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Monday, November 19, 2012

Should You Feel Guilty for Skimming?

Multicolored Stacked Books by Stuart Miles
With the Thanksgiving holidays around the corner, we probably all have a pile of books to be read (or, if you're like me, a long list in various e-reader apps on my iPad). We've all had the misfortune of picking up a book we thought would be a winner only to discover it's a dud.

I've dealt with three types of readers thus far in this scenario:

1) Tossers: those who toss the book out on it's ear with the attitude of "life's too short to deal with bad prose, poor grammar, fill-in-your-literary-vice-here."

2) Skeptics: those who cautiously read on, hoping that something in the book will redeem their decision to have wasted the earlier amount of time reading it.

3) Dogmatics: those who finish the book no matter what, perhaps silently cursing their inability to toss it or having "wasted" their money (hopefully the book was a freebie on Amazon and then this won't be the case).

I'm not writing this post to cast my vote for any one camp. Sorry to disappoint.

But I do want to offer an alternative to nail biting decisions.

In some ways, I'm proposing the literary equivalent to taking a book on a first date. Mortimer J. Adler wrote a book called How to Read a Book in which he identified four levels of reading that build upon one another:

  • Elementary
  • Inspectional
  • Analytical
  • Syntopical
Elementary reading is remedial literacy. The basics, if you will. You find the book attractive, the cover interesting, the premise engaging.

Inspectional reading encompasses a quick, yet meaningful, advance review to order to evaluate the pros and cons of whether you should go steady with this book. There are two ways to do this, according to Adler:

1) Skimming. This is like taking a book out for a drink (instead of a longer dinner). You read the back cover blurb, glance at chapter titles, selectively dip in and out of content, and skip around a bit.

The KEY is that this is a time-limited activity.

And here is where my metaphor falls apart slightly. Drinks with a first date can last anywhere from an hour to an entire evening. But with a book, you want to take no more than about five minutes to make the decision about whether to go on to the next level of reading commitment. 

If your gut tells you that this book is unworthy of additional time or effort, CUT YOUR LOSSES AT THIS POINT. You're only out a few minutes of your time and can pick up the next book on your TBR pile guilt-free. You haven't led the book on or made it think you were more interested than you are.

If, however, you are still interested, it's time to go dancing with your book.

2) Superficial. Doesn't sound much better than skimming, but this is reading at it's purest level of enjoyment. You're not pondering why a character did what, you're not losing sleep over something you didn't get. You're just reading for entertainment, just like going dancing with a date. You're actively engaged, but still on a surface level.

Unless a book truly resonates, with a spark that makes you crave to reread, there's no need to go further into Adler's third and fourth levels of Analytical and Syntopical reading. And if you're interested in those levels, buy Adler's book, as the post stops here.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving reading hours....and remain guilt-free due to very intentional skimming.

Let's Analyze

Do you skim? When do you know you've skimmed enough to keep reading or toss it?