Self Improvement

How To Read Non-Fiction Books In Record Time

Rob Nightingale 03-11-2014

If you’re like the rest of us, your ‘to read’ list outstrips what you can ever hope to go through.


Fortunately, there is a method (other than speed reading Put A Brake On Speed Reading: 5 Tips To Be A More Engaged Online Reader The idea of speed reading has been around for decades, but there's been an explosion of speed-reading apps lately that promise to get your reading speed up. But is it worth it? Read More ) that will enable you to sail through that reading list at a pace you never thought possible.

This article will attempt to show how you can understand the main premise, arc and arguments of a non-fiction book without actually having to read it. As I explain, the reading tips are not about avoiding the reading habit.

The techniques mentioned are a form of inspectional reading that can help you understand what a book is all about in the shortest time possible, talk about it with some clarity, and understand if it deserves a deeper read.

Why Would You Want to Skip Reading a Book?


First of all, why doesn’t this apply to fiction?


I prefer to read fiction books in their entirety to absorb the voice, subtleties and eloquence that make up the piece. These characteristics are alive and well in many non-fiction books too, but they often are superfluous to getting to the heart of the main arguments of the book (while being necessary for fiction).

With non-fiction, there are some books out there that are massively popular, influential, ‘game-changing’, and crop up in conversations. Conversations which, having not read the book itself, you would have to sit by idly on the side-lines for, waiting for a change in topic. The amount of knowledge retained after reading a non-fiction book is surprisingly low. The blame here isn’t on our inability to focus. It was a problem even Ralph Waldo Emerson suffered from, once saying,

“I can’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten…”.

If you want to understand more about why this is the case, this article from Brevedy [No Longer Available] is a great explanation. Connect this to Pareto’s principle (also known as the 80-20 principle). This general ‘rule’ proposes that 80% of the important stuff can be achieved with just 20% of the material. The other 80% is likely to be fluff, stories to make the data more compelling, smaller points that you’ll likely forget, and a whole host of other irrelevant information. And yes, I am aware of the irony — this article could have been shorter!

Along with this is the issue of continuity —


The average adult reads at a rate of 300 words per minute. With the average non-fiction book containing between 80,000-100,000 words, it takes approximately five hours to read. These five hours are generally spread over one or two weeks sacrificing context and continuity resulting in decreased retention. (Brevedy)

So, why not skip that 80% and focus on finding the important 20%, and devouring it all in one go? By doing this, you’ll have as much knowledge (if not more) of the book that’s up for discussion than those who’ve read it (especially if they read it a while ago).

Of course, how well this method works depends on the type of non-fiction book you’re reading.

If you’re trying to work through a selection of essays, a book which deals with a large number of separate issues, or which is incredibly dense, then tackling the book head-on may be best. But for the rest (especially popular science, politics etc), this method works well.

Understand the Overview

Quick Reading 1


Select the non-fiction book you want to read The 7 Best Book Review Podcasts & Shows To Discover New Books Read More . As an example, I’ve chosen Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, a book I’ve heard mentioned in conversations many times. Head over to Amazon, and read the book description so you can get a very general overview of what it’s about. (In this case, this took less than 2 minutes)

Understand the Premise and Arc

Quick Reading 2
Next, you’ll want to dive a little deeper, figuring out exactly what the main arguments are within the book, and hopefully the overall arc of how those arguments play out. Wikipedia is the best option for this, but if you find the Wikipedia article is almost as long as the book itself, you’ll have to use your discretion about which sections to read.

Total time spent on the Blink Wikipedia page: 7 minutes

Understanding the Style

Quick Reading 3


It may be tempting now to think you’ve got the gist of what the book’s about and leave it at that, but with this scanty amount of information, you’ll likely forget all about it by tomorrow. Plus, there’s still plenty about the book you don’t know. One of the most important points which you should understand is the actual style of writing that’s used.

One option (it can be time consuming and also requires you to read some of the unnecessary 80%) is to click the ‘Look Inside’ button on the Amazon page, and read 5-10 pages of the book so you can understand a little more about how the author thinks and writes.

