Tuesday, January 15, 2008

reading efficiently

Froog has proposed a controversial set of 7 Habits of Highly Efficient Readership. I steal them here wholesale:

1) Read books in bookshops without buying them.

2) Browse, rather than reading whole books.

3) Make snap judgments about the quality of the writing by skimming a single page at random (and never read anything badly-written).

4) Have several books on the go at once.

5) Don't worry about not finishing books.

6) Always carry a book in your pocket.

7) Always buy one book - but only one - whenever you visit a bookshop.

Froog has asked me for my thoughts on his rules. I've been prevaricating because in commenting on his rules, I have to come back to the horrible confession that "editor" reading is very different from "reader" reading.

The truth is, if you took out "books" and replaced everything with "proposals," you've basically set your finger on the editor code here.

So it's absolutely true that in 90% of cases, I know whether or not I'm going to offer on a book proposal based on the first page of the sample writing. I receive literally hundreds of proposals, and reviewing proposals is only one of my major tasks at my job. As an editor, Froog, I live by your rules.

As a reader, I don't. It's true that your rules are extremely efficient, but having left higher education well and thoroughly behind, I don't feel a need to be efficient while reading. I read purely for enjoyment, which means that (if the book is good) I tend to linger and plod through things rather inefficiently.

I love to read--I average a book a week outside of work (I try to stay strong on that even during times like last week, when I was at work... a lot. I'm reluctant to sit back and try to calculate how many hours I worked because I think it would be a little demoralizing). I think it's really important for editors to make sure to read as much as they can, and remind themselves regularly what a "good" book is--we spend all day at our jobs reading not-ready-to-be-published stuff (and a lot of really crappy proposals), meaning it's a good idea to keep our brains from dropping our literary appreciation bar. I know it's hard to read while you're in a writing phase--there are various fears about letting another author's style intrude on your own, etc. But writers need to read for the same reason editors do--we should all be continually reminding ourselves what's good. We should take opportunities to increase our vocabularies and verbal dexterity.

Sorry, looks like a little rant escaped right there. Back to task. I also like to finish books, because there have been a number of books I've really HATED reading throughout but which really redeemed themselves with their conclusions. Also, if I don't finish a book, I feel bad about reviewing it in thebookbook, which is, after all, one of the driving joys of my life. I think responsible reviewers should have read the whole book they're reviewing. Otherwise, no one ever would have finished, say, LIFE OF PI.

Since I can't shake off the editor in me about certain things, let me applaud him on number 7 (taking or leaving the "but only one" part). Everyone should buy books all the time. Thank you. Let me also deplore his #1, which obviously would lead toward fewer book sales (since we've left the "but only one" part in #7).

{I finally posted, Froog!! Be extremely grateful.)


Wayne said...

Rules 1 and 2 just go so far against the grain with me, I won't comment on them. 3 & 4 I live by. 5, once I've started, it will be finished. No. 6 I learned from Stephen King and 7, I don't have the self control: my collection at home is beyond a thousand . . .

Brian said...

I have a high guilt factor surrounding #1. #2 is unclear to me: is it suggesting books should be skimmed rather than read in entirety? #3 gives me pause. I can't finish something I feel is poorly written. I can't do the random page thing but, yes, I tend to start most books with editor eyes and if they don't grab me in the first chapter, I don't continue. #4 is a given. #5 took me a long time to learn but life is indeed to short to waste time finishing crap. #6--my pockets are full but there's usually one at arm's reach. #7--no can do. Just one? I have a compulsive book buying disorder. This won't do. But I do buy everytimg when I shop independent bookstores.

Precie said...

I have more to say...but my initial response is--Oh, thank goodness, I wasn't the only one who didn't like The Life of Pi. (I never finished it...BUT it was a book I bought so I did contribute to the publishing industry in its name.)

Lisa said...

