How to Read a Book: Understand its Structure

Posted by Thomas Eglinton on

Rule number 1 of Analytical Reading was: Know what kind of book you are reading.

Rule number 2 of Analytical Reading is: State what the book is about in one sentence.

We are up to rule number 3 of Analytical Reading which is: State the major parts of the book, how they are organised and how they relate to the whole.

What this rule is getting at is that to read well you need to be able to understand the flow of a book. How does the author make their argument? Can you detail the major points of the discussion?

It is worth pointing out that this can be done at different levels. At a high level you might be able to come up with 5-10 main points that make up the book. Going deeper, you could come up with sub-points that fit underneath the high level structure. These sub-points may also be divisible into a logical flow.

For the most part, I think you want to be able to define the major parts of a book at a high level in order to have a reasonable understanding of what the book is about. Considering this as you read is a helpful practice as it helps the reader remember what the book is about. It aids in understanding the book.

As with rule 2, perhaps an example or two will help us learn rule 3.

Consider Rico Tice's brilliant book Honest Evangelism. Applying rule 2 to this book would result in something like this:

Honest Evangelism is about why and how to tell people about who Jesus is and what He has done.

Applying rule 3 might result in something like this:

Honest Evangelism is split into two major parts with multiple sub-parts. Here is my breakdown of the first major part:

A. Why we should tell people about Jesus.

a) Even though evangelism is hard, that shouldn't come as a surprise and so shouldn't dissuade us (first part of chapter 1).

b) More and more people are hungry for truth and evangelism meets that need (the second part of chapter 1).

c) Three key motivators to tell people about Jesus being: Jesus glory and honour, the fact that we will all spend eternity somewhere, and the grim reality of hell.

d) The fact that we often don't evangelise because there is something we are worshiping above Jesus - an idol.

e) Three truths to help us move from being 'comfortable' Christians to being evangelists: the sovereignty of God, the graciousness of God and the power of God. God put people in front of you, gives salvation to his people and is powerful to change the hearts of sinners.

 

So, try this with the book you are currently reading. Sketch an outline of the major parts and the sub-parts of the books argument.

You don't have to write this down for every book you read but it is very helpful to think about a book in this way as you are reading it. Try to identify the major points that the author is making. Try to think through the structure of the discussion. This will help you in a couple of ways:

  1. It will help you to remember the thrust of the book.
  2. It will help you engage with the author. You can ask questions such as does the argument make sense? Do you agree with each of the sub-points?

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