Big Brain Ideas

How to Read a Book, Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading

First, you may notice that I skipped Chapter 3: The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading. I skipped it because elementary reading is such a basic concept that I didn’t find anything insightful in the short chapter that talked about it. I figured our time would be better spent on more useful things.

Key Ideas

The two key ideas covered in Chapter 3 are systematic skimming and superficial reading.

Systematic Skimming

This makes up the bulk of my notes on the chapter because it’s less obvious than superficial reading. The goal of systematic skimming is simple: quickly read through a book to (1) understand what the book is about and (2) whether it’s worth your time.

Adler has six suggestions for how to skim a book systematically:

I found some suggestions more helpful than others. We’ll talk about each suggestion in turn, and then I’ll share my own plans for systematic skimming in the future. I’ll also refer to having tried each suggestion myself. More on that later.

Look at the title page and, if the book has one, the preface

The title of some books can tell you a lot about the book itself. The book we’re talking about now is a good example: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. This book is about how to read a book intelligently. Great. Simple.

The preface can also tell you a lot. It’s usually written by the author and provides a summary of the book’s goals, either explicitly or implicitly. I found reading the preface to be one of the most helpful suggestions in understanding what a book is about.

Study the table of contents

This suggestion seemed really hit-or-miss to me, for the reason that Adler pointed out: tables of contents have become increasingly devoid of detail. In the books I looked at, the tables of contents were basically a list of pithy one-liners that didn’t tell you anything about what you could expect to learn from each chapter.

That said, I’ve come across books that have detailed tables of contents too. Any of the software books by Manning come to mind. This suggestion is more helpful when the table of contents contains a lot of details.

Check the index

Again, I found this suggestion to be unhelpful. It may be the books I chose, but the index usually references such a diverse range of topics that identifying a key theme was either impossible or would take more time than I was willing to give it.

For example, the index of Writing to Learn ranges from mathematics to philosophy to chemistry and so on. That makes sense given the wide range of topics talked about in the book, but it doesn’t help us understand that the point of the book is “writing is a good way to learn”.

Read the blurb on the dust cover

Not every book will have a dust cover, but you can usually find a blurb somewhere. Maybe it’s on the back of a paperback, or maybe it’s the description of the book on Amazon. Either way, this blurb usually serves two purposes:

We’re only concerned with figuring out what the book is about, so we want to look for the part of the blurb that serves the first purpose. Sometimes the two are mixed.

I found the blurbs helpful when boiling the book down into a single, short TL;DR. Other than that, the marketing hype got in the way of learning more.

Look at the summaries for each chapter pivotal to the book’s argument

I took a slightly different approach to this suggestion than the one Adler recommends. Instead of looking for chapters that seemed important to the book’s argument, I opted to read a summary of each chapter.

In the books I tried, the chapters didn’t have dedicated summaries, so I chose to read the first and last paragraphs and sometimes a bit more for context.

This suggestion was really time-consuming but enlightening. I discovered that, as I made my way through each chapter, I was able to see how each chapter played a role in the larger goal of the book. I plan to keep using this suggestion.

I also found that the notes I was taking for each chapter often weren’t what you’d expect based on the chapter’s title. I don’t think this is good or bad, but I found it interesting.

Turn the pages, dipping in here and there

I elected not to try this suggestion. After reading each chapter’s summary, I felt like I had a good understanding of what the book was about and whether it would serve my immediate needs. Your mileage may vary.

Additional suggestions

As mentioned above, I chose to read summaries of every chapter rather than only the chapters that seemed important to the book’s argument. I view this as a hedge against being wrong about which chapters are important. It takes a bit more time, but it felt worthwhile to me.

I also suggest looking at reviews on Amazon and Good Reads if you have the time. Personally, I ignore the 5-star reviews because they’ll say the book is great and the 1-star reviews because they’ll say the book is awful. I’m more interested in reviews that point out the perceived weaknesses of the book. 3-star and 4-star reviews are good for this. I also ignore any reviews that talk about irrelevant things like “the book didn’t automatically download to my Kindle, and I had to wait like 15 seconds ZOMG.”

Superficial Reading

A quote from Adler will sum this idea up quickly:

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

That’s all there is to it. If a book is difficult, you may need to read it more than once. Don’t worry about understanding everything on the first read. Each read will leave you with a better understanding than you had before.

If you’re interested, Augmenting Long-term Memory is a good example of superficial reading in practice, specifically the parts where the author talks about reading the AlphaGo paper.


This chapter gives us a system for effectively skimming through a book to decide what it’s about and whether it’s worth our time and some advice on handling books that are currently beyond our skill level.

These two skills seem useful in their own right, but I think their true utility will show up later when I get to the syntopical learning chapters, which makes sense. The more you read, the more opportunities you have to use these tools.

To systematically skim a book, try the following:

Remember that you have two goals:

Additionally, you can check out Amazon and Good Reads reviews for the book for some extra insight.

After reading this chapter, I decided to try inspectional reading out for myself on three books that I was planning to read after How to Read a Book:

I’ll share my notes from this exercise for each book in the next few days.

As always, I’m happy to talk more about anything here. Hit me up on Twitter.

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