For starters: never revere any book
Don’t be dutiful with the books you read.
Here’s why: At the moment, in the margins of my day and when I have the time, I’m reading William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur. It’s lonnnnnnngggg, 811 pages in hardback, over 30 hours on my Audible app. Am I listening intently to every word?
Books contain life-changing wisdom and often a lot of crap. Useless asides. Boring sub-plots. I say skip over that. Space out a bit.
I think too many people suffer through books because they’ve been taught they should. They’ve learned books are to be revered. So they faithfully read every word of some great but verbose classic and when they finish the thing, exhausted, they don’t want to pick up another. Why would they? That classic sucked for long stretches and Netflix is so much more entertaining.
Out of duty to one book people often refuse to pick up a second and better one. I think this is why leisure reading among American adults has reached an all-time low.
There’s a way to change that, and it’ll make you a more-informed person and a better writer: Focus only on what you like in any book. Books should never be worshipped. They should always be utilized.
Let’s take nonfiction books. I’m trying to learn something from them. If it’s American Caesar, I don’t care so much about Douglas MacArthur’s military career as his actions, which reveal character. I want to draw what lessons I can from it and work to apply it in my own life or use it in a piece of writing much like I did above. For works of narrative nonfiction like Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, I’m thinking less about the poor of Mumbai than what I can learn from Katherine Boo’s structure, the pacing of her story, the writing. In a book like A Short History of Nearly Everything, I want to learn how the world works. What I want out of nonfiction books are sometimes as varied as the books’ titles, which is perhaps the case for you, too. But here’s where I’m very likely different from you: If I’m not getting what I want out of the book, I skip ahead. See if there’s anything else to learn. If so, great. If not, no big deal. The book served its purpose either way.
Fiction is a little different. I hold novels to higher standards. The writing must be great, or at least surprising and original, and the story must be present-and-accounted-for and moving ahead at all times. I tend to give novels 30 to 40 pages and if I don’t see what I need, I drop them. If I do see it but then halfway through the book bores me, I still drop it, and take what I can from it. I dropped The Ask in the middle of it but granted that Sam Lipsyte is a master of dialogue. I quit The Sellout two-thirds through because Paul Beatty couldn’t maintain the pacing and humor of the first third, which might be, were it a novella, the funniest thing I’ve read.
Neither am I alone in my promiscuity. In fact I learned to read this way from an interview the Nobel-winning short story writer Alice Munro gave. She not only quit books that sucked but often, even if she loved one, skipped ahead to the end, to see how it wrapped up. She wanted to spend her time picking apart the mechanics of the story. She sometimes read a book out of order to see if it would have been more exciting had it been told a different way.
It explains why she won the Nobel Prize and authored what is for me the greatest short story of all time.
She saw the value of books, which is to say: Their usefulness to her.