Tactics and Tools

Why Settle for Merely Reading a Book When You Can Master It?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/1998

How to Read Less More, and Twice as Fast

If you’re like me, you really want to read more effectively, but you don’t know how and can’t find the time. Solomon wrote, “The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”1 I agree. The stacks of unopened volumes in my own library weary me just looking at them.

To make matters worse, even the good books we read teach us nothing. We forget the details almost immediately because our goal is to finish the book, not master the material.

I have a plan to change that. I want to show you how you can read less, more. It’s based on one simple idea: It’s better to thoroughly read one or two good books than “finish” ten or twenty by reading them cover to cover and then moving on.

The idea raises two practical problems. First, how do we know if a book is worth investing time in? Second, what techniques will allow us to read thoroughly, yet quickly, leading to mastery?

Four Pages a Day

Don’t think you’ve got to read 50, 25, or even 10 books a year to stay educated, informed, and equipped. Instead, I want you to think about carefully reading just six books during the next twelve months.

For some of you the idea may seem overwhelming. It isn’t. It’s 60 days per book, or four pages per day for a 200 page title. Even a person who reads very casually can accomplish this, especially using the tricks I’ll show you.

I want you to consider devoting two months to one book. The object is not simply to read from beginning to end, though. The goal is to master the contents. I’m going to show you how to read a book in such a way that at the end of two months you can say, “I own this book.”

For that you need a system. Don’t start from the beginning and read through word by word to the end. That’s a mistake. The key is to read through the book more than once at different levels. I’m going to show you how. Follow these four steps for non-fiction books: overview, preview, read, and postview.

Overview the Book

Every book does not deserve a good reading. The initial overview allows you to determine whether a title deserves your attention by giving you a sense of the main thrust of the book in five to twenty minutes.

Start by reading the jacket cover. Read the table of contents. Skim the book’s preface and the introduction. Read the conclusion in the last three pages of the book. Browse through the index in the back. Note the publisher and the date of publication.

If you don’t like what you see, abandon the effort and look for a better book. You’ve only lost five minutes and saved hours of fruitless reading.

If the treatment looks promising, though, page through the entire book at the rate of 2-3 seconds per page. Don’t try to “speed read.” This first step is a casual one. Let your eyes stroll over the material as your gaze falls on the text and enjoy the process of serendipitous discovery.

The overview takes less than twenty minutes in the extended form and can be done while you’re browsing in the bookstore. If you like what you see, buy the book to read more thoroughly later.

The overview is always the first step of thorough reading, even if you already own the book and have decided to read it (or it’s been assigned to you for a class).

Preview the Book

Go through the book a second time. Sit down and read it at a slower rate, but still not word for word. I suggest you skim at the rate of four to ten seconds per page. Force yourself to move quickly.

Obviously, you’re not reading all the words. You’re skimming. I read the headings and the first sentence of each paragraph. Get a feel for the author’s main case and his progression of thought.

This is more aggressive reading than you did in the overview, but still casual. Don’t linger, though. Force yourself to push ahead, turning the page every four to ten seconds. Break the book in as you go, gently creasing each page as you move forward. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll absorb during this quick preview phase.

When you’re done, write a summary sentence or two on the title page capturing the main thrust of the book. Answer the question, “What is this book about?” “What is the book trying to accomplish?” Use pencil because you may want to change the summary after you’ve read the book more thoroughly.

The second step of our approach will take 20 to 40 minutes at four to ten seconds per page, depending on the book. You’ll have gone through the whole book twice—overviewing and previewing—in about an hour, with a summary statement capturing the central idea of the book.

This “layering” method embeds the book’s basic ideas in your mind in a way that won’t happen if you simply start at the first page and read through to the end. The first layer—the overview—gives you a general sense of the material and allows you to decide whether the book is worth reading or not. The preview clarifies the basic content and organization of the book, and gives you the author’s approach and main argument.

Read the Book

Now it’s time to actually read the book. This can be done in multiple sessions, one chapter at a sitting.

Start by quickly previewing the chapter once again, 4-10 seconds per page. This is very important. It reacquaints you with the material, but takes only minutes. Then read the text word for word, as quickly as possible.

Don’t linger and don’t regress (don’t reread what you’ve just been over). Don’t stop to underline, either. It slows you down. Instead, use a pencil and make a vertical line in the margin to mark those things worthy of note. You’ll come back to those places later. You don’t want to lag here, even though you’re reading carefully.

