How to Read a Lot and Get the Most Out of it

A friend of mine once told me that he read in a magazine the average American completes only one book a year.  I have no real way of proving this statistic as it comes second hand, but I’m inclined to believe his sources were right.  The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame TV, movies, Netflix, Youtube and so on, but I’d say those are only small detractors.  Instead, I’d argue that what has in many ways ruined reading for a lot of people is the way literature is taught.  In grammar school to college, reading becomes like a chore.  Do you remember ever being assigned to read twenty pages of any book a night, and having to mark stars on a little graph and having your parents sign it?  Instead of reading a book for the pleasure of the text, we’re stuck gluing our eyes to the page waving a symbolic microscope, scouting the words for morals, messages, themes and so on, when really we should be reading along and opening up our minds to whatever the experience might provoke.  So to help undo what years of scholarships and academics have burdened you with, here’s a brief guide to getting the best experience possible from a book.

1)  Once you start a book, try to finish it within a week.  I know this might seem like it makes reading more of a chore, but I suggest this for your own benefit.  My thought on this is that by stretching a book out into several weeks or even months, what you’re doing is diluting the effect the words will have on you.  Some people like to read slowly so they can take everything in, but I’d argue this is a carry-over from school days when you were told you had to understand the methods being used by the novelist.  To me, book clubs are often silly and frivolous things.  On one hand, you are given the chance to hear other people’s thoughts and hopefully be illuminated, but on the other hand you’ve basically created a mock-classroom setting, and you’re stuck again reading like it’s a chore, and it’s most likely the group will break up the books, so you end up not getting the most out of them, but then you have to pretend at meetings that you do (Edith Wharton’s written a delightful parody of book clubs in her short story Xingu).  

Of course, you don’t have to strictly adhere to the one-week rule.  For instance, unless you’re a genius, you’re not going to read and comprehend Anna Karenina or Ulysses or Infinite Jest within the space of a week (even literary geniuses can’t read that fast; Vladimir Nabokov said he first read War and Peace in 11 days–when he was a kid–and it took Jonathan Franzen ten days to read the original manuscript for Infinite Jest–granted the manuscript was several hundred pages longer than the finished copy).  Thankfully, classic giant books are usually subdivided into books or parts, so try breaking up the big books according to how they’re already broken up.  Anna Karenina for example can be very conveniently broken up according to the table of contents as provided by the text itself.

2)  Be very careful not to burn out reading.  I’d say in all honesty that books aren’t just like drugs, they are drugs.  They are stimulants.  Somewhere in Ulysses James Joyce writes that literature is a fine tonic for the mind, and I would agree.  The thing is, like any tonic or stimulant, if you insist on giving yourself bigger and bigger doses, you’re going to burn out.  I would say with young people especially there’s this drive to read only important classics, and to up the ante with each book, so if you read Pride and Prejudice one week then it’s Middlemarch the next, or if you read a Room with a View you might then assign yourself all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  The mind is never quite satisfied with what it last consumed, but you have to try and avoid always going after something bigger.  I’ve read a lot of giant books like Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow and so on, but over time I’ve learned to space them out, and I’d recommend you do the same with your heavy reading material.

3)  Switch it up!  This goes along with the last tip.  Try, even if it’s hard at first, to switch up your reading material from week to week.   Imagine an open pasture.  If you keep reaping the same harvest of the same produce season after season, the soil will dry up and will have to be left fallow (similar to burning out), but if you rotate things around, you’ll yield a richer crop.  So if you’re a person who feels that sci-fi is the only legitimate fiction, force yourself anyways to read something fanciful like books by Italo Calvino or Raymond Queneau.  If you’re obsessed with the classics and think the novel ended with the death of Henry James, then just for the heck of if force yourself to read something that’s not incredibly literary, like movie star biographies (I’d recommend Nobody’s Perfect) or a book on celestial physics.  This helps you not only in terms of giving yourself a break, but also will in the long run help you round out your perspective not just on literature but on life.

If you’re looking for ideas on what to read next, check out my book reviews section.

Also, I’d be a fool not to shill my own book of fiction here, The Madness of Art: Short Stories.

Coming Tomorrow: A short guide on how to start reading philosophy.

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