How To: Read a Book (A Guide to Critical Reading)

Why do we read? The answer, of course, is to understand. But what does it take to grasp the point of a particular book? What are the skills needed to read well? While certain texts may be harder to understand than others, it is important to employ the basic principles of good reading, so that each book can be read and evaluated according to the reader’s needs.

If we are to understand our reading, then we must engage the text with full attention. This requires thoughtful pre-reading and active engagement with the book.

The purpose of pre-reading is to understand as much information as possible about the book before reading through it completely. The more information generated before reading, the easier it will be to understand the author’s thesis. Pre-reading involves critically examining the parts of the book most often overlooked: the front and back covers of the book, the Preface, the Table of Contents, and the Conclusion. An examination of these parts should give the reader an accurate picture of the book, including the main theme, the intended audience, and the historical situation of the book.

After pre-reading, actively engage the text chapter by chapter, always keeping in mind the author’s thesis. Read as if the author was engaging you in a conversation. Actively participate by observing and evaluating the content and structure of the writing. Dialogue by taking notes on what the author is saying, how it is said, and what questions you have in response. After finishing each chapter, take a moment to write down final thoughts and reactions to the material.

After completing a book, the reader should know the basic thesis of the book as well as the intricacies of the argument. Evaluate the notes you took while reading and record your reactions to the book as a whole. If possible, compare the book to others on the same topic.

Preparation for Reading: Pre-Reading

Read the back of the book. Many times, there will be a short summary of the topics undertaken in the book.

  • What is this book about? Is the thesis broad or narrow?
  • How does the author intend to prove the thesis?
  • Is this the definitive book on this topic?
  • Are you familiar with other books that reference this topic?

Read the Preface. Often, an author uses the preface to include any important information about the book that would interfere with the structure of the book were this information to be included in the chapters. Note: not all prefaces will cover this material.

  • Where does this book fit historically within this field of study?
  • What important background information is discussed?
  • Does the author note the audience, main theme, or method of study?

Read the Table of Contents. This offers a brief overview of the structure of the book and can give a window into the author’s method of proving the thesis.

  • What is the progression of the book?
  • How is the thesis unpacked?

Read the Conclusion. If there is not a formal conclusion, read the last few pages of the last chapter. Take note of the conclusions to see if and how they are proven in the book. As all books are finite, do not ignore the author’s conclusions just because the book does not consider every issue.

  • Does the conclusion match the stated purpose of the book?
  • Does the author state the limits of the conclusions?

Engaging the Text: Chapter by Chapter

Find out the main point of the chapter. Read the introduction and conclusion of the chapter to understand why the author included this chapter in the book.

  • What is the basic message of this chapter?
  • What are the particular conclusions that must be verified by the argument of the chapter?

Observe how the main point is developed. Scan any subheadings to understand how the author is developing the chapter’s main point.

  • What main themes or concepts are discussed?
  • How do writing patterns develop or reinforce the point?

Resume reading from the beginning. Evaluate the chapter’s substance and whether the author succeeds at conveying the chapter’s message.

  • Are the arguments logical? Evaluate the arguments.
  • How does the author use evidence to substantiate the claims? Are these used correctly and fairly?
  • Are the author’s observations correct?
  • Are the conclusions convincing?

Further questions to ask when reading:

  • How does each chapter’s main theme further the thesis of the book?
  • What can be affirmed and what can be critiqued?
  • Do you agree? Why or why not?


Set the proper reading environment. Sit up straight in a good chair. Lay the book at an angle, instead of flat on a surface. Make sure there are good sources of light available.

Always read the Introduction or Preface to the book. Here, the author often states the main message of the book, along with situating the book within the historical dialogue and stating the intended audience.

Engage the book physically to best engage it intellectually. Follow the words with your fingers, not just with your eyes.

Record your thoughts. Write down the answers to the questions you asked during the reading and your reactions to the material. Take notes, but do not write in library books. If you do not own the book, make use of sticky notes, flags, or a writing journal. If the book is yours, make liberal use of underlining and marginal notes.

Avoid the temptation to stop reading when confused. Try to complete the section or chapter that you are reading before using other sources for help. Pay attention to the way the author addresses specific terms or concept. Try to understand the author using the author’s own words. The more times you stop in the middle of a chapter, the harder it will be to grasp the author’s point.

For more, see How to Read a Book, revised and updated edition, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972).