Books are Maps: 3 Tips for Reading Well
Updated: Apr 28
To get the most out of a book, you need to see it as a map. A map gives you the geography of a specific location. There are general details you can see, like which way is north and south, the elevation of land, and how all the geographic features relate to each other. Usually, the map also includes specific details about roads, bodies of water, and how they all intersect. Looking at a map can give you significant understanding of the landscape it represents. Treat a book like a map, and you will better understand the material in its pages.
1. What map is this?
The content in a book is like the geography of a map. Your first task is to determine what map is in front of you. The map identifies itself by its title, labels, and larger topographical features. Similarly, a book will give you its main theme and the boundaries of the conversation in the author’s stated purpose. You will learn what he or she intends to talk about. A good book will communicate these boundaries in the title, subtitle, and introduction. A close look at these sections (including the conclusion if there is one) will give you the overarching purpose of the author. What are they trying to say?
Understanding the limits of the conversation helps to introduce the topic at hand, just like the title and larger features on a map clue you in on your general location. Are you confined to a specific city in a certain country in Asia? Or are you surveying the entire continent of South America? Grasping this first will prepare you to understand the map much better. With a map, we do this quickly and easily. With a book, it may take some extra work. Be prepared to look closely at the title, subtitle, introduction and conclusion to get an idea of what map the author is presenting.
2. Where is the author taking me?
After you understand your map is telling you that you are in, let’s say, Germany, you will want to look closer to see exactly where in Germany you are, how you should get around, and where you are headed. Are you in Berlin or Düsseldorf? Are you trying to get somewhere like Frankfurt or Hamburg? Just as important, what roads should you be taking to get there? What stops need to be made along the way?
The author usually provides the significant “stops” and “roads” in chapter titles. Not all chapter titles will be immediately helpful—the content should shed light as to why the chapter is called as it is called. Still, look at these titles closely and skim the first few paragraphs of each if you need. Try to locate the major stops and roads on the map. Where is the author going with their main theme? How are they telling you to look at the map? While the book title reveals what the author intends to say, the chapter titles tell you how he or she intends to get there.
3. What details are most important?
Have you ever been in a mall and looked at one of the maps they have stationed around detailing where each store is? My favorite part of those maps is where they have a big red dot that says, “YOU ARE HERE”. At that point, the map is giving very detailed information, information that is helpful for the shopper who wants to find certain stores, the entrance and exits, and where the bathrooms are.
To get to these important details in your reading, you want to take note of specific words or phrases the author uses. If they repeat a phrase or word over and over again, make sure you understand exactly what they mean by that word. If they give significant space to explain a concept, or explicitly lay out the definition of a word, make sure you understand it. Underline and note what the phrase or word means in your own way. This will help you internalize the argument of the author, follow along much better, and get much more out of your reading.
Reading books like a map starts by asking what map you are looking at, where you are headed, and noting the important details along the way. If you read a book like this, you will come away with a greater comprehension and retention of what the author said. Good reading should result in this—understanding and learning!
**These thoughts were inspired by Mortimer J. Adler's "How to Read a Book".