Mortimer Adler's book How to Read a Book (I have the revised 1972 edition) states:

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.

This is the rule for Inspectional Reading II: Superficial Reading.

If I choose the goal of reading books that pose a challenge to me or seek to increase my understanding on a subject, wouldn't those books always require a superficial reading? For example, should I give a superficial reading to Adler's own book How to Read a Book given I'm new to the subject matter that he is covering?

How can I judge what is "difficult" without first reading superficially? And if it's not difficult, does it deserve anything other than a superficial reading? In other words, is it best to always take a first quick superficial read through the book and then a second pass to read at the analytical level?


2 Answers 2


In order to judge whether the book as it the right level for you, you should tackle the stage "Inspectional Reading I: Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading" with this question in mind. Adler and Van Doren's sixth suggestion for that step says:

Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence, never more than that. [1]

While the authors advise to do this, among other things, as a way of "looking for signs of the main contention", it is important to also check the book's level of difficulty. Since this type of inspectional reading also involves looking at the table of contents, you can look for chapters about topics that you are least familiar with and read a few paragraphs in those. If the book uses some kind of formal language, such as formulas, check whether those formulas assume knowledge that you already have. So you don't need to read the entire book superficially to judge whether it is at the right level; you should establish this before you read the book.

(Strictly speaking, Adler's advice also applies to his own book, but of course you need to find out what his guidance is before you can apply it.)

[1] This quote is from the edition co-authored with Charles Van Doren, which was first published in 1972.


Some books are impossible to write in a way that they can be understood if read linearly (dictionaries and encyclopedias are extreme examples).

Other books could be written so that they are very easy to follow, but they make poor reference books (most of Isaac Asimov's non-fiction books and essays are like this).

Other books, especially technical reference books, need to be organized into topics, and there will almost certainly be circular dependencies among those topics (Computer language books are like this).

When I learn a new computer language for instance, I start at the beginning and quickly read through to the end. But I'll often see concepts that I don't understand, and sometimes I'll have to give up half way through a chapter and skip to the next because I'm totally lost.

But when I'm reading like this, I don't try to learn anything specific. What I do is remember the concepts, ideas, and keywords, without necessarily understanding them.

Then, I'll read it again, but this time when the book refers to some new concept, I'll already have some idea about it from having seen it later in the book. Not everything will make sense yet, but each pass through the book will become easier.

Eventually I'll decide I've got a good handle on what is there, even though I don't yet understand everything. Then I'll try to use what I've learned (i.e. write a program), and I'll use the book as a reference to look up the important details that I didn't learn. But what I did learn is that the details are in the book, and I have a good idea where.

You could compare the process to getting a quick look at a painting. The first time you learn that it's a forest scene. The second time, you recognize pine and birch trees, and you see a clearing with something in it. The third time you get more details about what that something is. And so on. Eventually you'll be studying the details of the artist's brush strokes.

But to answer the question, if a book should be read superficially, you'll know it; almost every time you start a new chapter you'll find yourself struggling to understand what it's talking about.
(Of course some books will be impossible to understand no matter how many times one reads them.)

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