My tutor at Oxford used to set me weekly essays and give a long reading list of books and articles. My first reaction was “how can I read all this in a week?” His reply was smooth and fluent: “Read the Conclusion first, then the Introduction, then the End again, then flick through for interesting arguments or examples. For goodness sake, Richard, don’t read the whole bloody thing, except for enjoyment.”
That’s an important caveat. If you’re reading for pleasure, read away. But if you main purpose is to learn something, the 80/20 principle can help you.
I have always followed my tutor’s advice. But there is a bit more to reading a book than that.
Seven Rules for Super-Productive Reading
Rule 1 – before you start, write the date you start reading the book on the left of the top of the title page. When you’ve finished the book, write the date on the right side of the same page. This will measure your productivity and the interest in the book. If you are considering reading the book again, a short period between the two dates will indicate you probably should do so.
Rule 2 – read the back cover and the flaps (if any) first.
It’s astonishing how much of the argument of a book can be put in a very few words. These days publishers make the authors boil it all down so you can pick up a book and get the point of it immediately. Also helpful are the ‘blurbs’ or short sentences of praise on the back of the book. That and the title – which is a work of art if done well – will tell you about half of what you want to know.
Total time to do this – 30 seconds.
Decision – put the book back (if in a bookshop) or go to the next screen. If you are on Amazon, you can do the same thing by scanning the reviews – takes a bit longer but usually worthwhile.
Rule 3 – Read the Conclusion or Last Chapter
My tutor was right.
First read the last page or two, hopefully headed Conclusion, and if not, the last bit of text separated from the rest by a break of a few lines. Failing that, the last page.
Then read the whole of the last chapter quickly. Continue until you see what the author thinks he or she has established.
Rule 4 – As you read, use colored pens to highlight key passages
This is vital for two reasons – one, you will retain the argument much better if you are on the lookout for the few passages which really encapsulate the argument or provide excellent examples; and two, if the book is worth revisiting in the future, you will be able to pick it up and just read the identified passages. Let’s say these are about five percent of the total content of the book – this means you can read it again twenty times faster than if you read it all.
I used the pens of many colors including orange, cherry, light blue, and purple. You can color-code the entries according to your own personal taste – for example, purple for the most important passages, red for those you think are unproven or contentious, and green for the examples or data you like best. I draw a line down the margin if a whole section is key, and underline only a few vital words or occasionally a whole sentence. Of course, you can use a yellow highlighter if you want, but I find pens more satisfying, to add my own comments in the margin.
Rule 5 – Read the Introduction
Read the first 2 or 3 pages. Hopefully you will come to a break in the text by then. Then read the last 2 or 3 pages of the Introduction – again, being guided by the last continuous bit of text. The Introduction should set up what the author is trying to test – that is, what he or she thinks the book is about. You will probably also get hints as to where the author is going to come out. But of course, you are ahead of the average reader, because you know where the author will end up, from reading the last chapter.
Some authors are sneaky, slipping in a Preface or Foreword. These are of variable quality and relevance, sometimes constituting an introduction to the Introduction, which is either intriguing or annoying. If there is text before the Introduction, read it quickly.
Rule 6 – Read the conclusion again, probably just the bits you have identified as key
This will ensure that the book’s essential tidings become fixed in your mind.
Rule 7 – Dip into the rest of the book very selectively
Near the end of the Introduction, there is usually an explanation of what’s in each chapter. This enables you to decide your strategy for the rest of the book, perhaps picking one of these options:
With this method, you could read ten times as many books in a lifetime. Even better, reading a book selectively is a superior mental exercise. And by highlighting the key passages, you can re-read a great book many times, with huge economy of effort and time. As always, the 80/20 method is quicker, more enjoyable, and adds meaning to your life.