Thursday, February 3, 2005

The tyranny of an unread bookshelf

Once, in a moment of great weakness, I looked at my bookshelf and realized there were a number of books up there that I had not read. I further slid into silliness and error when I proceeded to count the books I had read vs. the number still awaiting my attention. I did not count Melissa's girly books, our collection of childrens books, or even the reference-type books which should be referred to but not actually read.

Turns out I had read less than 40% of the books that I own. I've read a couple since then, but I've purchased more. That isn't helping my average any.

This was about three months ago. Ever since, I've been wanting more and more to actually dig into all these treasures that taunt me from my bookshelf, but I just can't seem to read fast enough. As a result, I've been experimenting lately with a variety of different reading techniques. I've tried everything from speed-reading gimmicks to Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, which recommends that most people read through an entire book, slowly and carefully, at least three times to truly "own" its content (yeah right).

In grad school, I discovered how much my reading experience could change with pressure, environment, and practice. And practice I got. Each semester, I would be assigned 3-6 books, each usually 250-400 pages per class, with three or four classes in all. That added up to an average of about 4000 pages per 3-month semester. That's no mean feat for someone who was accustomed to reading 3-4 books per year (okay, and about 75 emails per day at WebTrends). Needless to say, I found myself trying to skim through material as quickly as possible so as to be able to write a competent review or pass a test on it.

All that experience turned into an ability to read material quickly and retain a fair amount. I've been able to keep up my reading habits fairly well since school ended in May, though I've been spending a lot more time with journals (First Things, Interpretation) and magazines (Wired, Books & Culture Review) than books.

But lately, as I've been trying out some of the speed-reading stuff, I began to ask myself what the ratio of speed to retention is. I've found that my leisurely reading pace (if it's quiet and I'm not tired) is around 350 words per minute. With concentration and the finger-wagging thing that you are supposed to do while speed reading, I've been able to crank that up to around 600, sometimes 800, words per minute. The strange thing is, there doesn't seem to be much difference in what sticks in my brain. (And by that I mean that not much sticks for me at the leisurely pace, and reading faster doesn't seem to reduce it any).

That has caused me to start thinking about what happens when I read. The faster I read, the more my mind picks up on images and structure; whole phrases stick in my head and it ends up being more of a lived experience. I reflect back on it afterward and a lot seems to have happened to me. The slower I read, the more my mind branches out, thinking of other related things, anticipating where the text is going, trying to respond to questions generated by the text. Even reading at a leisurely pace, I don't have the patience to stop and explore most of these threads, so I figure that isn't important anyway.

The speed-reading stuff helps to account for these last items (which my brain doesn't have time for) by making multiple passes through the text before and after reading through it at the faster speed. This way, I feel like I'm not derailing the flow of the text but I get to enjoy the process of thinking through the threads that naturally develop afterward. When all is said and done, the two different techniques end up being very different experiences called "reading". I find myself wondering, which is the better way?

I feel like I'm going to need to stick with the reading experiments for a while to find one that lets me absorb and enjoy what I'm reading. But there is always the tyranny of the bookshelf (not to mention the tyranny of Borders and Powells) pressing me on to greater haste...


ted said...

A couple of weeks ago Trisha and I started cleaning out the back bedroom in an effort to convert it into a play room where all the toys and games and books will be kept and turn Lisel's room into just clothes and sleeping for the two kids. Part of what I had to do was clean off my shelves. I filled four grocery sized paper bags with paperbacks. That's paperbacks alone. This does not count the three other bags in the back seat of my truck waiting to be used as trading fodder at Escape Fiction. I now also have six piles of non-fiction each about two to three feet high. This does not count the five piles of rule books (D&D, at least six Warhammer variants, Warmachine, and a couple of others) and comic trade paperbacks I have on the stairs waiting to be transferred to the bookshelf upstairs.

Excluding the rule books and the trade fodder, I would guess I'm only in the 50-60% read range. I will say that I am VERY cutthroat about ditching books I didn't enjoy, hence the three bags of books in the truck.

I don't look at this as a bad thing. I would be far more worried if I had read all of my books. If all I had left were re-reads (which is not always a bad thing) I would be very sad indeed.

I agree with you about the mind-wandering. If I'm in a slow spot, my mind wanders to the point where I've read as many as six pages and couldn't tell you what just happened. I don't blame this on my reading speed, but on the author's inability to keep my interest. This happens too much and the books start their migration to, and back to in some cases, Escape Fiction or Powells.

I like to read. I do it as something I enjoy, much like spending time with Trisha or Lisel, so speed reading seems like I'm trying to rush something that in a lot of cases shouldn't be rushed.

Here's how I often decide if it's me or the author responsible for the mind-wandering: I find an author who keeps my interest like, say, Michael Chricton, David Gemmell or Elmore Leonard, all three of which seem to be able to hold my attention with almost comic ease. Then I compare what I've been reading to them in several categories such as pacing, narrative and characterization. If they seem similar to these three, it's me. If not then it's the other way around.

Tim Lewis said...

I'm pretty much the exact opposite. I can't do the speed reading thing, otherwise I forget what I just read. I also find it hard to read with distractions, such as music playing in the background. Because I'm a huge music nerd, I end up listening to and analyzing the music instead of reading. Maybe I should get books on tape or something.

Dwayne Hilty said...

Me no read.

Dwayne Hilty said...

Ok, I couldn't resist. Seriously though, you've now got me wondering what my bookshelf reading percentage is. Also, I'm curious what some of your speed-reading techniques are. The first day of our Christian History class in grad school was spent learning a speed-reading technique. You can imagine 35 people sitting in a room putting it all together wondering, "just how much reading is going to be assigned?"

Alien Shaman said...

I listened to my first book on CD (Founding Brothers) a few months ago, and it was great - aside from the fact that listening to the book meant I wasn't listening to the news.

I too have a problem with numerous unread books, but for some reason Kelley does not. She will often get one book, read it, and then get another. I on the other hand will order 5 books from Amazon, read 2 and then get loaned a book that is a "must read."

So is the reason we have loaded shelves of unread books because we can't get to them all, or is it because many of us are "collectors," so we buy the books we want to read and will read them eventually so we need to hold onto them?

ted said...

I have listened to several audio books, mostly on long road trips. I have found that they are really hit and miss. I have not yet been though enough audio books to figure out how to seperate the good from the bad.

I am absolutely a book collector. I can go to a used bookstore and need a basket for paperbacks. I also re-read a lot of books if I like them. Though as I said above, I am pretty ruthless when it comes to dumping a book I don't like. If I'm not going to finish it and I don't think I'll ever re-read it, it's gone. Anyway, yeah, a lot of my books are ones I bought en mass and just haven't gotten to yet.

Buying only one book at a time? I don't even pretend to understand that.