One of the first things you are taught in a speed reading class is that it is as important to know WHAT to read as it is to develop the skill to just move your eyes faster.  That doesn’t mean knowing which books to read but knowing what parts of the book or article to read and how far you have to go to get what you need from the book.  This is important because often we don’t have the choice of which books we need to read.

Whether for a class, an interview, or a meeting with “the boss”, there have been many times in my life when I’ve had to read a book (hundreds of pages) very quickly.  I was once schedule for a next-business-day interview with a company that uses Good to Great as a defining mantra; I discovered this while doing familiarizing myself with their website the night before.  I’ve had class assignments to read an entire book in a week at a time when other classes or work had to take priority.

For my husband, this would be trivial.  He reads quickly.  I don’t.  And while I have taken speed reading classes and learned some skills, reading a book for me is still a long effort.  So here are some tips and tricks regarding what to read that I use to deal with these types of situations.

  1. Figure out what you need from the book: This is also the first lesson of speed reading.  Get clear on the question you need to answer, the level you need to understand the material and and the context in which you will need to use that information.  If you just need the basic theme you can get that from the Amazon summary.  If you need to understand the key ideas, keep reading.
  2. Review the table of contents:  Make sure you understand the overall structure of the book.  It’s also good to read the back matter at this point if you haven’t already.
  3. Review the Amazon web page:  This page generally has a summary of the book from a couple of sources, one of which may be something like Publisher’s Weekly.  This may have some critique of the book as well.  Skim some of the user reviews (both good and bad), but don’t get  bogged down here.  The quality of user reviews varies wildly.
  4. See if the author has a web page: The author of Good to Great, Jim Collins, has an extensive website that includes supplemental materials which can help you get the gist of the book quickly.  Academics often have websites as well, so don’t dismiss any of these steps just because it is an academic book.  You never know what you will find.
  5. If this is a mainstream book, such as a business book, check out sites like Executive Book Summary or Business Book Review for abbreviated versions.  The first site does excellent chapter by chapter summaries (and allowed me to fly through the aforementioned interview without having read the book).  There are other fields with review and summary services like this, as well as hundreds of sites that contain book summaries.  Whether you will find one for your book depends on its popularity.
  6. If this is an obscure academic book use your library’s search tools to look for book reviews published in academic journals.  These will often be just a few pages as opposed to a few hundred but will give you both a feel for the book and some critiques to give you an idea of the weaknesses.  (This can work for business books as well but is generally less necessary.)  Google Scholar can help find these if you aren’t sure where to look, although you will probably still have to go through an academic library to see the articles.
  7. Read the introduction/first chapter: This is straight out of speed-reading.  The introduction of a book will usually lay out the argument for you, provide basic definitions and show you where in the book to look for more on each major element.  The exception is some postmodernist or inspired works where the structure is not that clean cut.  In those cases you generally need to read it all or not bother, since once you get past perhaps the prefix the text is decidedly non-linear.
  8. Read the last chapter, and look at all graphs or charts: The last chapter should pull it all together and tell you why you care.  The graphs and charts can help you see for yourself the numbers and patterns.

I can walk through steps 1 through 7 on an academic book in about 2 hours, which is far faster than I can skim 200 pages, and frankly my understanding will be better. 

I am by no means advocating that you do this instead of reading every book.  I tend to do most of these steps even if I intend to read the entire book, since reading other critiques tends to give me a deeper understanding of the books perspective, particularly if its in an area with which I am not as familiar.  When you have the time, do the reading.  When the book is on a key area of interest, do the reading (even if it has to be after the fact).  When your CEO is remaking the company according to the book’s principles, do the reading.

However when you don’t have the time to read and consider every page before a specific deadline, these techniques can help you make a credible showing and ensure that you are not lost in the subsequent conversations.