How to Read a Book Inspectionally

reading groups reading critical reading how to read a book reading strategies inspectional reading how to read fast how to read well pedagogy

Art Carden for AdamSmithWorks

Inspectional reading is a tool that can make us better readers, scholars, and lifelong learners.
I like Great Books, and I cannot lie: I agree with Francis Bacon, who wrote that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” As a reader, you want to be like the sarlacc: slowly digesting the books that are worth the effort.

The problem is that you don’t have the thousand years or so that it might take to fully and completely digest books like The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Scholars devote entire careers to reading these and books like them with diligence and attention. If even the professionals struggle so mightily with Great Books, what hope does a busy undergraduate with a full course load have? Even if you’re able to take a short-term course during a Jan Term or a May Term or a summer term, what hope do you possibly have of getting all there is to get out of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations in three or four weeks?

First, you need to accept the simple fact that you won’t. Books like these aren’t to be blitzed through and displayed on a shelf like a hunting trophy. Reading a truly great book is a lifelong project. Second, you need to think about the best way to approach a great book in the time you have.

Enter Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic How to Read a Book. I didn’t read it until I’d been out of graduate school for a few years (I didn’t read TMS either until after I had finished grad school--in a lot of ways, I’m not sure my education began until I was a faculty member). Adler and Van Doren are ambitious, but they are ambitious in ways that will make it easier for the aspiring reader to get a lot out of very difficult books quickly. This past January Term, my students and I practiced inspectional reading before we really dug in. Adler and Van Doren claim that one can do a good inspectional reading with about an hour of focused attention. Maybe it’s more like two or three hours for people like you and me, but inspectional reading helps one enter into conversation with a difficult book very quickly--and, I find, it makes it harder to misread passages or take them out of context during closer, more careful reading because the reader doesn’t go into more advanced reading without at least a sense of the whole work.

When people pick up a new book, they tend to open it to page 1 and start reading. As Adler and Van Doren point out, this is a mistake, and it helps explain why people put books back down in confusion, boredom, or both after twenty pages or so. Inspectional reading makes it harder to get bored, confused, or lost. Here’s my paraphrase of Adler and Van Doren on inspectional reading.

  1. Read the title page and preface (if there is one) very carefully. You can learn a lot about a book by its title. In How to Read a Book, they note that a lot of people misunderstand Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire because they don’t read the title carefully and think he’s writing about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. They misunderstand Darwin by thinking The Origin of Species is “The Origin of the Species” and is, therefore, a treatise on the origins of humanity. Amusingly, they later say that you can’t understand Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations without first reading Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments. In the case of TMS, you can get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting yourself into, how TMS fits in Smith’s system generally, and how even the great Adam Smith struggled to finish what he started (he never did finish his treatise on jurisprudence) from the “Advertisement” at the beginning.
  2. Read the Table of Contents carefully. Smith’s tables of contents give you an abridged summary of the book’s main points, and this edition hosted online for $0 from Liberty Fund includes summary statements on each paragraph by Edwin Cannan. If you read the tables of contents for Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy (and our Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, which I also assigned in the Jan Term course), you’ll get a pretty good idea of what she’s arguing. 
  3. Read the index, looking to see what in the text is important. This seems like a waste of time, but it isn’t. You get a pretty good idea of what the book contains from a good index, and you can get a pretty good idea of what’s important to the author and what isn’t. Maybe go to a few of the indexed pages when you see something that looks important and that figures prominently in the Table of Contents (“virtue,” for example, in TMS).
  4. Adler and Van Doren also recommend reading the publisher’s blurb on the book jacket if there is one. At the very least, it usually tells you the main argument.
  5. Identify what look like the important chapters and then see if they have summary statements. Introductions and conclusions both to the book itself and to the individual chapters themselves are especially important. Smith’s “Plan of the Work” for WN is essential, for example. Most authors follow some variation of the “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em” formula. Readers should take advantage of this.
  6. Flip through the book, reading a few sentences or paragraphs here and there based on what sticks out to you (you’re primed to see what sticks out after steps 1-5). I’ve heard people advise reading the first sentence of every paragraph, which is a laudable goal but not necessary for an inspectional reading.

With an inspectional reading under your belt, you’re ready to read a book analytically and really study its argument. You don’t yet know the book, but you know enough about the book to state its argument reasonably completely in your own words. And that’s good enough for undergraduates and graduate students as an inspectional reading of a book like TMS or WN is the beginning of a lifelong intellectual journey. A book like TMS or WN is to be savored over a lifetime, and inspectional reading is an important step toward developing the reader’s intellectual palate.

Related Links:

Arnold Kling, Diminishing Returns and Life
Amy Willis, Rhapsody in Reading

Jon Murphy

This is really helpful. One of the things I've really had to learn in grad school is how to read. I'm going to try this method!

Peter Brown

I would only add that it is well worth bookmarking passages which attract your attention as you are completing your inspection. Bookmark them even if you don’t think they are immediately relevant; they will no doubt come in useful in the future. And they will serve as waymarkers if you wish to delve deeper in the future.

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