My view on books is similar to my view on artwork. I consider myself on a tiny scale to be a patron of the arts, so I'm much more forgiving than a lot of people are. I always buy new books (unless the writer is dead or a gazillionaire), I am very patient and almost never put a book down without finishing it. If it captivated my interest enough to read, I can learn something even through a bogged down middle or something else that makes the book less than excellent. I suppose I'm especially forgiving of debut novelists, since I'd like to be one myself someday and therefore, I like to see them have the best shot at success they can get.

That's not to say I don't respect Froog's rules. We all have different reasons for what we read and how we read it.

Precie said...

With all due respect to Froog...

1) I don't care how cushy the sofas are or how caffeinated the lattes, I'm not reading entire books at the bookstore.

2) I could conceivably browse nonfiction books rather than read them closely. But I'd rather not.

3) That's just funny.

4) Ok, I'm guilty of this. Currently, I have 4 books going. Two of them I've been "reading" slowly for several months because I need to be in the mood to read them.

5) Ah, pre-parenthood, I would have argued against this. But now, when time is a precious commodity, I wholeheartedly embrace this. Why waste time reading bad books? (Ok, not necessarily bad, just books I personally am not enjoying.) I'll generally give a book 100 pages. If I'm not hooked by then, I'm done.

6) Well, I do try to carry a book around with me. Try. Not always convenient. AND sometimes my current and most engaging book isn't one that I would enjoy reading in 10 min chunks.

7) LOL! I don't have that kind of control. This week alone I purchased 6 books, and I'm on the lookout for some good non-fiction to add to my already outrageous TBR mound.

Thanks for these! Very thought-provoking!

Colorado Writer said...

I probably only finish one out of two books I start, and sometimes I skip to the last few chapters to see how it ends. I feel a tiny bit guilty about that.

I think I own The Life of Pi, yet haven't ever read it.

When I start a book, I always read the ISBN information, the acknowledgements, the jacket copy and the author bio first. That way I can be "guilted" into finishing because I "know" the author.

This year I am keeping track of every book I've read. So far, it's been enlightening.

Josephine Damian said...

1) Read books in bookshops without buying them.

No to both, would not read them there or buy it even if I didn't read them there. See #7.

2) Browse, rather than reading whole books.

What does this mean? Skim? Skip parts?

3) Make snap judgments about the quality of the writing by skimming a single page at random (and never read anything badly-written).

It'll be a cold day in hell before I stop making snap judgements - you don't have to read much of a book to know a book sucks. My goal in life is to stop reading a book as soon as I see it's badly written.

4) Have several books on the go at once.

I try to avoid this, though don't always succeed.

5) Don't worry about not finishing books.

It's those authors of books I couldn't finish that need to worry.

6) Always carry a book in your pocket.

Always do. It's a NY thing cause we're used to waiting in lines.

7) Always buy one book - but only one - whenever you visit a bookshop.

A crime blogger buddy touted a foreign thriller. I foolishly paid big bucks to get it from amazon UK. The books sucks. I'm pissed about the dough I wasted on it. The only books I buy now are proven classics - modern authors can go scratch.

Mary said...

Well, after looking at my first page and trying to imagine your reaction, I thought about these rules. I generally give a book 50 pages or so unless it's for a book club or one someone specifically recommended. Or a favorite author. That said, two books that came to mind that I ignored that rule are Shipping News (totally hooked me around page 80, I think) and Life of Pi. I loved the latter until the middle when it slowed down drastically but the end was worth every bit of time and restlessness it took to get there. It could have used some good editing, though. :)

AS far as carrying a book around to read: I always have a New Yorker with fiction I haven't read and a book of short stories. The book sometimes stays in my car for months before I get through all the stories but it's a great way to steal reading minutes. Right now I have Alice Monro. Another good one to have is the Best of 2007 etc short stories.

As far as buying a book weekly, let's all remember our local independent bookstores!

Demon Hunter said...

I love reading, and no matter how horrible a book is, I just have the need. to. finish. it! LOL. :*) Great post, Moon.

Conduit said...

I sometimes lapse into the several books at once thing, though usually one will get priority.

