If you’ve decided to read more, you’re not alone. According to Statista in 2018, 23% of respondents resolved to read more in the new year. Yet reading surged in the early days of the pandemic, with 41% of respondents reporting reading more books.
One of the challenges with books is making time to read them all. In their classic guide How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren propose a solution: Don’t try to read them all, because most of them aren’t worth it. They write, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”
You can get the best ideas from most books simply by skimming them. Skimming also prepares you to learn more when you actually read the book. Howard Yale McClusky published an experiment in the Journal of Educational Psychology that concluded that preliminary skimming could improve the subsequent reading process for students.
There are two levels to Adler and Van Doren’s method of skimming. One involves sifting through the table of contents, the index, and conclusions of each chapter and making note of what you already know or whether this book contains information you want to learn.
The second is known as superficial reading, which is basically reading through a book really fast, just to get a surface-level understanding of it. You may know superficial reading as “speed reading,” a term popularized in the 1950s by Evelyn Wood and her husband. It has since become a key part of self-help, with an author or startup reviving interest in it every few years or so.
Even though speed reading is a useful technique, our obsession with reading faster and learning more is misplaced. Reading two books doesn’t make a person twice as learned as a person who reads one book twice (or even once, carefully). Here’s how you can really use skimming to your advantage.
Read 10% of a nonfiction book, and apply one lesson from it
Similarly, Curtis Jackson writes in Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter, after reading The 48 Laws of Power, all he can remember is, “As the student, never outshine the master.” He muses,
“There were 47 other laws in that book, but that’s the one that stayed lodged in my brain. And because it’s never left me, I’ve been able to apply it so many times over the years. I’ve literally made millions by remembering to follow that principle.”
Don’t feel bad for skimming instead of reading. The author would likely appreciate that you’ve at least skimmed their book, rather than not read it at all. And if the book was any good, it’s likely that when you skim the book you’ll realize how important it is you read the whole thing. I generally like to read 50 pages, but they don’t have to be the first 50.
Skim uninteresting books
“I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them,” author and master choreographer Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit. Tharp is in search of inspiration or insights that she can apply to her work. If you can relate to Tharp—and need to read documents for your work, or to improve your skills—then the technique of skimming will be incredibly useful. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read for fun; it’s worth noting that reading for pleasure has its own health benefits as well.
Put down a book that you feel obligated to finish
Francis Bacon said,
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
I could relate to Bacon’s comparison of reading on food. Whenever I picked up a book, I felt the need to finish it, an impulse similar to finishing all the food on my plate.
Read more slowly
When you do find a book you like, don’t try to rush through it to the end. Slow down and take notes. Reread certain parts you don’t understand. Connect the book’s ideas with other ideas or experiences you have.
Skimming, or speed reading, is simply a tool to support the overall reading experience, but it is not an alternative to reading. It helps you choose the right thing to read. Learning is not about how many books you read, or even how fast you read. It’s about what you get from each of those books, and deliberately choosing which books to spend your hours, days, weeks, months, and years with.
Herbert Lui is the author of There Is No Right Way to Do This, a book that supports people with their creative work. He is also the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle, an editorial studio that makes publications for software companies.