How I read a book in 2 hours

I promised this post to my students. This is how it works for me:



  • quiet time, free of distractions and noises (TV, music with words)
  • clear, rested, focused mind (coffee or tea help, or read in the morning)
  • upright body posture to maintain alertness: sit at table, not lounge chair or bed. Look down at book.
  • keep large notebook & pen on hand (for outlining main argument and/or book’s structure)

Clear goals in mind:

  1. to understand what the book is about (TOPIC)
  2. to understand the MAIN ARGUMENT of the book
  3. to understand what types of SUPPORTING EVIDENCE the author uses to support the main argument

My strategy: get the big picture of the book by understanding its structure (outline).


I read word for word, in this order:

  • inside flap – b/c it’s usually a concise summary of the book
  • back cover – the praise for the book tells me in which contexts the book has been found useful (i.e. education, or marketing, or economics). This helps me place the book in context. (oh, this is useful for marketing professionals).
  • table of contents – I spend a lot of time with the table of contents, because it tells me what the outline/structure of the book is. If the chapter titles as smarty-pants instead of descriptive (boo!) I flip through the book to see what the author means by a certain smarty-pants chapter title. Here, I make my selections of chapters I might be more interested in than others.
  • Preface, Introduction, first chapter – the Introduction especially gives me 80% of what I need to know: the problem addressed in the book, the book’s main claim (thesis statement) and an overview of the contents of the book. I ask myself: if this book could be summarized in ONE sentence, what would this sentence be? I hunt for this sentence and underline it boldly when I find it (sometimes I find 2 or 3, but not more – you have to be very picky here).

For example, I think this is that ONE sentence from Content Nation, found in Ch. 1, p. 2:

“In the process of becoming publishers who can reach and interact with a potentially global audience whenever they need to or want to, something is changing in the way that everyday people look at themselves and their world. […] We are beginning to look upon institutions that we used to rely on for providing us with cohesion and value in our lives as less valuable in the face of publishing technologies that allow us to organize ourselves and our lives more to our suiting.

This is, I believe, the thesis statement of the book. It tells me what to look for from now on:

  • I know the book is about self-publishing – I will look for definitions and explanations of self-publishing (TOPIC)
  • I know the book is about change brought about by self publishing – I will look for an argument about the nature and the dynamic of that change (MAIN ARGUMENT)
  • I know the book will talk about change in specific contexts or institutions – these will be examples, EVIDENCE that SUPPORTS the main argument

Once I identified the 3 main ingredients of the book, I go looking for them in the other chapters. I will read carefully (if I have time) the parts that inform the 3 main ingredients above (topic, main argument, supporting evidence). But, to get an idea of the entire book, I read:

  • the first paragraph of each chapter – it is usually the thesis statement of that chapter. If it’s not the first paragraph (boo!) then I look for it further down the page.
  • the first sentence of each paragraph (GRE tip, remember?). If the book is well written in the U.S. writing style, the first sentence of each paragraph is the paragraph’s main idea. In European writing style, it’s more complicated. It may be the last sentence.
  • .
  • headings and subheadings (love them!), and the first sentence/para under each of them
  • the last paragraph of each chapter, because it should be a summary/conclusion of that paragraph
  • the Conclusion chapter (last chapter) because it should contain a summary of the book, some context for the book, and takeaways.

Try it out. Share tips that have worked for you. And most importantly ask yourself:

Do I write such that people can quickly grasp the meaning of my text?

[update/one more thought:] – ultimately, no matter what you do, make sure you get a few specific ideas out of your reading. If, after spending time with a reading, all you have in your head is an amorphous blur and no specific ideas, then you know you’re doing something wrong.

WHY do we have to learn this…?!

…is the question many students ask themselves and few professors answer (well).

Via Kaye Sweetser’s blog, this NYU student asks the same, and more.

I’m posting below my comment on Kaye’s blog, which turned out to be long enough for a post:

I’m a bit late to this conversation, but can’t help but jump in.

The critical theorist in me is happy this is happening. Alana’s post is an example of tearing down the Golden Wall I wrote about some time back. It’s good that students have a voice. Education is by definition a power imbalance, where students pay to subject themselves to our authority and power. In theory, I say, bring it on!

The professor in me smiles a sad smile: I was once (not very long ago) young and arrogant and thought I knew it all. I hated classes that didn’t teach me real skills for the real world.

