Reflections on Inspectional Reading


Like many people, I have a huge book backlog. I have books that I’ve intended to read for many moons, many moves, and many homes. While Kindle and library usage has made this some better, I can’t claim that my throughput rate in any way matches my acquisition rate. What’s to be done?

As noted in my post on Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book, “Inspectional Reading (IR)” is a two-phase technique that answers the question of whether a book requires deeper (“Analytical”) reading to be understood and whether the reader will benefit from such an understanding. The first phase locates the “big reveal” of the argument and its key premises first. In the second phase, the reader works to embellish that scaffolding here and there but moves through the content quickly.

As a result, readers have an augmented skeleton of the book such that the skeletal elements are fitted to the premises in a way that nets the conclusion.

I used this technique on Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?.

My determination is that IR, when practiced consciously, with notepad handy, does produce a strong grasp of non-fiction materials. For this book, I invested approximately 90 minutes of time and finished with several good ideas that I could present in cocktail party conversation and will likely integrate into some of the educational material my team curates.

Angst Over Moving Too Fast

I felt uneasy about adopting IR as anything less than total, rigorous attention felt “risky” to me. I think that I was afraid to adopt a faster style of reading for fear of missing some subtle detail. Doubtless, this is some aspect of egotism on my part: I’d hate to be demonstrated wrong or insufficiently attentive. On the other hand, adulthood is not riddled with quizzes, midterms, or a comprehensive final. So, that’s just letting fear run one’s life.

Nevertheless, adults have a finite amount of time in which to enlighten themselves and their community by engaging with solid, well-written, books. Certainly, it is far better to have a cursory familiarity with the materials and ideas at hand than it is to lament lack of time to peruse materials that never get perused. The perfect, all too often, becomes the enemy of the good.

Starting with the Table of Contents and the Conclusion

This is a solid technique. **By looking at the TOC you become aware of the structure. **I can’t say that it made much of an impression of the argument, but I got a list of “Headlines” that anchored each section of the book. Additionally, any “special terms” or “turns of phrase” that the author invented seemed to surface as a chapter heading. As a result, my mind was primed for these “milestones.” This is a very good idea. It helps you get the skeleton of things: here’s the head, there are the shoulders, ribs, and it winds up at the feet. Because you can anticipate “what’s ahead” the premises more naturally suggest their predecessor and successor premise.

When the TOC scan’s result was paired with reading the Conclusion, though, that’s where I found a huge gain of power. When I read the summary in the Conclusion I saw how the chapters were integrated into the argument.

"Ah-hah, the thesis is enriched by 9 points, each of these 9 points appears in a table here (in the Conclusion) and each of those 9 points is repeated as chapter headings starting in Chapter 2. So the thesis, both atop the Conclusion and presented (presumably) in Chapter 1 is shared and then enriched over 9 chapters.”

The intersecting evaluation of TOC and Conclusion also allowed me to decide on some content that I was not interested in.

After reading the 9 items in the table (AKA the chapter headings), I knew that several of them were of low interest to me. They focused on classroom performance versus the theory of mind of a learner. As such, I knew that those were pages I could skim at maximal speed. Conversely, I knew that the first 5 sections would present information that I cared about and that I wanted to embellish my “skeleton.” As such, I stole ~40 minutes from low-value reading and put it into more attentive skimming of sections I knew that I cared about.

A Pre-Seeded Skim

Having found the chapters most likely to help me (and with an extra dollop of time per each!), I went into them. Having primed my brain with keywords and phrases I was able to tune out the filler and locate and construct key ideas about the premises.

I used each chapter’s introduction and closing material to create a miniature skeleton per each chapter.

Willingham is a fastidious writer accustomed to communicating academically so I read the introduction section and the concluding section for each chapter. Thanks to typographical call-outs, I was able to quickly build a “chapter skeleton” and skim fast enough to quickly get the spirit of the chapter.


At the end of that process, I had some robust quotes, notes, and snippets of text in my notebook. I typed those up into this post and I don’t believe, on re-read that there were any major losses of fidelity in my capture of Willingham’s argument.

I processed an interesting book, I gained some inspiration on some new messages I want to write into my curriculum and I did it all in about 90 minutes. This seems to be an appropriate payoff per unit time invested.