How To Master A Book

I recently read Mortimer Adler’s "How To Read A Book." The book pretty much changed my life. I’ve always been an avid reader, but I thought that the only way to read a book is to start with page 1 and read all the way through to the end. I also follow the habit most of us were taught as children to internally verbalize each word, so I can only read as fast as I can "talk" to myself.


One of the first ideas I learned from this book (actually, from a couple of books I read which recommended "How To Read A Book") is that every book does not deserves the same level of  reading. Every book you read does not deserve to be read word by word and page by page. I wish I had known this when I read Kevin Trudeau’s books a couple of years ago. Don’t get me wrong; he has a lot of good information, but if you took out all of the "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore" lines, you’d be left with two chapters. Had I known the lessons "How To Read A Book" gives back then, I could have torn through both books rapidly and moved on to something else.


Another idea I got from the book that could be valuable to society is that a reader should reach a level of understanding of the subject matter of the book before providing criticism. We seriously need to teach that lesson in our schools. For an example of what I mean by criticizing a work without reading to a proper understanding, see this post. Philosopher and professor and author J. P. Moreland wrote a paper called "How Evangelicals Became Overcommitted to the Bible and What can be Done About It." The paper was presented at a meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. It was a paper written by scholars for scholars. Much of the criticism that I have read about the paper doesn’t seem to take into account any more than the title. I’m not here to open up another debate on this subject or point any fingers; I’m just using this as an example of my point.


I’ve been meaning to create an outline or cheat sheet of "How To Read A Book", but other things seem to be more important each week since I got the idea. In the meantime, I’ve read several books and although I’ve learned many interesting concepts and absorbed new ideas, I haven’t felt like I’ve mastered any of these books. I’ve even unearthed some of the books I read last year to attempt to sift through them for mastery.


Greg Koukl from Stand To Reason released his latest "Solid Ground" newsletter, which turned out to be exactly what I needed. Titled "How To Read Less More", this newsletter provides a process similar to "How To Read A Book." I’ve been slowly following this process as I read through James Emery White’s "The Prayer God Longs For." As a very short book, this one seems ideal for learning to apply the process presented by Greg Koukl before I attempt to take on something more challenging like "The Complete Works of Josephus" or "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."


How To Read A Book The Prayer God Longs For


If you’re interested in learning how to master a book, check out the 4 page newsletter. A Summary of the process proposed is as follows:





  • Get a sense of the book in 10-20 minutes.

  • Read jacket copy, contents, skim preface & introduction, read conclusion (last 3 pages) and skim the index. Note publisher and date of publication

  • Quickly read through the entire book at the rate of 2-3 seconds per page.

  • Determine if you want to read the book more thoroughly, give it away, or file it for future reference.





  • Skim the entire book at a slower rate (4-10 seconds per page), breaking the book in as you go.

  • Look for structure, outline, key facts, and concepts.

  • Write a quick summary for the book in pencil on the title page.





  • Preview each chapter again before you read it to get the structure (4-10 seconds per page).

  • Read each word at the fastest comfortable speed using a pointer so you don’t wander, hesitate, regress, or lose your place. Mark the margin, but don’t underline the text.

  • Write a 1-4 sentence summary in pencil at the beginning of the chapter. This serves as a quick overview of the contents of the chapter.

  • Sketch a quick outline or recall pattern.


Postview Immediately



  • Re-read the chapter quickly, focusing on marked sections, interacting with the text.

  • Refine your 1-4 sentence summary at the beginning of the chapter, if necessary.

  • Review at regular intervals, looking over recall patterns and summary materials.


I may print a few copies of the sidebar from the newsletter and make bookmarks out of them.


As I said, I’ve been working through this with a small book to get the feel for the process. I have found some positives and negatives. For instance, I do enjoy reading casually, but this is a highly active process. Even with a short book, I find it hard to keep up with this process in between my kids jumping on me or other interruptions. Most books that I read these days must be read in between family interruptions. The chapter summary helps me to remember what the author said, but when I’m halfway through writing my summary and get a "Daddy, I want a sippy with juice", I can often forget what exactly I meant to write for my summary when I get back to the book. OK, I can sometimes put off the sippy, but when one of my kids throws a choo-choo at the other’s head, I sort of have to drop the book immediately to dispense comfort and discipline.


What was written above, with the exception of minor edits, has been sitting for a couple of weeks. I have not gotten back to the book I was reading since. I’ve had a few reasons, like a huge stage of magazines that has piled up over the years that I’ve attempted to plow through. All told though, I find this method to be a little too challenging for my current stage of life. In order to follow this format properly, a lot of discipline and dedicated reading time is required. I’m simply not able to follow it in a few minutes at a time at home. I may have to make some modifications. I like the idea of "mastering" a book, so I’ll keep working on it. If you don’t have small children or if you can dedicate yourself to following a process like this, let me know how it works out.





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