It took me years to get over myself and understand that the best classes are not the ones that teach me skills that will be dated in 2-3 years (though you need those, too, to get a job next year) but those that teach me how to think.

Here’s critical theory again: Students expect us to train them to be good employees, servants to the Corporation. They’re lost and disappointed when we teach them how to be free thinkers, free people. That’s called hegemony, I think.

A recent opinion article at Clemson ranked liberal arts courses as the worst, most useless ones. How sadly misguided. [Really, WHY should we have to learn about hegemony?! What a “useless” concept, right?]

Where we profs fail is that we don’t help students understand WHY we do what we do and how it WILL be more useful than teaching button-pushing.

As a prof, I try to teach students not only twitter, but also skills that will be relevant 10-20 years later. They can’t appreciate that now. They need help. They’re too young to think in that time frame. So I take time to explain.

See also my comment on Alana’s post.

[Update, 9/19/2008] Interesting development of NYU story: Professor attempts to ban students from blogging & twittering about class (from MediaShift, via Simon Owens. Excellent blogger relations, Mr. Owens!)

I’m afraid neither party is approaching this problem productively. Both Alana and prof. Quigley have a lot to learn from each other. If they could get over their fears (of each other, of old stuff, of new stuff, of having their egos threatened) and cooperate, the story would have a much happier ending.

This is the comment I posted on the follow-up story [cross-posted]:

This is what I see the big picture of this story to be:

Blogging (and much of social media) bring more transparency, empower the “masses” and threaten authority by bringing down the Golden Wall.

This is happening a lot in business. It’s scary for corporations, and empowering for consumers.

Why shouldn’t it also happen in education?

I am a college prof., I require students to blog and am planning to teach them to live-twitter the class next week.

Yes, I know it’s scary – for me. For the old idea of the “powerful, know-it-all” professor who taught critical thinking and thought it was OK as long as s/he wasn’t the subject of criticism.

I sometimes teach my students critical theory by exposing my own power & authority practices in the classroom.

The world has changed. The education model we use is the same as hundreds of years ago: The professor is the “master.”

Enough is enough. We don’t have to be masters and servants. We can help each other and learn together.

Alana and prof. Quigley have a lot to learn from each other. Why don’t they?

Interview with Jeremiah Owyang

 Following up on a post in which Jeremiah Owyang, (@jowyang) Senior Analyst at Forrester Research, describes his job responsibilities, I asked him a few questions about valuable skills in the analyst industry. Clemson communication students learn excellent research skills, and Jeremiah’s job is an example of putting those skills to work.

Read his blog post first, then this Q&A:

Dr. V’s comment: Thank you for explaining the nature of your job. I’ll share this with my students, who often find it hard to believe that the research and writing skills we teach them in college will ever come in handy :)

JO’s response: The Research job is laborious, but important in making decisions. Every day analysts and researchers influence how millions of dollars are spent and managed. As a result, they’re well compensated, and are one of the top non executive earners in the industry.

Dr. V: What are the top 3 most useful/important skills for your job?

JO: Seeing the big picture. Numbers and facts are useless without insight, analysis, and perspective. Students need to first get real world experience before becoming a researcher or analyst, I’ve served my time working up the corporate ladder for 7 years (which is considered very fast), I’m 31, and haven’t even reached the mid-point in my career, so work hard and stay focused. When I first started to focus on social computing, people laughed at me, they thought blogs and social networks were silly and for kids, now it’s a major industry.

Dr. V: What are some things college students should focus on/try to learn well if they hope to work as a researcher/analyst someday?

JO: Think strategic, think about the large scope of things. Be very aware and absorb lots of information, including info outside of school, teachers, and class. I read materials online, and made a vow to learn one new skill everyday at my internship.

Dr. V: If/When you interview for a new position or an internship, what are the most important things you look for in a candidate? What are the deal breakers?

JO: Ambition, ability to communicate effectively, and I’ll be checking out their Facebook and MySpace page to understand what they’re really like. The good news is, we want to see the human side of a candidate, but the party pics should probably be in a private folder. Ironically, I was a poor student in High School and College (but I did graduate). I did well in the creative arts, and was never great at math or business classes like accounting or Finance. Fortunately, in the workplace, one can find their true comfort area.