Complete this phase by writing, in pencil, a summary sentence or two in the big white space above the title at the beginning of each chapter. Try to capture the main point of the section. Use pencil because you may want to make changes when you postview the chapter.

Postview the Chapter Immediately

Go back over the chapter focusing on the marks you made in the margin. Review the material, interacting with the author’s ideas and making further notations. At the end of each chapter or in the flyleaf sketch a quick outline or recall pattern. Look at the summary you placed at the beginning of the chapter and see if it’s accurate and precise. Refine it if you need to.

Go through each chapter in the same way. Preview it, skimming quickly, then read it carefully but at a good clip, making your notations during the postview. If you take a break and resume your reading a day or more later, review your summaries at the beginning of the book and each preceding chapter before you pick up where you left off. This will only take a few short minutes, but will set the stage for your next session.

This is aggressive reading. When you’re done you’ll have gone through the book at least four times in a fairly short period of time working from the whole to the parts to the whole again. You’ll have brief chapter summaries and an outline—handy tools for quick review in the future—and a solid grasp of the material.

In the future when you simply skim through the book again, all the information will come back to you. You’ll be able to clearly state who the author is, his main point, the structure (development) of his thought, if his views are correct (why or why not) and what difference it makes. You’ll have mastered the book, not just read it.

Double Your Reading Speed Instantly

Let me give you an additional tip that will double your reading speed in one step. Use your finger as a pointer and move it along underneath the sentences at the fastest comfortable speed you can read. You can read above your finger, ahead of it, or behind it, whichever is most comfortable for you.

This forces you to read more aggressively, with more concentration. Don’t be afraid to push yourself a little bit. Go as fast as you can and still grasp the material. Don’t stop, pause, or reread portions of what you’ve just covered (regressing). Keep up with your moving finger, just like following the bouncing ball.

Again, this is not “speed reading,” taking in a whole page at a glance. You’re still reading every word just as you normally would, but you’re using your finger as a pacer , increasing your speed and keeping your eyes from drifting.

You’ll be surprised how dramatically your reading speed will increase. If you’re reading 150 words a minute (a relatively slow rate) you can jump to 300 words per minute simply by consistently using your finger as a speed guide. Just move it underneath the words and follow along. Your comprehension and retention will improve too, even though you’re moving faster.

Finding the Time

Anyone is fully capable of mastering six books a year, but it won’t happen by itself. It takes a plan (which I’ve just given you) and the will to apply a modest amount of time to your goal. Thirty minutes three or four times a week is all you need.

First, turn off the TV. The average person watches two to three hours of TV a day. Most of you can read 50 books a year in that time. Devote some of your TV time to reading. Skip the nightly news. It’s the worst possible source of information and almost always puts people in a bad mood. Instead, use that half hour to read. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get done and how civilized you’ll feel as a result.

Here are some other ways to redeem pockets of useful time for reading. Try getting up half an hour earlier in the morning. Go into the family room before the household is up and read. Or redeem the time you spend sitting in the bathroom. Just ten minutes a day will get even slow readers 150 pages a month. That’s six books a year. I also keep a book with me in the car so I can read while waiting for an appointment or stuck in line.

Think for a moment what six books you would like to have mastered a year from now. You can do it. Choose your titles carefully, then apply the plan. This may be one of the most rewarding habits you’ll ever develop. I hope you start today.


  • Get a sense of the book in 5-10 minutes.
  • Read jacket copy, contents, skim preface & introduction, read conclusion (last 3 pages) and skim the index. Note publisher and date of publication.
  • Quickly page through the entire book at the rate of 2-3 seconds per page.
  • Determine if you want to read the book more thoroughly, give it away, or file it for future reference.


  • Skim entire book at a slower rate (4-10 seconds per page), breaking the book in as you go.
  • Look for structure, outline, key facts and concepts.
  • Write a quick summary for the book in pencil on title page.


  • Preview each chapter again before you read it to get the structure (4-10 seconds per page).
  • Read every word at fastest comfortable speed using a pointer so you won’t wander, hesitate, regress, or lose your place. Mark the margin, but don’t underline the text.
  • Write a 1-4 sentence summary in pencil at the beginning of the chapter.
  • Sketch a quick outline or recall pattern.

Postview Immediately

  • Re-read the chapter quickly, focusing on marked sections, interacting with the text.
  • Refine your 1-4 sentence summary at the beginning of the chapter.
  • Review at regular intervals, looking over recall patterns and summary material.