Here Adler comes to the first really practical advise about how to read a book. He advises the reader on how to pre-read a book.
Before we go through the detail of Adler's advise, we must first ask the question 'why pre-read a book?'
Here at Reformers Bookshop we know more than most that there are far too many books in the world to read all of them. And that fact alone is enough to warrant pre-reading. Adler notes that before we read a book, we must first determine whether or not we want to read it. Does it contain information we don't know already? Is it on a topic we are currently interested in? Are we already familiar with the authors argument and wouldn't gain much from reading the same argument again?
Enter pre-reading. Pre-reading enables you to answer these questions without investing days or weeks in completely reading a book.
Pre-reading also helps us if we do want to read the book as it will provide us with the high level picture of the author's ideas which will enable us to place ourselves in the context of the author's discussion once we get deeper into the book.
It is much like using maps on your phone. You start with the high level so you have an idea of where you are going before zooming in to see the detail. If you only looked at the detail it would make following the suggested route much tricker and more confusing.
So, how do we pre-read a book? Alder gives us 6 simple steps that can be completed in a few minutes up to an hour depending on the type of book. They are:
1. Read the Title and Preface
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the title of a book can tell you a lot about the authors main point. Often books also have subtitles which will give further clues as to the author's arguments. Adler recommends pausing after this step to place the book in a category in your mind - what are some other books that you know of that are on a similar topic?
2. Examine the Table of Contents
Authors often spend a lot of time on the table of contents and a lot can be learnt about the discussion by carefully reading the table of contents. The best contents for this are detailed with descriptive chapter headings and potentially even subheadings in the table of contents. Unfortunately many modern books are being given shorter, sometimes cryptic table of contents but even then, much can be gained from reading it.
3. Check the Index
If a book has an index it can provide clues as to the important themes of the book. Look for terms that are mentioned frequently and look up some of the referenced pages for those highly used terms.
4. Read the Blurb
The blurb is another area that authors and publishers spend a lot of time on. It can provide further clues to help you pin down what to expect in the book.
5. Look at the Key Chapters
Now that you have some idea of the topic being discussed, the main points at hand, as well as the flow of the argument, pick out those chapters from the table of contents that you think are most important. Find those chapters in the book and start reading the first and last paragraph.
For example, some books start with a few chapters of background information - laying foundational principles. The follow this with the 2 or 3 key chapters of the book where the author provides their core concept. The last chapters are then dedicated to applying that concept to life. In this case, the middle chapters are the ones to flick to and find the summarising paragraphs at the start and/or end of those chapters.
6. Thumb through the Book, dipping in and out, reading a paragraph here and there.
What you are looking for here is clues as to the main contention of the author. Above all, Alder advises, look at the last few pages of the book. Authors commonly summarise their points in the last part of the book and so much can often be learned from these pages.