How to Read Books

This is not really a general essay on how to read books.  It is instead a screed in favor of one specific practice: not reading more than one book at a time.

How many times have you said this about a book, or heard it said?

  • I started it but got distracted.
  • I really liked it but I never finished it.
  • I’ve been meaning to get back to it.

This happens because of our disorganized habit of starting new books before finishing the old ones.  It is a symptom of the culture of immediate gratification.  A book comes along that seems interesting or attractive, or maybe it is a new title by a favorite author, or it is well reviewed in the daily press, or maybe someone gives us a copy.  We cannot wait – or rather we can, but we do not think to.  Let’s start this great new book right away!

As a result really good books don’t get finished, which means they are not actually read, despite being good enough to start, and to continue with, until the shiny new one came along.  Even the ones that do get finished under these conditions are not really absorbed and appreciated the way they were intended to be – we end up with a very fractured, distracted understanding if we finish them at all.  Although we are eager readers – we would have to be to try to read more than one book at a time – doing it this way degrades both our own experience and the work of writers we respect.

It takes some discipline, but here’s what to do about this.  Make a rule, and stick to it: Never read more than one book at a time! 

There are two parts to this rule.  The first part is: if you’re interested in the book you’re reading, keep going until you either finish it or lose interest.  Note that lose interest does not mean feel more attracted to the new book.  It is about the book in your hand.  Are you still interested in what you’re reading?  If it’s fiction, do you care about the characters, or the plot, or the writing, or the author, or something that makes you want to turn the pages?  If it’s non-fiction, are you learning something you care about?  If so, keep going.

But the second part of the rule is: if you’re not still interested, abandon the book with a clear conscience.  School’s out – you don’t owe any book more of your attention than it earns.  If you’re bored or repelled – by the characters, by the subject, by the writing – toss it away, or better, add it to the pile to be given away to a library or thrift shop.  Someone else might enjoy it, but that’s not you.  Give it up – there are a million more books where that one came from.  You’ll never finish even all the really good ones, so there is no point in spending time a book you don’t like. 

Because it is kosher to abandon a book, a book once abandoned can be abandoned cleanly, without a guilty feeling or a sense that you have to get back and finish it one of these days.  If you’re going to finish it, finish it now.  If not, don’t let it nag at you from the bedside table.  You gave it a fair chance; you owe it nothing more. 

Abandoning a book is not a failure of yours, or a failure of the author’s either.  For example, I stopped reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a key work of modern literature, even though I kept thinking what great writing, because it was so maddeningly without incident.  Abandoning it midstream does not say it is a bad book, or even not a great book – it just means I don’t want to read any more of it.  I found the thought of reading more of To the Lighthouse filled me with dread every time I picked it up.  So I stopped.  Why go through that – to become better educated?  Maybe this doesn’t apply to books that are assigned in school, but as noted, for me (and for most of you) school’s out. 

If a book doesn’t suit your taste, or even your mood, or if you have reached the limit of your interest in the subject, then go on to something else.  You can do this at page 300, or page 30, or page three.  But if it does not bore you, or even if it does but you have some other reason for wanting to press on anyway, then press on and don’t get sidetracked.  The new book will still be there when you finish the one you’re reading now.

Still, that new one is very appealing, and sings to you: look at me.  So if you just cannot resist that new book, read the preface or the introduction.  But then stop.  I have found this little peek takes the edge off impatience.

This rule should be almost absolute, but of course there can be rare exceptions.  A technical book on a special subject, like a guidebook for the place you are going next month, or the do-it-yourself guide to your upcoming divorce, are OK – you can read that and a novel too.  But not two novels, or a novel and a book of non-fiction there is no pressing need to open, or even a novel and a diet book if you plan to read the diet book all the way through.  Everything in its turn.

I repeat: it takes discipline never to read more than one book at a time.  But I have been following this rule for decades, and the heightened experience of the books I finish, and the time saved by not finishing the others, make it worth the effort.

June 2013