Traveling around the country I find that more and more people have an urge to pry into such difficult subjects as science, philosophy, religion, economics and political theory. One clear sign of this is the widespread circulation of the serious books that are now found everywhere in paper-back editions. Decidedly, people want to go further and deeper in their thinking about many things which we used to feel were the monopoly of specialists and scholars.
More often than not, however, this urge soon dries up. People find that the book which they open with high hopes of enlightenment turns out to be beyond their grasp. They think that the subject must require more background than they have, and they quit.
Actually, any book intended for the general reader can be understood if you approach it in the right way. What is the right approach? The answer lies in one important — and paradoxical — rule of reading. You should read a book through superficially before you try to master it.
Most of us were taught in school to go to a dictionary when we met an unfamiliar word. We were told to consult an encyclopedia, scholarly commentaries or other secondary sources to get help with statements we couldn’t understand. The rule to follow on tackling a difficult book calls for exactly the opposite procedure.
Look first for the things you can understand, and refuse to get bogged down in the difficult passages. Read right on past paragraphs, footnotes, arguments and references that escape you. There will be enough material which you can immediately grasp, and soon it will add up to a substantial foothold from which to climb further. The amount you understand by a quick reading — even if it is only 50 percent or less — will help you to carry some light back to the places which left you in the dark.
The tremendous pleasure that comes from reading Shakespeare was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, Hamlet or Macbeth scene by scene, to look up all the new words and to study all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never really read the play. By the time they got to the end they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole. Instead of being forced to take this pedantic approach, they should have been encouraged to read the play in one sitting and discuss what they got out of that first quick reading. Then they would have been ready to study the play carefully, for they would have understood enough of it to be able to learn more.
The best proof of the soundness of this rule — give a book a first superficial reading — is what happens when you don’t follow it. Take a basic work in economics such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. If you insist on understanding everything on one page before you go on to the next you won’t get very far. In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points that Smith so clearly makes — about the role of the market in determining prices, the evils of monopoly, the reasons for free trade.
What is true of The Wealth of Nations in the field of economics is equally true of J. S. Mill’s Representative Government in the field of political theory. These books are open to the layman if he approaches them in the right way; so also are a host of other books. In religion, the writings of Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich; in philosophy and psychology, the writings of William James, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell; in science, the works of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein. The writings of such specialists are probably not completely understandable by the layman, nor need they be. It is a considerable achievement if we can grasp. The essential part of what these great men are saying, about their principles, their methods and their aims.
In addition, it is well to remember that books can be not only good friends, but also passing acquaintances. Some of them can tell us what we want to know — or all they have to tell — from a brief chat, if we use them properly.
A variation on the method of giving a book a first superficial reading is the technique of skimming. You will never get from skimming what reading and study can give you, but it is a very practical way of dealing with the mass of books available to you. By skimming you can get, often with surprising accuracy, a general sense of the contents of a book. This enables you to file the book away in your mental index so that, should occasion arise in the future, you can go back to it, dig it up and dig deeper.
Giving a book a quick once-over is also a threshing process that allows you to separate the chaff from the real kernels of nourishment. You may discover that what you get from the skimming is all the book is worth to you for the time being. It may never be worth more. But you will then at least know what the author’s leading contention is, so the time you spent with the book will not have been wasted.
For skimming or reading, the following steps are a good way to begin giving a book the once-over:
- (1) Look at the title page and preface, and note especially the
- subtitle — or other indications of the scope and aim of the book
- or the author’s special angle.
- (2) Study the table of contents to get a general sense of the
- book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking
- a trip.
- (3) Check the index for the range of subjects covered or the
- kinds of authors quoted. When you see terms listed that seem
- crucial, look up the passage. You may find the key to the
- author’s approach.
Now you are ready to read the book or skim through it, as you choose. If you vote to skim it, look at the chapters which contain pivotal passages or summary statements in their opening or closing pages. Then dip into a page here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequence. Thumb through the book in this way, always looking for the basic pulse beat of the matter.
All this will add to your alertness while you read. How many times have you daydreamed through pages only to wake up to find that you have no idea of the ground you’ve been over? That cannot happen if you have a system for following a general thread.
One word of warning: if you use this approach and start to skim through a book, you may end up discovering that you aren’t skimming it at all. You are reading it, understanding it and enjoying it. When you put the book down it will be with the realization that the subject wasn’t such a tough one after all!
Published in Reader’s Digest (December, 1958, pgs 81-83): Condensed from Mayfair (November, 1958)
[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]