Charting a Book

Charting a Book: A Reading Strategy

Years ago, at a conference on Critical Thinking, I listened as a man described a book that totally changed his life. The book was How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. He learned there are different levels of reading. He learned that reading a textbook or one of the classics takes far more skill than the reading he was familiar with.

I heard this story and immediate bought a copy for myself. While this is an excellent book, I will warn you, this book is not at all easy to read. I sat down began reading chapter one. There were no vocabulary words that were new to me. I felt like I was reading the material. But, by the end of the first chapter, I had to stop. I had no idea what the chapter was about. Apparently, I was not an excellent reader as I had thought I was.

I remembered a simple reading strategy called SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. Perhaps my problem was that I had not taken the time to study the Table of Contents. This book has the most complete and detailed Table of Contents I have ever seen.

I suggest you take a look at it. Simply go to and search for How to Read a Book. Then click on the book where it allows you to look inside. Go to the Table of Contents. In order to read this effectively you need to organize it in some way. While some would prefer a Concept Chart, I would suggest a detailed Outline. Take five to ten minutes and discover what the book is about. Try to summarize the main ideas. You really can do this from the table of contents.  What is amazing is that with a carefully done outline or chart done at this point, you will understand the material better than people who simply read the book from cover to cover.

A Charting Method for Understanding a Book

I learned this method many years ago while working with the Ecumenical Institute. There, the charting method was used to discover the structure and main ideas in a short papers, usually from two to ten pages long. You might try to follow these steps and try to create your own chart.

Without being able to see this being done, you are likely to find this confusing. Read it step by step and then look at the chart on the next page. After looking at the chart, you might want to read this again. This time it should be easier to understand

1. Take a sheet of paper and draw a long line from top to bottom in the middle of the page. Then turn the paper so the line is horizontal.

2. Look at the number of chapters. In this book there are 21 chapters. Divide the horizontal line into 21 spaces, one for each chapter. For something this long, I often tape two sheets of paper together. The spaces don’t need to be exactly equal in size. I always estimate rather than measuring.

3, In these spaces, write the topic of the chapter briefly. Chapter 1 is “Art of Reading”, Chapter 2 is “Levels of Reading”. Chapter 3 is much longer. Decide on a brief title.

4. Under the title, add a few details, whatever looks important to you. For chapter one I would select “goals, info. understanding, learning.”

5. Sometimes, at this point, you can discern the introduction and the conclusion. Sometime the introduction is the first several pages of chapter one and you can’t find it in the Table of Contents. Look for topics that seem to go together. Here, for example, their Part Three is different from the rest of the book. It’s about reading in different subjects. You can draw a bracket about chapters 13-19 and label it.

Oh, so you conclude the authors have done the work for you? There are four parts. You could divide the book into the same four parts. Often that is true. You can certainly do that. But don’t stop there. You need to discover the overall organization of the book. What are the main ideas?

After you have tried to do this, go to the page  How to Read a Book, where I show my chart and explain what it means.  I’m afraid that on the computer, I am stuck with doing the page vertically, but I’ll include a picture of the horizontal chart because it is easier to hold it in your mind that way.

See the chart    Chart 2

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