The other option is to search for, and read, some of the highlighted sections of the book over on the Kindle Store. With the more popular books, these are usually sections of text that are crucial to the argument, or which show the kind of rhetoric that’s being used — whether it’s technical, preachy, aimed at the layperson etc. (In the case of Blink, there weren’t many highlighted quotes on the Kindle site, so I also spent a few minutes skim reading a couple of pages on the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon).

Total time spent: 8 minutes

Expanding Your Critical Knowledge

Quick Reading 4
Up to this point, we only understand the book on a basic level. To get to know the book in far more detail, you should head over to its Goodreads page, scroll down to the reader reviews (these are of higher quality than Amazon reviews), and spend 10-15 minutes reading reviews that are two, three or four star.

Newbies can look into our unofficial guide to Goodreads An Unofficial Guide to Goodreads for Readers and Writers I am digital marketer who works in traditional publishing, and I am also a writer. And though I am not self-published, I have two words for those who are: Goodreads STAT. Read More .

One star reviews tend to be overly negative, giving an unfair assessment. Five star reviews are the opposite, often written by dedicated followers or disciples that are less likely to give you any valuable insight into the book itself. This should help you to see which issues people keep having with the text, what they liked about it, and what was missing.

Total time spent: I spent 13 minutes reading reviews, at which point many of the issues were starting to be repeated

Sum Everything Up

Quick Reading 5

To make sure you’ve grasped the main points and arguments from within, for, and against the book, head over to a more literary video or written review (i.e. New York Times). When reading this review (feel free to read more than one), you should be able to pick up on a lot of what the reviewer is saying. You should understand the negatives and positives that are addressed, while also looking at further references that were unlikely to have come up in the previous steps.

Total time spent: I spent 15 minutes reading the New York Times review on Blink.

To give you an idea of the time saved, Blink is a 300 page book. At the rate I currently read, it would  have taken me a few sittings over three or four days to get through. During this time, I would have absorbed only a fraction of the information consumed. By using the method above, I spent exactly 45 minutes learning about this book. This includes what it’s about, the arguments it presents, style, the pros and cons, and what other experts and readers thought. In some sense, I will likely know more than someone who read only the book, and stopped there.

As a counter, I will of course have missed some points along the way. But for a saving of at least 6 hours or so? That’s a sacrifice that’s not too difficult to swallow.

What do you think? Is this a method you think you would use to understand non-fiction books much faster than reading them, or would you rather set aside the time to read them in their entirety? Let me know in the comments!

Image Credit: Sunny Reading by Pedro Simoes, via Flickr

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  1. ewan
    August 7, 2017 at 11:03 am

    Often I look for public talks by an author promoting their book. For example, I tried reading E O Wilson's book Consilience. I found the book laborious, but the ideas compelling. I discovered a video of Wilson giving a talk on the ideas from this book at Google. I watched the talk at high speed to save even more time.

    • Rob Nightingale
      September 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm

      Great idea!

  2. Dixie Normus
    July 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    This is obviously either a person trolling non fiction authors, trying to make it seem like people don't find their writing interesting or worthy enough to actually read, or it is a cheating guide for college students who want to party instead of doing their assigned reading. If you are interesting in a book at very least check it out of the library and try to read it, I mean with ebooks and Overdrive you don't even have to leave your house.

    • Rob Nightingale
      July 29, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      Author of the article here: personally, there are just too many books, fiction and non-fiction, that I want to read. There is absolutely no chance that I could ever get through them all in this lifetime. So I have to pick the ones I'm going to read thoroughly very wisely. The rest... well, I can either agree to never read them (sad face), or I can use a system like the one above, to at least get a decent grasp of what those books contain. This way, I get to absorb more knowledge, rather than less.

