It’s complicated Books

The reading philosophy

‘Life is too short to spend agonising over books that just don’t do it for you...’   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

I was 14, and up until that moment, I had only read books from cover to cover. It didn’t matter how long they were, I would spend hours drowning in a book, coming up for air every now and then, before finishing it in one sitting. It’s the only way I knew how to read and enjoy a book, and it formed a crippling habit. Until, that is, I picked up Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It wasn’t the length of the book – around 400-odd pages -- I’d read books that long before and it wasn’t the language either. As much as I was exhilarated reading it, I realised that it was Bronte’s writing that required me to slow down. I could consume the book headily, giddily, but maybe not in one sitting. I had to meet Wuthering Heights on its terms, not mine.

As the summer holidays came to a close, with even lesser time to devote to personal reading pleasures, I had a choice to make. What meant more to me: finishing the book or going through every word, line, paragraph, page, chapter no matter how much time it took? Irrespective of what I chose, the book had already ended my 14-year-reign of consuming books whole. So I chose, for the first time, to skim through bits of the book that were boring me. And it certainly wasn’t the last time. Wuthering Heights was only the first dilemma.

In my post-Wuthering Heights life, I’ve encountered so many books that aren’t conducive to reading in one go. Each time, a tiny part of me considers this a defeat. There’s an irritation I carry in the nook of my neck that is constant, nestling itself for the few days that it takes me to devote time to finish the book. Many times, I’ve caved in and skimmed through a few pages, a few chapters just to get to the end so I could consider it ‘read’. I’ve done this for books I was enjoying, books I couldn’t get through, and books I just had to read (this kind is particularly frequent for me, having now spent seven years in academia). Although, while the scale differed with each book, I still managed to have decent conversations around those books that I had skimmed through parts of. Turns out, in most cases, I managed to get ‘the point’ of the text.

Which brings me to a question I’ve wanted to stop every book-lover in their tracks and ask: when it comes to a book, are you a skimmer or a swimmer? When that one book comes along every now and then, something you just can’t get through at your usual rhythm, do you tarry on through every word no matter how much time it takes you, or do you gloss over (but still get a sense of) sections that just don’t speak to you? What is your reading philosophy?

I agonise over books I haven’t finished, but actively work on reminding myself it’s okay to let go, abandon, give up, retire.

I know impressive readers who manage to read extensively without skimming; a few of them find the idea of abandoning a half-read book blasphemous. Others say life is too short to spend agonising over books that just don’t do it for them, why waste time force-reading something just for the sake of it? I switch between the two philosophies myself. I agonise over books I haven’t finished, but actively work on reminding myself it’s okay to let go, abandon, give up, retire.

In so many ways, skimming just sounds like a lesser, lower, devolved form of reading. Why read at all if you won’t read what the author intended for you to know? And yet, I want to make a case for skimming because isn’t it more rewarding than giving the book a miss entirely? Maybe the detailed descriptions of paint, wallpaper, sky, wall, etc. really do add to the mise-en-scene of a text, but do they affect the reader’s basic grasp on its plotline or point?

In a way, the swim vs. skim argument really boils down to a splinter between the plot of a text and its fine print. When especially hard-pressed for time, would you rather quickly scan a 400-page book to identify its larger arguments, or do you take as much time as need be, months and years maybe, but know those 100 pages really well?

Then again, there are books that I read diligently which I can’t seem to remember a smidgen of, and books that I only cursorily skimmed through that I remember really well. To date though, there’s a spectre of dread that haunts me whenever I skim through sections of a book. In my nightmares, I am convinced there was a throwaway sentence, crucial to the entire plot or argument that I completely missed, making me the only reader who came away from the book with a wildly different story. The 14-year-old in me is still ecstatic on the days I manage to read a book in one sitting, but those instances are too few and far between. And even though I am kinder to myself on the instances I do skim — because I don’t have time, I don’t like the writing or the suspense is killing me — I wonder if we can really claim to have ‘read’ a book that we skimmed through?

I could consume the book headily, giddily, but maybe not in one sitting. I had to meet ‘Wuthering Heights’ on its terms, not mine.

How does a love for books translate? When do we consider a book truly ‘read’? There are readers who don’t re-visit books, their quest for stories nudging them constantly in new directions and there are readers who read the same handful every few years, the same book transforming into a different story each time. We’re probably both, skimmers and swimmers depending on the context, and so much more. We’re abandoners, groaners, and evaders, compulsively addicted and consummately in love. As a voracious reader, I’m only just learning how to be less harsh on myself over books I can’t invest too much time in. That will continue to happen, and it’s okay. Like Wuthering Heights taught me, love is complicated.

Shruti Rao is a freelance writer currently pursuing her Master’s in Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice from the University of British Columbia.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 9:15:21 PM |

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