I used be an "I'll started so I'll finish" kind of guy, but in recent times, I'm finding my patience for poor quality books to be wearing very thin. I'd say I've put down about a third of the books I've started over the last few months. I just don't have the time to wade through Mr Bestseller's plot-by-numbers-lazy-ass-going-through-the-motions-to-bag-a-big-advance-crap-fest. I therefore reserve the right to put a book down as soon as I realise I'm wasting my time.

So there.

Ello said...

1) Read books in bookshops without buying them.

I gotta say that this is a real big pet peeve of mine. I hate hate HATE when people do this. Part of this is because I love buying a perfect conditioned book with a spine that only I will crack open, and gently at that. It really bugs me when I find new books with wrinkled spines or folded wrinkly pages etc. If you want to read a book for free, go to the library.

2) Browse, rather than reading whole books.

However, if you are at the bookstore and you want to browse through books, I completely understand. I do this myself. Browsing through a book is part of the book buying experience. Sitting down and reading the book cover to cover at the bookstore is NOT browsing.

3) Make snap judgments about the quality of the writing by skimming a single page at random (and never read anything badly-written).

I do this all the time. Can't help it. The writing has to make me want to buy it or I move on.

4) Have several books on the go at once.

I am so guilty of this it's not even funny.

5) Don't worry about not finishing books.

I never review a book that I have not finished. I totally agree with Moonie that you cannot give an effective review without reading the whole book. However, I am very guilty of never finishing many books - including the famous Life of Pi, I donated my copy to the library.

6) Always carry a book in your pocket.

In my bag. In my car. In my laptop bag. Oh yes, I always have a book nearby.

7) Always buy one book - but only one - whenever you visit a bookshop.

I always try to buy one book, but usually end up buying more than one. However, there have been moments when nothing appealed to me and I have walked out emptyhanded. But it does not happen often.

Merry Monteleone said...

Oy, these rules are completely out the window for me...

First, I usually finish the book. I get the whole, 'I'm not wasting my time with a bad book', but I generally feel a bit guilty putting it down without giving it a good chance. That's not to say I have NEVER stopped reading a book... I have, but I won't give it away for a long time, it sits in a pile until I convince myself to give it one more go... I was usually right the first time...

Why do I do this? There were books I read in college that I hated - Nabokov's Lolita comes to mind - I hated reading that book, if it had not been a group project which meant it would be detrimental to my partners' grades for me to flake out, I would never have made it past page five... I hated it. I threw it into the radiator in my room about fifty thousand times during the stupid process... and... Nabokov can write, brilliantly, and by the end I could appreciate that fact, at least. I hated the story not the writing and I really feel like I would have missed something fantastic had I not stuck it out to really see the writing.

Also, if I'm reviewing a book, I've finished it. I absolutely can't review something I haven't finished, even if I hate it... usually I'm pleasantly surprised.

I don't read in bookstores, I do browse, though - sorry if I've ever ruined the first spine crack for you, ello... I generally read the first few pages before buying a new book or author. If it's an author I know and love, I might not open it, but if it's on recommend or it just looks interesting, I'll read a bit first...

I never buy just one - seriously, I'm the person who you can't even see over the mountainous stack in her hands... I am a book glutton. My to be read pile is serously demented, my husband (a non reader) thinks I'm insane, and my children believe that double stacked bookcases in every room, along with various stacks of books under furniture, in corners, closets and desk tops... yes, well, that's normal... All of that, five boxes of books I just don't have the shelf space for... and I give away at least two office boxes full of books a year...

I do own a library card, I take my kids there... but I almost never use it myself... I actually have to own the book for some odd reason that I haven't quite figured out... book gluttony, I think perhaps it's a form of insanity.

Multiple books at a time? Yes, almost constantly... one will usually take priority until it's finished, but I often have two or three going at a time, not counting reference books.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to read a lot when I'm writing. It just seems to help me keep in the mode.

