Are you getting your recommended daily allowance of reading?
A funny thing happened recently when I went away for a few days with my family. I took quite a few books which I wanted to finish, left several long reads at home and bought a handful more while away. One was written to teach dogs Welsh, and while it scores points for not being entirely in English, I don’t think the dog – or I – have learned a great deal from it.
Notably, I found reading for pleasure while trying to relax with others who had not brought books almost impossible. We played games. We celebrated the rain. We marvelled at the colours of nature. We wondered how to pronounce Welsh words. We ate well (and decided not to worry about holiday calories, working on the hazy theology that ‘all the fat is the LORD’s’ – Leviticus 3:16).
Perhaps I took the wrong books with me. The newer ones had greater immediate appeal, of course. They had hooked me in and were lighter on the old neurons.
New books, outside the genres I write in, do not feel like work. I love reading, but the more I write, the more I want to read, consciously learning how other writers write. Some writers I return to frequently, thirsty for comic refreshment or astute observational prose. Then there are books which are heavier or drier: some I make myself finish, but not all.
In our local reading group we are working through a book which is deeper and longer than many. It is an Olympic swimming pool of a book. Sadly, this summer, while I can manage paddling pool volumes or even the occasional lido, I do not have the strokes to complete the thing. It will not be read in full, and therefore will not make it to my annual list of ‘All The Books I Finished Reading Completely’. Part of me is angry with myself for these reading shortcomings, but another part of me – the part that loves to find new metaphors – wants to celebrate the authenticity of doing well enough without overdoing it.
I bring you the art of semi-skimmed reading.
Must we consume the introduction, acknowledgements and blurb? No!
Try semi-skimmed. This tried and tested method is best suited to non-fiction and means reading enough but not overdoing it. Semi-skimmed reading looks through the contents page, the main points at the beginning and ends of chapters and the various headers throughout the work. It notes conclusions and references and gets the gist, but is also honest enough to admit that it hasn’t read the whole thing. If every academic had read every page of every work on their own shelves, none would ever have time to mark, eat or sleep. Balance is required. Semi-skimmed reading teaches you where to find what you need in future and gives you a greater respect for the topic.
There are books suitable for reading to children at bedtime, which can be semi-skimmed with a little practice. The metaphor can be extended, I am pleased to say. Some books are suited to reading on holiday, when you need something light or fast-paced (pasteurised). There are books suitable for deep thinking, in smaller doses (condensed). There will always be people who are lectose-intolerant and insist that they cannot possibly manage a book. I am cynical about these claims for the most part. We should all be on a well-balanced reading diet.
And the occasional read of something a bit fluffy because that’s all we fancy that day doesn’t mean we failed.