Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How do you read a book?

This isn't a rhetorical question. I'm interested in knowing how people read books. I have a feeling that reading is more idiosyncratic that you'd expect.

The more I think about it the more I think that I'm not reading properly. The reason I say this is that for all that my life has changed I still read more or less the way I did when I was a kid or a teenager, picking up a book, reading a few pages, putting it down again, all this several times a day, until about 1 - 4 weeks later I reach the end. Is that the best way to do it? Shouldn't I have a few tricks up my sleeve at this stage, some sophisticated reading techniques?

It's such a fundamental activity, reading. Look, you're doing it now. Such a personal activity, one that surely should be constantly improving as time passes. You will have changed most of your other habits from when you first started reading for pleasure, indeed your life will be barely recognisable from that time. I don't watch TV the way I used to, strumming idly away on the guitar. I don't listen to music the same way I used to, one album from start to finish at a time. But I still go to a shop, buy a book, and sit down and read it more-or-less one page at a time, more-or-less one book at a time.

At least I'm reading

Working in IT you'd think that the vast majority of your colleagues would be bibliophiles, avid readers, bookworms. I used to think that. I don't anymore. I've been shocked over the last few years as I talk to people about books how few do any real reading. Why don't people read? And why do adults read childrens' books and crappy fantasy novels? I've met people older than me who go on like kids about Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Terry Pratchett books. They don't seem embarrassed: it isn't their dirty little secret or anything.

See, I don't count that as reading. There's an argument that says that no matter how trashy or juvenile the material, when people read something "at least they're reading". Ok, once in a while you might want to read something light - I'm reading a cyber-espionage thriller right now that I'm confident isn't going to trouble the Booker prize panel - but not all the time. So, why is it deemed so important to be reading when what you're reading is crap? I don't understand this attitude. No, I call shenanigans on this. Read good stuff, or else go for a bike ride, visit your cousin, or put up some shelves.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that when I find someone who's interesting in reading half-decent books, I latch on to them to see what I can learn.

Words with friends 1

One thing I like to do is get books off friends. For instance, this guy I used to work with, Dave, mentioned that he had 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', a book I love and have read a few times. I think it was in the context of 'Hey Eurotrash, you're a reader, you'd like this one'. I couldn't help remarking that it didn't seem to be his sort of thing, and he agreed. He said he hadn't read it, didn't particularly want it, and I must say I thought it'd be nice to have a copy here in Australia so I badgered him to give me his unwanted copy. But when he gave it to me, I was surprised to see a personal dedication on the inside page:


"Dear David,
Thanks for being the ideal assistant. I hope you get some value out of this book. I look forward to working with you again, and I'm sure you will achieve all your basketball ambitions - with the obvious exception of winning 3pt shootouts against me!"
I began to change my mind about taking it. Dave didn't seem to mind too much and insisted I take it. Still, I felt a bit strange about the book, and pretty quickly passed it on to Karl who I knew was interested in it. Incidentally, the next Lifeline BookFest Karl returned the favour by picking me up a 2nd-hand copy of Shackleton's 'South'. I'm glad I passed 'Zen' on, and the ultimate reward is knowing that Karl enjoyed it - we chatted about it at Friday beers at least once. I borrowed it back briefly to copy that orphaned dedication and give it a home in this post.

Speed reading? Slow down.

"I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."
With all due respect to the sanity of supposed speedreaders, this is a deeply insane business. I'd go further, and say "batshit crazy". So why do I use such strong words? Well, if you're reading a technical, non-fiction, science, or history book you need to pay attention, absorb the details, and let things sink in. If you're reading a fiction book, then you're reading for pleasure so what's the hurry? There, I think I've kinda covered it. The only efficiency gained by "speed-reading" is that you at least get through this waste of time quickly. Science and Woody Allen are skeptical about speed-reading. For me, it falls squarely in the category of 'no free lunch'. Skepdic makes a good point: "Who would want to hire a physician or lawyer who skimmed rather than read his or her texts?"

