little structure, and are thus difficult to outline.)

Once you are really sure you understand the author, one must critique them. When answering the second question, be careful not to form an opinion too quickly—especially if you are predisposed to agree or disagree. Be aware that authors may define words differently than you expect. As in conversation, authors may oversimplify yet be correct in a bigger sense.

The last question helps one decide how the contents of the book affect you own life.

Many of these ideas were inspired by Mortimer Alder’s How to Read a Book.