How to Read a Difficult Book

Traveling around the country I find that more and more people have an urge to pry into such difficult subjects as science, philosophy, religion, economics, and political theory.

More often than not, however, this urge soon dries up. People find that the book which they open with high hopes of enlightenment turns out to be beyond their grasp. Actually, any book intended for the general reader can be understood if you approach it in the right way. What is the right approach? The answer lies in one important rule of reading. You should read a book through superficially before you try to master it.

Look first for the things you can understand and refuse to get bogged down in the difficult passages. Read right on past paragraphs, footnotes, arguments and references that escape you. There will be enough material which you can immediately grasp—even if it is only 50% or less—that will enable you to understand the book in part.

A variation on the method of giving a book a first superficial reading is the technique of skimming. You will never get from skimming what reading and study can give you, but it is a very practical way of dealing with the mass of books available to you. By skimming you can get, often with surprising accuracy, a general sense of the contents of a book.

For skimming or reading, the following steps are a good way to begin giving a book the once-over.

  1. Look at the title page and preface, noting especially the sub-titles or other indications of the scope and aim of the book or the author's special angle.
  2. Study the table of contents to get a general sense of the book's structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip.
  3. Check the index for the range of subjects covered or the kinds of authors quoted. When you see terms listed that seem crucial, look up the passage. You may find the key to the author's approach.

Now you are ready to read the book or skim through it, as you choose. If you vote to skim it, look at the chapters which contain pivotal passages or summary statements in their opening or closing pages. Then dip into a page here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in a sequence. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for the basic pulse beat of the matter.

One word of warning: If you use this approach and start to skim through a book, you may end up discovering that you aren't skimming it at all. You are reading it, understanding it, and enjoying it. When you put the book down, it will be with the realization that the subject wasn't such a tough one after all.

Reproduced by permission from RSSL, University of Maryland

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