  3. Erlis D.
    November 30, 2014 at 11:53 am

    First, the title is really misleading. This only explains how to read everything that the book is about, read others opinions and sign up to pages like Blinkist, for a quicker overview of a book (which I might think of it as a promotion to such pages).
    Second, I believe in the 80-20 principle. But look at it like this, I will memorize 20% of a certain book, as I will memorize 20% of this article. But come to think of it, I might even remember 30-40% of this article since I discussed about it, commented also. So probably, you are right, or wrong, since after 2-3 months I might forget that this article existed. And not forgetting the fact that I'm giving my own opinion about this article, whereas for the book I'm reading others opinions.
    This and many other points, like the time I lost here for example, or how a bad idea is to read the plot of a book at wikipedia, made this article bad, really bad.
    If you really have time to read a book, read it entirely, and in the end judge if it was bad or good, and what you learned from it.

    • Rob Nightingale
      July 29, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I think my reply to Dixie, above, covers your points (at least, I hope it does)

  4. Thorin Schmidt
    November 6, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    This method might actually be effective. It however hinges upon the fact that others are willing to the work, and YOU benefit from it. This whole process would break down if everyone tried it.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 7:05 am

      Of course :) I am not encouraging people to stop reading books, but simply to be able to put themselves in a position to talk about books which they may just not have the time to read themselves. As is often the case, it will turn out that certain aspects of the author's argument have been misrepresented in your research, so you'll be motivated to purchase and actually read the book itself. But these methods are also good for quickly re-jogging your brain if you haven't read a book in a while, and want to get those teachings and arguments moving in your mind- often more desirable option than re-reading the entire book if you're pressed for time...

  5. Dave
    November 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    I read this article and the comments in less than five minutes. Haven't learned a thing I didn't knew already....;-)

  6. John Williams
    November 6, 2014 at 2:33 pm


  7. Wayne
    November 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I agree with Spin

  8. Spin
    November 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    This is not a guide to reading faster. This is a guide to pretending you've read a book whilst actually knowing next to nothing about the concepts it's trying to explain.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 7:02 am

      Spin, I'm not sure how you could follow all of the steps above, and still know next to nothing about the concepts therein? I'm not sure I understood your comment... As mentioned, this is not a complete replacement for reading a book, but sets one up for being able to at least legitimately discuss some of the ideas within a book, even when you just don't have the time to read that book. You could either go into that conversation knowing literally nothing, or at least having a general (or even complex) grasp of the ideas without necessarily having read that book and thereby be in a position to have an interesting debate. Nothing replaces reading a book first hand, but in some situations, this may not be possible.

      Consider a discussion on Immanuel Kant. The discussion (and the books you would have to read) would take years upon years to grasp in detail. You may try reading 'The Critique of Pure Reason' and have absolutely no idea what Kant is talking about (as happens to a lot of readers). You can either give up at that stage, and admit defeat, or you could take a different tact, and read secondary literature on the subject, and study 'around' the subject in order to understand the subject.

      Often people who have studied secondary literature from extremely learned people will have a far fuller grasp of a work without even reading the primary work, because they're able to stand on the shoulders of other giants....

    • Spin
      November 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm

      I don't think it does set you up to understand the concepts . All you can honestly say is that you get to read someone else's understanding of the concepts and so you're entirely dependent on others and their interpretation of what they've read. Can you rely on someone else's judgment?

      And just imagine the situation if the person you're using as an authority has done exactly what you've just suggested, and based a statement that sounds as though he knows what he's talking about on a vague impression formed from what other people think the book was about... fleas on the backs of fleas...

      I've actually seen something similar happen with scientific papers, where a flawed paper was referenced uncritically by another researcher as supporting his own studies. The second piece of work was then added to the body of literature on the topic, still encompassing the flaws of the original article, which ten years on is now accepted uncritically by just about everyone in the field because no-one went back to read it!

      By all means read around the topic - and that's all this article suggests - but if you want to know what the writer's trying to say, then go read the book.

  9. Dan
    November 6, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Sounds like skimming to me, not real reading. I don't think it's amenable to the non-fiction books I read. Plus, the fluff makes the book readable to begin with.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 6:55 am

      Hi Dan- I agree, the fluff is (often) there as more of a way of 'easing' the reader into a difficult subject. It's (often) not necessary to the argument. Often the 'idea' behind a 70,000 word novel can be explicated more thoughtfully, and robustly in a 2000 word essay, or even a 300 word poem.

