During my undergrad, we had a reading assignment (for most courses) which would nearly cover up the entire textbook including introductions, summaries, "did you know" and other such fluff material.

In graduate school as pointed out in most answers here on SE, one does not read the whole book cover to cover but just read the parts you need and backtrack if doubts. But is this also true if I'm starting out in a new field?

I had my BS in Engineering and I'm pursuing my grad studies in Math, certain topics like Topology are completely new to me. I don't need the whole of Topology but just certain bits and pieces.

Should I attain some familiarity with the topic by reading a good introductory book cover to cover or just dive in (into a completely alien field) and understand only the parts I need?

  • 5
    "Should"? Again, I think you're the only person who can answer this question. What works best for you? Reading books cover-to-cover is useful for some mixtures of people and topics, but not for others.
    – JeffE
    Jul 11, 2012 at 22:42

3 Answers 3


You stop reading books cover to cover when you don't need all the information between the covers of the books.

If you take a textbook on topology and flip to the middle, it will probably be largely uninterpretable because you don't know the terminology, previously proved theorems, and so on. You can still glance through the chapter on the material that you really need to know to get an idea of what you're completely missing. If you can select a subset of earlier chapters that let you understand the later one, great! If not, read the whole thing. If that's still not enough, get another textbook or talk to someone who knows the subject well.

You'll have to make the call regarding when it's better to proceed in this way and when it's more efficient to simply start at the beginning and go through it all. If you need to know something well, this is often the approach to take not because the other wouldn't work as well in principle, but because in practice the temptation to be less thorough than one really needs to be is often too great.


I think this has been covered here in prior questions, but to continue on anyway ...

You should read material with a purpose or a goal. If the material is helping to achieve that goal (learning new or foreign material that you have a desire to learn) then reading all of the material is fine. There is no point in reading material though if it has no purpose or a goal (e.g. topics you are not interested in, material you already know sufficiently).

Personally for me it is a mix, some material I skim in large parts, some material I read only portions that I'm directly interested in, and if I'm really engrossed in some material I will read it front to back. Currently I'm reading an introduction cartography text book and really enjoying it and reading every chapter! It would be torture for me though to read though an intro textbook for criminal justice, criminology or sociology.

Same goes for journal articles, posts on Q/A forums, etc.


What do you want to gain from reading that book?

I typically find that I only read books (or articles) cover to cover when I hope to work on a very closely related topic. For example, if I'm trying to improve the result in a paper, I will often read most or all of the details. However, the vast majority of the time all I need is the big picture. In that case, I often read the introduction in detail, then skim the remainder to understand the structure of the actual proofs.

In your case as a math grad student, it may be important to understand the types of questions and answers common in topology. So I would probably recommend reading the book well enough that you can at least solve the easier exercises. However, if you don't plan to work in that area, and you aren't preparing for a qualifying exam or something similar, then likely the time you'd take to read the book cover to cover could be spent better elsewhere.

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