Doing the slightest little bit of research on speedreading brings up a lot of spammy, testimonial-heavy, unscientific corners of the internet. That doesn't prove anything, it's true. But reading is a bit like talking insofar as it involves words. A person is talking to you, in written form, when you're reading. That's the most commonsense way I can put it.

The book I'm reading at the moment - "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (which is a terrible title for such an important book) is one which I put down all the time to try and make sense of what I've just read. It's a one-book refutation of speedreading. You try reading the chapter "Regression to the Mean" quickly. You have to slowread it.
"Whether undetected or wrongly explained, the phenomenon of regression is strange to the human mind. So strange, indeed, that it was first identified and understood two hundred years after the theory of gravitation and differential calcalus. Furthermore it took one of the best minds of nineteenth-century Britain to make sense of it, and that with great difficulty."
Same with 'The Better Angels of our Nature', 'The Quark and the Jaguar', or indeed 'Zen and the Art...', to pick just a couple of great books you want to read. For me, your approach to reading should be something like progressive resistance with weight training: you should be pumping heavier and heavier ideas as your strength increases, so your toil remains constant over time. Which means you are almost always encountering new ideas, always learning, always surprising yourself. It behoves a chap to stop fiddling and pay attention. You should be reading difficult stuff, whatever level you're at, in relation to the stuff you were reading last year - you know more now, you can take it. Get Wikipedia to 'spot' you.

The underlining question

I'm an underliner. In an attempt to improve my comprehension of sciencey, technical books, I frequently sit down with a pen to hand. You should see my copy of "The Blank Slate". I even went through a note-taking phase recently where I would write out, in the Blogger app on my Xoom tablet, the stuff I would normally underline. The idea was that I would generate the guts of a blog post for each book by default. For example, it helped me write a post about James Gleick. All I'd have to do would be to glue the relevant phrases together around the meaty quotes. The trouble, of course, is that it slows the reading process down too much. Gave it up with the tablet, though I still like to do it with real books, although: "Highlighting and rereading text is among the least effective ways for students to remember the content of what they have read", according to a grumpy scientist in this month's Scientific American.

Words with friends 2

I worked with another Dave, in Executive Building in the CBD. I knew Dave to be a reader because he would come in every day with a scrunched-up copy of The Australian. One day, ol' Dave said he had to buy a new 8-book set of Vintage Classics ('Crime and Punishment', 'The Trial', etc.) because he had lost one of the books in the collection. So, what happens to the old 7, I asked? BANG! Asked for 'em, got 'em. Dave was kind enough to give me his original, now-useless set of classics-minus-one ("To Kill a Mockingbird") which since that fine day sits proudly on my shelf at home. My advice is: take books where you can get them. They will make you a better person. I reread 'All Quiet on the Western Front' and it blew me away again.

The gorilla in the room, reading a Kindle

To wrap up, I haven't even talked here about probably the single biggest recent change in the way we read - ebooks - because I want to write about that separately. I have a very Gen Y friend, Sam, who is aghast that I still read paper books. The tipping of the point with ebooks versus regular books is nigh, certainly in some sections like IT books. Reminds me of 10-12 years ago with MP3s.

But fuck it I still love to sit down with a honking big science hardback, with pictures in the middle, a nice new-book smell - the kind of book that gives you a bookshelf that will impress neighbours and Coles delivery guys. And ah - the buzz of getting the Amazon cardboard box delivery. Not quite the same over Kindle.

So, have you got any interesting insights into the way we read, the way we should or shouldn't be reading? How do you read a book?


  1. Interesting read Ralph. I didn't want a Kindle, but my wife bought one and never used it. So I tried it, and I am sold... So much more convenient to have the book I am reading and the next one in one small package (I read on the train), and no trees need to be chopped down!

    Regarding what people read, just remember a meaningful message can be just as (if not more) effectively expressed through a Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel. Or sometimes they are just fun, you remember what that is don't you? Personally I read (almost) anything I think will be entertaining or interesting, from crime novels and Fantasy to J. M. Coetzee's booker prize winning efforts...

  2. I don't have an actual Kindle, just the Kindle app on 3 different devices, so yeah - I'm all for ebooks. Fun? I don't have time for fun.

