Read to Succeed in University

When I teach advanced reading to a sophomore or junior class in university, I begin by making this claim. I tell my students that if I am going to conference, a leadership meeting or any other gathering where we will be discussing a topic, whether it’s parenting, leadership, economics, theology, and on and on (not physics or calculus, but most other fields), I can read an important 400 to 500 page book about that topic in 5 hours while I am on the plane. When I get there, I will be able to have an intelligent conversation about that topic with people who are experts in the field. Not only that, I will know enough about what I am talking about to learn more and make a contribution at the meeting. Surprisingly, my students are less skeptical than they are curious to know more. I think that they sense that they are going to learn something really important during the next few classes. And almost every student wants to learn how to do such a feat. Then, I tell them that the reasong that I can do this is that I am a genius, so they ought not expect to do such a marvelous thing. They look at each other, look at me like I’m a braggart, and start muttering. Then, after a pause, I say, “Just kidding.”

Now, I am a professional reader. But I wasn’t always proficient like I am today. And I have a lot more room for improvement — I am not a genius! As you have no doubt heard through the popularization of expertise research, it takes 10,000 hours of good practice to become an expert at something. I have done my time. I have done my 10,000 hours of good practice. Along the way I realized that while everyone doesn’t want to read like a professor, everyone wants to learn to read better. And everyone can.

In this article I will dispose of the worst way to read a non-fiction book and introduce you to some powerful, active reading skills. Not all of them, but the first ones. If you make a commitment to these, if you practice them, they will become second nature. They are simple, but they are not easy. They require readers to commit themselves to getting better. If you make this commitment, I guarantee that you will accelerate your learning in any field, unless it is advanced mathematics or physics. Even then, whenever you read a non-fiction book that is not filled with formulas you will improve. Once you commit yourself to these skills, there are more to learn.

First, let’s dispose of the wrong way to read a non-fiction book. It is called passive reading. When you open up a book at the Introduction and proceed to read a book from start to finish, you are reading passively. I will not go into all the drawbacks of passive reading in this article, because I assume that you want to get to the guts of how to read better. Active reading, in contrast to passive reading, means that you are reading like a detective. You will dig through the book and bend it to your needs. You will trash it as quickly as you can, digging through it for the good stuff. Furthermore, like a good detective you will use some outside resources to assist you in discovering the author’s POV, their biases and what they are selling. You are now in charge of the book.

Now, let’s begin to read a book. Please pick up a non-fiction book that you want to learn from. Any book that you are using to improve in your field will have an index, footnotes or end notes, and possibly a bibliography. If a non-fiction book doesn’t have an index, and if it is not a memoir or first person biography, then you ought to be immediately suspicious. What this tells you is that the author is going to spend the whole book presenting you with opinions that are not supported or opposed by others in the field. All opinions are not equal. A book that is not build upon the work of others will have opinions that are less equal than one that supports the author’s claims and defends them against counterclaims. So, quit buying, borrowing and reading books without indexes, as a general rule (there are exceptions, but I want to keep this article short).

I am skipping some steps right now to get to what I believe are a few of the most essential tasks to master. First, quickly read the Introduction. You are only looking for a few things: the general topic of the book, the major claim(s)that the author will try to support, and the general content of each chapter. This information provides you the general direction of the book. You can usually find all of these things in the first two pages and the last two pages of the Introduction. Skim the rest of Introduction quickly if you want, to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

Once you have an idea of what the author is trying to do, it’s time to go to the Index of the book. Consider a recipe for making a fancy dish, something that you cannot whip up on your own. What do you need to know before you can do the chopping, dicing and cooking? You need a list of ingredients and the quantities of each ingredient. That is why you read to find an the index; to discover the key ingredients of the book and the quantities in which each ingredient will be used. When you get to the index, get a scratch pad out. I use an 81/2 by 11 yellow pad to take notes. Then, go through the index quickly one time to see how often topics and authors are cited. Now you have an idea of which topics will be most important. Then, go through a second time and write down the 8 to 15 topics with the most page numbers behind each topic. For each topic, write down the page where it is first mentioned. Secondly, write down the first place in the book where there are two or more pages related to the topic. Do this for each of the most popular topics. Next, write down the 8 to 10 most commonly cited other authors in the book and do the same.

Once you have your list of topics and authors, it’s time to go to work. Go to the pages that you listed for each topic and read them. How does the author define these terms or describe these topics? Speculate on the perspective the author has on each of these topics, based on your sampling. Why are they important for this book? You know the author’s general destination. How will the author use these topics to get there. Once you’ve considered that for one topic, go on to the next. When you have read a little bit about each of the author’s most frequently cited topics, sit back and think for a few minutes. How do these topics relate to each other? How is the author going to put them together to persuade you of whatever major ideas the author is trying to “sell”? What do you think? Do they make sense to you?

Next, and this part takes a bit of discipline, go to the most frequently quoted authors. Do you know who they are already? Do you think you know what they believe? Are there certain books or articles linked to this author. Put the book down and pick up your scratch pad. Go to Wikipedia. Go to Look up these author’s names. Who are they? When did they live? Where? What do they do? What POV do you think they have about the author’s topic? If you can find their books on Amazon, what do some of the best reviewers say about their books, their strengths and flaws? Take a few notes. Then, dig into your book. Read the pages where each of these authors is cited for the first time and the next pages where your author goes into more detail about these other authors. Is your author going to use their work to support the content of this book, or is your author going to use their books as opponents? Do these choices make sense to you?

Once you have taken the time to do this, you will be forming an opinion of this book. You have opened a dialogue with the book and you have developed some opinions of it, with a broader foundation than the book itself. Once you practice this skill, like cooking, you will begin to recognize the recipes being used, the ingredients, and you will begin to develop a sense for the “taste” of abook. At this point, you will be able to begin reading this book, topic by topic, from an informed perspective. There are further steps to take that will make your reading even more effective and faster, but these are the essential first steps to become an active reader.

One final word, if your children are juniors or seniors in high school, do them a favor and teach them to read like this. They will do improve their learning rapidly. Essay writing and reading assignments will be more interesting and their work will be much more thoughtful. If you are already out of school and you are reading to improve your career or your home life, you will find that you progress much more rapidly. This is the beginning of active reading, the beginning of reading to succeed.