I'm with Wayne on finishing what I start. I might quit after four or five pages if it's really bad, but if I get fifteen pages in I'm usually there for the duration.

Froog said...

I should just interject here that I did say in my original post that I was not necessarily advocating all of these rules myself - just putting them out there for debate.

1) Can be quite a good way of saving money. And perhaps of making "more efficient use" of your bookshop time. However, if I really liked a book, I think I'd buy it anyway - having already read a book is no obstacle to my wanting to buy it: quite the reverse!

The only time I did this a lot was in high school where for a while I had a 1hr wait for my bus home, so used to go into a newsagent and read a book from the shelf almost every day. I found I could finish off a book in a week or two.... It passed the time.

2) This applies mainly to non-fiction - although it could conceivably relate to certain novels as well. The point is that you can waste a lot of time feeling obliged to read whole books when only a part of them is really of interest to you or they are only intermittently well written.

3) One page is enough to judge the quality of the writing. Heck, one paragraph is usually enough. Commenters who talk about warming up to a book after 50 or 100 pages are surely thinking about the story, not the writing. I also advise against using the first (or last) page - authors make special efforts with these, and they tend to be story-rich (or suspense-rich, teaser-rich). Pick a page at random: think, does this writing thrill me.... or irritate me? Buy accordingly.

4) I've never considered myself great at 'parallel processing', and I think reading multiple books at once is non-ideal - especially with novels. But I also think it's good to get away from being too reverential about pointless, self-imposed rules for devoting yourself to a single book ("Must finish it; mustn't start anything else until I've finished it; must read every page...." etc.). I am finding more and more that flitting between different books can help keep my energy and enthusiasm up - if I am flagging on a heavy read. But with me, it's usually one novel, a few poetry collections, a book of short stories, one or two non-fiction titles.

5) Re-iterating the point about over-reverentiality. I used to be in thrall to this notion that once I'd started a book I really had to finish it, as a sort of duty (to the author?). Crap! You don't owe the author anything. If I find myself inclined to give up on a book, it is because the book is no good - and 9 times out of 10 times I have already lavished more time on it than it deserves by diligently plodding through it to the half-way point.

6) Always have a book with you. Vital. Strangely comforting, even if you never actually find time to dip into it - although, of course, there are lots of 'spare' moments in the day when you might be able to get some reading done if only you had the book with you. I've never been good at reading on public transport or while queueing... but I do spend a lot of time in bars and restaurants and coffee-shops being stood up by people....

7) Probably the most important rule of all. I didn't think of it as an exhortation to people to buy books. Or to buy them in bookshops (a way more satisfying experience than buying on Amazon). The main thrust of this is to discourage excessive book buying. Like most of us, I suspect, I get tempted to splurge in a bookshop - but that can be a dangerous waste of money, and you can wind up with a lot of books that you're never going to find time to read. I also think there's a danger that having too many books on the 'to read' list can actually slow down your reading, as you fret and procrastinate about what to start next. I think there's even a danger that this binge book-buying may tend to reduce the number of books you buy overall (or the number of bookshop visits you make), as you repent of previous excess and keep away for a while. My advice is: go to bookshops often, and buy books there regularly - but pace these visits to the speed of your reading. Go once every week or two. Buy one book each time. Read it. Repeat. Simple magic.

Froog said...

I guess it was the first of my propositions that caused the most outrage or disagreement - so I would like to add this further qualification to it.

I'm not at all advocating cutting back on buying books here, nor suggesting an absolute rule that you should not buy a book you've already read. My twin points in this first proposition are: a) that, rather than just idly skimming through dozens of books, you can actually use your bookshop time to finish a whole book; and b) since your book-buying budget is finite, it probably makes more sense to buy books you haven't read yet rather than ones you have.

Reading, I find, begets the appetite for more reading (and more book buying); so reading a whole book in the bookstore needn't entail any reduction in overall book buying at all.

Bernita said...

I could never leave a book store without at least one book.
It wouldn't seem decent.