How to Skim–and Why

I have a fun little job where I get to read books before they are published. I won’t be blogging about them for various ethical reasons, but since I want to post every time I read a book, I think I’ll take the opportunity to write about reading. In these posts, I’ll also be listing the books on my bookshelf one at a time in the order they appear.

I get asked a lot about my speed-reading. The most frequest question is, “Do you really read everything?” There are two ways to answer that question.

When I’m reading for myself, the answer is yes. I’m able to do so at such a high speed because I don’t read the words one at a time; rather, I “chunk.” Depending on the density of the prose, I can read as many as three lines of text at a time. Lines of dialogue are the easiest; intellectual arguments are the most difficult. In college, I was undone by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans–huge, dense paragraphs detailing Natty Bumppo’s tracking skills with crucial plot points buried in an easy-to-overlook phrase. That can be death to someone like me, because my reading isn’t linear, but contextual. My eyes grab the words out of order, drop words like “and” and “the” and then rebuild the sentence in my head. This all happens very quickly. I think it might be similar to having a photographic memory. I do read every word, but not in the same way that I do when I’m reading aloud. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like real reading to you, and I admit that you can’t “chunk” poetry. When the prose is particularly beautiful, I will slow down to savor it, but I don’t like pretty words that exist for their own sake and aren’t in service to a narrative. This could explain why I’ve never been interested in James Joyce. The best way I can describe how I read is that I draw the words inside myself and let them tell me the story. The alchemy of how that occurs is a mystery, and I’m okay with that.

That said, I have been known to skim, and that’s a much more calculated decision. When reading on a deadline, sometimes I have to speed things up even further, and even when a book is great (as in the case of the one I read this morning), I don’t have the luxury of reading it for pleasure. To the best of my knowledge, this is how I skim. I print the books on 2 pages/sheet, and on turning to a new page I read the last paragraph on page two, then the last paragraph on page one, then the first paragraph on page two, then the first paragraph on page one, then I fill in the rest, continuing in reverse order. I stop reading and move on to the next sheet as soon as I’m convinced I’ve understood the key plot points on that sheet, which I highlight. Since I’m going back and writing a detailed synopsis, I know that I can fill in the details as I page back through my highlighted notes. It’s not the most pleasant way to experience a book, but it does what I need it to do. One caveat is that this is very difficult to do with non-fiction. Plot-driven, dialogue-heavy books are the easiest to skim.

From the shelf:
My books are organized quasi-intuitively. Fiction is the first and biggest section, and they’re alphabetized.

A Lantern in Her Hand

The copyright page says that my copy was printed in 1983, so I must have read this first when I was 10, but I think it was written by Bess Streeter Aldrich in 1928. It’s the story of a Nebraska homesteader’s wife basically from cradle to grave, and it’s as good as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, which were also childhood favorites of mine. When I was a little girl, I used to want to live in a sod house and have my own pony, and be as brave as Abbie Mackenzie Deal. This is a great read for girls, beautifully written and emotionally engaging.

5 thoughts on “How to Skim–and Why”

  1. Read this entry yesterday; ran into this quote today:

    (Arthur Krystal in The New York Times): “A point of information for those with time on their hands: If you were to read 135 books a day, every day, for a year, you wouldn’t finish all the books published annually in the United States. Now add to this figure, which is upward of 50,000, the 100 or so literary magazines; the scholarly, political, and scientific journals (there are 142 devoted to sociology alone); as well as the glossy magazines, of which bigger and shinier versions are now spawning, and you’ll appreciate the amount of lucubration that finds its way into print.”

    Faster! Faster! 😉

  2. It was interesting to read about your speed reading technique – I was curious. I guess I read fairly quickly myself, but never quickly enough! I’m always greedy to acquire more print.

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