  3. I'm interested in how people acquire the habit of reading in the first place. The number of whole books I've read in my life is negligible. Growing up we didn't even have a book collection. I suspect that's the case for many people who don't read.

    I have a stack of books I'd like to read, but after a few paragraphs I get agitated by my own "threads" running in the background, demanding more resources, and then I tend to put the book down to avoid the agitation. Is that what they call easily distracted? Maybe it'd be different if I acquired the habit at an earlier age.

    In the sense that reading a book is the same as listening to a person speak, my own thoughts tend to loudly interrupt that as well. I have terrible listening skills, as I'm sure many will attest. I think I've been living under the false assumption that you're supposed to be able to do both at the same time, rather than stop for two seconds and pay attention.

    I think a lot hinges on your ability to pay full attention for more than 3 seconds, and I'm only just becoming aware of how significant this shortcoming is, but I still don't see myself sitting down for an hour long reading session any time soon.

    Sorry for gate crashing your readers club!

    1. It definitely gets harder as you get older, with more things in your life to distract you. And having the iPhone beside you doesen't help, just gotta check twitter again... but you're right to point out that it's interesting to see how the habit forms in the first place. My older kid, Alexander (7), is now a great reader, and it's sad in a way, because he'll break off from playing with Eoin (nearly 5) to read, leaving poor illiterate Eoin on his own. Gotta teach that kid to read!

  4. Hi Ralph, the choosing bit is the most important bit to me. I will look at endless inside covers before I take a book out of the library. I think as you get older, you get a clearer idea of the types of books that you know will engage you and the ones that won't and so I won't bother with lots of stuff. If it's a goodie, I'll read it in fifths or sixths, good old chunks at a time and then pass it on to someone else, once I've bored them to tears about how brilliant it is. I think this is more or less how I've always read which proves your reading habit point. Occasionally a book comes my way which I read and love. This little fact might be telling me to be more open minded about my choices but heck I just don't have the time, sure you know yourself.

    1. Hey Debs, I like the fifths or sixths thing. Might get out the calculator and use that.

  5. I just speed-read this post.. I liked the bit about Russia! :P

    1. I just speed-read your comment, something about spead-reading my post and I don't remember the rest. See! That's what I'm talking about!

  6. I like this blog entry Ralph: you were always a good lender of books.

    Reading Arguably by Christoper Hitchens, The Greatest Show on Earth by Dawkins at the moment, and dipping in and out of them as my fancy/level of alertness permits me.

    The Dawk and Hitch can be taxing, but I love to read, it's one of my most favourite things to do in life. The fact that I pick up a large tome and completely disappear for 3 hours and emerge the wiser man is truly amazing.

    The thirst for knowledge is insatiable, the more I read, the more I want to read. I read for enjoyment, but as I read the enjoyment, bliss I might add, comes during/after, specially when I read someone who is writing passionately on a subject. Deep, immersive reading, is the best way: iDevices off!

    The downside for me is retention. Sometimes in a conversation, a topic comes up, usually a controversial one, and I'm like... Shit! What was the point around this again, what was that killer, irrefutable fact again? Shit-arsed if I can remember? So underlining and discussing with friends, is the only way I can hold onto these new found facts and insights without changing career.

    For me, the e-book/real book argument at this point is null and void. There are sets of different reasons for preferring one over the other. I like to dabble in both. Both serve different purposes for me. Ultimately, finding the time is the biggest challenge for me. I really don't care where I can get my hands on the beautiful English lexica, just so long as I can read.

    The other thing I need to 'watch' myself on is, reading articles when I should be reading books, and vice versa. I've read books on weird topics, when a couple of well-written articles would have sufficed. Need to establish the same rule as I have for the screen - weekdays, watch TV series, weekend, watch a good film, or maybe not.

    1. +1 for the Dawk and the Hitch, can't fault you there Onions. I agree with you about the pointless debates about ebooks: I avoid them now. And about retention. If you go back a few pages with a book you dropped a week ago it's disappointing how much is new to you even though you read it a few days ago.