      Nothing is ever a complete replacement for reading a book itself, but this article is about when you have a reading list that you know you just won't be able to get through in your lifetime. You either have the option of simply not reading some books at all, or reading just a section of them, and putting effort in to understand (to a certain extent) the others. I know I'd choose the latter option, but that may not be what everyone would choose.

  10. Andrea
    November 6, 2014 at 6:25 am

    I think you must change the title of this post to "How not to pay for books".

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 6:51 am

      Andrea, as mentioned in my comments (though I should have made it clearer in the article), this is not about completely avoiding books. For me, I read books, plus follow the approach laid out above. There have been many occasions where I have meant to read a book before attending an event, for instance, but just didn't have the time, so I quickly tried to learn as much as I could about the arguments and counter-arguments before the event. After the event, I would usually go home and find time to read the book, but found I'd already picked up 70-80% of the 'necessary' information from that book.

      I do not claim this is a complete replacement for books, but that it enables you to be able to legitimately join a discussion about a topic, argument or premise of a book, without *necessarily* needing to read it. If an argument/premise is interesting to you, I explicitly encourage you to purchase the book, study it, and learn even more, but this isn't really necessary in all situations...

  11. Steven Cooke
    November 6, 2014 at 5:53 am

    I agree with Roger! It is not difficult to learn "speed reading" with which you glean the important points of a work. IF you only want to be able to participate in discussions, the articles methods of getting the gist of the work are fine. but critically, reading OTHER people's impressions of a work is NOT the same as reading the author's words and making your OWN judgments! Current affairs awareness and ability to relate to conversations is one thing, LEARNING something is another.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 6:47 am

      Completely agree, Steven! This is not supposed to be a complete replacement for reading a book, but a kind of 'short-cut' to having a decent grasp of what a non-fiction book is about, the arc, premise, arguments etc so you can at least have an intelligent debate about these discussions. There is no replacement for sitting, and studying a book, but at least when you understand what a book is about (to an extent), you can still have a legitimate input into the debate...

  12. Roger Williams
    November 4, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Another approach that can be used whether you follow the advice in this article or pick up the book and plough through the whole thing: read faster! If, as it says, the average reader reads 300 words a minute, learn to read at three times the speed or, if you can, four times. You may think that you would absorb much less if you read at, say, 900 words per minute. But it takes great concentration to keep reading at this speed, and you acquire the information quicker, both of which help you to retain thoughts from one passage that help in understanding a later one. The greatest advantage of all, if you must master the information in a book for a test or examination, is that you can read it again... and will still have only spent 50% more time doing so than someone who ploughs along at a slow 300 words per minute reading it once. Reading something twice is a good way to ensure that you remember more of it! I read newspapers and magazines at 1200 wpm, novels at around a thousand or so, and more challenging non-fiction books at or slightly under 900. This ability has been a lifelong blessing., and it is a skill that most people can acquire.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 6:46 am

      Definitely a good idea, Roger. As mentioned in my comment to Saikat, I personally prefer a mixture between speed reading (nothing too extreme when it comes to Non-fiction) and the points mentioned above. This seems a good balance to me, as reading on it's own ignore the insights other people may have had. Not *actually* reading the book has its own drawbacks too...

  13. Saikat Basu
    November 3, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    I have often found the very same points useful to understand a book before I dive into the pages. The headings often tell us what the chapter could be about. The text beneath the headings often follows the main thought of the author. Bridging the opening passage to the conclusion of the chapter helps to understand the arc of the author's thought. Of course, this does not help with analytical reading, but for more lighter non-fiction reading.

    Here's an interesting article: How to Read Faster: Bill Cosby’s Three Proven Strategies [LINK]

    • Rob
      November 7, 2014 at 6:43 am

      Thanks Saikat- yea, there are definitely ways that we can understand a work on non-fiction (up to a point- depending on what your aims are), without *necessarily* having to trudge through the entire work. This can happen a lot in academia for example. Of course, speed reading is one option, though the reduced retention rate can cause problems. I prefer to use a mix of speed reading and the points in this article to try to make sure I've grasped more of the book than I would have simply by virtue of reading through it (as opposed to consciously 'studying' it)...