I recently read Factotum by Charles Bukowski and liked it so much I read Ham on Rye. It’s some of the most powerful writing I’ve ever read. Not sure how I haven’t discovered Bukowski until now. I haven’t even started on his poetry yet. Born August 16, 1920 (all the best people are born on August 16) his writing was influenced by the ambience of his adopted home city of Los Angeles. He examines the ordinary lives of poor Americans, alcohol, relationships, and the drudgery of work. I love the vivid seediness and occasional, raw beauty of it. Bukowski died in 1994. This sketch I did of him is ink on paper.
Just lie about it!
I watched a few videos and read a few blog posts recently which claim to show you how to read a vast number of books in a short period of time. There are a million sources of popular productivity advice out there at the moment because who doesn’t want to be more organised, more efficient, better read, richer and all that? Quite a few of these productivity gurus say that a big part of why they’re successful is down to reading such a lot and they often show you their stuffed bookshelves or piles of books stacked so high that if one of them toppled over it could kill a family of four. This has always struck me as odd because we often hear how no-one, especially amongst young people, reads books anymore. Yet the aspiration to read more books remains. Is this a way for the aforementioned gurus to bolster the impression that they are in possession of some kind of secret knowledge gleaned from reading hundreds upon thousands of these strange, old fashioned, papery objects called books? The gurus then taunt us with the opportunity for us ordinary, rubbish people to become as knowledgeable, successful and sexy as they are by reading a similar number of these magical, outdated book things. The problem is, most of us don’t read that many books because it is quite time consuming and it does require a degree of concentration, compared to say watching a YouTube video about productivity. The gurus are keen to help (while simultaneously clocking up thousands of views of course) by offering tips on how to read more books in a shorter time. I was curious to know how this could be done because I’ve always been a reader but I’ve only ever been able to read maybe a couple of books a month at most.
I thought it would be great to be able to read 100s of books a year as claimed by the all-knowing gurus. So I watched a couple of the videos and read some of the blogs. The answer? Read faster and skip parts. Seriously? That’s like saying the way to win more races is to run faster and cut off the corner. Basically, they are saying; read more books by changing the meaning of the phrase ‘read books’. Previously, to read a book you had to actually read and understand (and, who knows, maybe even enjoy) the book. Now, to read a book you need only skim your eyes over the words and if you get to a bit that you deem irrelevant or boring, just skip it.
Don’t get me wrong, I see the advantage in doing this with some books. If you’re reading a factual book which covers a large area of knowledge and you’re only interested in one specific part of that knowledge then of course you just read the part you’re interested in. If you’re reading one of the classics with 10,000 pages and you hit a chapter that’s just a description of a liberty bodice, maybe it’s better to skip that bit than not read the book at all. But if you’re going to do that kind of thing, you can’t also claim to have read the whole book. What’s the point of a claim like that anyway if not to simply be able to brag about how many books you’ve read?
I recently read Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet, having previously read his Reasons To Stay Alive and enjoyed it. I struggled at first, finding it jumped about a lot and didn’t seem to be in any order that made sense. I was tempted to skip parts and almost stopped reading completely. Then, three quarters through I realised that the book was crafted in that way on purpose. Matt Haig was making the point that our world is getting faster and faster, more and more fragmented as technology advances and our attention spans reduce. The clue had been in the title Notes on a Nervous Planet but I’d been too thick to pick up on that. If I had skipped the bit where this was explained I would have finished the book feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. The point is, most of the time you owe it to the author to read the whole book. They’ve crafted the book that way for a reason and if you haven’t read all of it you’re not entitled to have an opinion on any of it. If you read it at 100mph or skip parts of it, fine but don’t then claim to have read the book. You haven’t. To claim that you have read a book, you have to read the book; all of it. You can’t change the definition of reading a book so that it now means the same as reading part of a book. If we do that, we might as well say that you can just read a summary of a book and claim to have read it, or that you can just look at the front cover and claim to have read it, or just walk by the book shop and claim to have read every book contained inside.
The claim of having read say 100 books in a year is pretty shallow anyway because it says nothing about how much you’ve understood from the books, how much you appreciated the books, how much you retained from the books or even how much of each book you even read. It says a lot about the way we are now that we should think it more impressive that someone has read 100 books than that they read one book and understood it. Matt Haig was right about the planet. Plus, by bragging about the number of books you’ve supposedly read, you’re short changing yourself. You’re approaching reading as a kind of race to be won and missing out on the wealth of fun you could have had by actually reading the books properly instead of reading them with one eye on the clock.
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