I started to read seriously in my early teens. I wanted to read stories and learn about the world, but I couldn’t read fast enough. I was eager to read every book I could get my hands on.
I spent my summer vacations in the countryside at my grandmother’s house. She had a large collection of books. I was browsing the shelves, selecting one book after another. I kept asking my grandmother: “What is this book about? What about this?”
It was clear to me that, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be able to read all the books. I can honestly say that I tried, reading for hours and hours, frustrated that I read so slowly. I have never been as envious as I was when I read Louis Lambert by Balzac. The protagonist, Louis Lambert, was a genius and could read 8 lines of text with a single glance. I attempted to imitate him, learned some speed reading techniques, but they proved to be useless. Meanwhile, the reading lists and piles of books were growing quickly.
My biggest problem was that I always wanted to finish every book I started. Regardless of how boring the book was, I still had to finish it. I imagined that if I didn’t read every word in the book, then I couldn’t truly say that I had “read” the book, just skimmed it. I was aiming for the 100% completion rate badge.
This, obviously, was a handicap. It held me back. I would rather not start reading new books because that meant I had to finish them. And at the same time, I didn’t want to read the books I was already reading because I was only thinking about other books on the shelves.
The unfinished books piled up beside my bed, begging for my attention. I never got to them because there was always another great book I had just discovered.
Reading was sometimes challenging. I had to force myself to finish the book, turning every page with growing anxiety. “50 more pages? Ok, I can read 20 pages in 10 minutes," I calculated, “that means I can complete it in a half an hour.” I struggled with reading, and in the process learned to fear it.
Looking back, I understand that it was a necessary part of growing up. No-one really taught me how to read. Even Mortimer Adler and his How to Read a Book (first thing I ever ordered from Amazon) didn’t help me in this regard.
Things have changed. I still have plenty of books, but I don’t usually read them from start to finish. Fiction might be the only exception, although I don’t read it so much anymore, I listen to it. But even with fiction, if the story doesn’t interest me, I will just close the lid (or stop the player) and never come back.
At some point in my life, I reached the conclusion that it isn’t worth it to read the whole book. I made the shift from consuming to searching.
I open a book when I’m looking for something specific. For me, a book is a source of information, but not all information is created equal. Table of contents and index are there for a reason: to jump to the part you are looking for.
Unapologetic skimming is especially useful with modern non-fiction. Modern bestsellers usually contain one or two solid ideas. The author could have conveyed these ideas in a single blog post. These ideas are gems, the rest is just dirt and filling material. I focus solely on the key ideas. I don’t see the point in reading 10 different stories and examples about the same idea.
Why do we insist on reading cover to cover?
I’m not sure where the belief that we must read cover to cover came from. It feels, in some ways, like an achievement. Something we can brag about: “This year I have read 360 books”. This is an approval-seeking behavior. I’m not reading to learn, but to build an image of a well-read person. When making photographs, I will try to get my books in the shot.
The purpose of a book is to give you something you haven’t found yet. So, why dig through all this filling material, when you can just go to the matter? Read with an aim in mind. Don’t follow the path that the author has comfortably laid out for you.
When you read with a purpose, you won’t need to finish every book. You may stop reading mid-sentence and be done with it. You stopped not because you didn’t like the book, but because it had given you everything you needed at the moment. Not only that, but you might come back to the book later and read it again, finding a different perspective that you didn’t see the first time. As time passes, you will change, as will the book.