Smart Reading

Would you like to read faster? How about read smarter?

You are probably like me and have a lot of material to read but limited time to read and absorb the information.

In this article I  describe a method for reading non-fiction material – Smart Reading.

Many people say they would like to read faster in order to be more efficient and work through their reading backlog. It doesn’t matter how fast you read – you will never get through the backlog.  The secret is to read smarter which means varying your reading speed depending on your purpose and subject matter.

Let me introduce the method of Smart Reading by using the example of learning Chinese cooking from books. I have many cook books in my collection but I have never read them from cover to cover. Instead, I dip into them to find the information I need.

I prepared a checklist of the steps for Smart Reading which you can download from the link below.

Smart Reading – Notes by Charles Cave

I will use the example of reading Ken Hom’s book  Chinese Cookery.

1. Preparation

Why am I reading this book? Write down the purpose of your reading or say out loud: “I want to learn how to make a selection of Chinese food, mainly stir fry. I also want to know about the ingredients I need to buy”.

What do I already know about the subject? I recommend drawing a Mind Map on the subject as it can be extended easily with new information. This gives me a framework of understanding the subject. Alternatively you could make a list of topics or keywords.

What do I need to know?  Recipes, Ingredients and planning a meal.

2. Preview

Now that I have prepared my reading, my mind is programmed to focus on my areas of interest in the subject. In this stage you spend about ten minutes previewing the book first reading the front and back covers and the inside flaps (in the case of a hardcover book). This text  usually gives a highlight of the book.

Author. Who is the author and what is his or her experience and credentials? Ken Hom is a professional chef and author of several books on Chinese cooking. I have confidence that he knows what he is writing about and has the experience.

Copyright Year.  This book was published in 2001 which is not particularly recent but doesn’t matter for a cookbook. If you are reading a book on a topical subject like Taxation Law, you want the latest edition. You wouldn’t use the Australian Master tax Guide 1998 edition to prepare this year’s tax return would you? The information is out of date!

Table of Contents – The Table of Contents (TOC) of a book is the master map of the book and gives you a birds eye view of the book’s subject matter. Spend a few minutes to browse the TOC.

Index  – The Index is usually found at the back of the book and is a most useful resource for  understanding more about the book contents. Browse the index and look up a page or two on keywords of interest. Sometimes this is all you need from a book – look up the index, then go to the page.

Glossary – A glossary is like a dictionary of key words and terms used in the book. Browse the glossary quickly to be aware of the words. You can always return to this page for detailed reading.

Bibliography – this is a list of books the author used or is recommending to you to learn more about the topics. You can browse this list and get an idea of how much research the author did.  Not all books have bibliographies and I wouldn’t expect a cook book to have one unless there are references to other books by the same author.

3. High-altitude reading

The next stage of Smart Reading is the High-altitude reading phase.  The purpose of this phase is to pickup  the keywords and images of the book (pictures, diagrams and graphs). Imagine you are flying over the landscape of the book – you can see the features but you can’t get closer until you land and explore the countryside on foot.

You scan a page every second by using your finger, a pen (or a chopstick) as a guide to run down the left hand page, then the right hand page. Turn the page,and repeat until you reach the scanning until you reach the end.

This phase prepares you for the language of the book and you will subconsciously absorb the keywords and style of the book.

By the end of this stage you have probably spent just 30 minutes “reading” the book but familiar with the subject matter and structure.

4. Low-altitude reading

The purpose of this phase to identify the mani ideas of the text and more detailed topics.

The technique of this phase is to skim through each page and read the first paragraph of each chapter then read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Avoid reading entire paragraphs.

You may want to grab a pad of sticky notes to use as bookmarks or cut some scrap paper into strips. When you find a page you would like to return to insert a small bookmark or attach a sticky note.

Good writers structure their ideas into paragraphs with the first sentence being a statement of the idea. The rest of the paragraph amplifies this idea and may add examples.

5. Selective Reading

This is the stage where you return to the pages of interest and read in detail. You probably want to make notes and add to your Mind Map or notebook.


A new skill requires practice. Gather together a selection of books you would like to read on a  particular  topic.  Practice previewing, high-altitude reading one or two books a day. Practice low-altitude reading a book each day. Then do selective reading on specific topics.

I have some thick law books I want to read for my own interest. I won’t be reading them in detail but mostly  high-altitude and low-altitude reading to get an appreciation of the topic with occasional selective reading.

As you read smartly you will find that you are absorbing information much faster and find the information you need quickly.

You may want to read my article Read for your life

Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

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