How to Read a Non-Fiction Book

The following steps for reading a non-fiction book were adapted from Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book (New York, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1972).

  1. Read the publisher's blurb on the back cover.
  2. Read the title page and preface. What is the subject of the book?
  3. Identify the type of book: history, philosophy, science, mathematics, how to, etc.
  4. Read the table of contents and index. Identify and define key terms.
  5. Skim the entire book. Identify and skim the chapters that seem pivotal to the book's argument. Read the opening and closing paragraph of each pivotal chapter.
  6. Read the last 2-3 pages of the book.
  7. Begin reading the book. As you read, write in observations using consistent conventions:
    • Underline short quotes.
    • Make vertical line in the margin for long quotes.
    • Mark important statements with an asterisk.
    • Use numbers to indicate the sequence of points being made.
    • Circle keywords and phrases.
    • Add cross references to other pages in the book or to other books.
    • Use the margin to record questions, reduce complicated discussions to a single statement and record the sequence of major points.
  8. Read each chapter all the way through without stopping. Go back and review parts of the chapter you do not understand.
  9. Look for the following while reading:
    • Problems presented and the solutions provided.
    • Unsolved problems.
    • Areas where the author is uninformed (unaware of relevant knowledge).
    • Areas where the author is misinformed (incorrect in assertions about relevant knowledge).
    • Areas where the author is illogical.
    • Implications/ ramifications the author overlooks.
    • Distinctions the author fails to make.
  10. Use the back page of the book to create an index with page numbers of key quotes and ideas.
  11. What are you going to do about what you've read? When are you going to take action? Where? With who? Tell someone what your plans are and follow through.