Egghead Writing and Guilt-Free Skimming

A few weeks ago I went to an annual used book sale that happens near my home. On that particular day they give you a large paper grocery bag. Six dollars for all the books you can fit into it. I made out pretty well; I got about 20 books for my six bucks.

I picked up anything that seemed even remotely interesting. I didn’t ponder a whole lot. If it struck me as a “maybe” in any other situation, it went right into the bag. in the end, I calculated that each book I was getting would cost roughly 40 cents, given how many I had in the end, so if one, or several were no good, I wasn’t out anything but the time I spent. That’s what Bookmooch is for.

I’ve read the first two; a book of quotations and a book about running an acting class from decades ago. (Read my brief review of that book here.) Then I moved to the third book from the “magic” bag. (Though I’ve since thrown the actual bag away.)

I’ll say it was also a decades old, but highly acclaimed book about drama and the stage. You do’t find books like that just anywhere these days, so again, being an actor and dashing madly about looking for printed treasure. I checked the back cover, read a few sentences of the introduction, and deemed it bag-worthy and moved on.

Not long into it, it became clear that it was probably Bookmooch fodder at this point.

That’s because it’s written in academic prose so thick, consisting of sentences so long, (one of them two thirds of the page) that one would need to have notebook paper and 20 minutes set aside in order to determine what five pages of it meant. I tried for a while, thinking that being a student of theatre as well as a writer should make me able to decipher what was being presented. Yet the smoke only cleared here and there. I figured if I’m barely able to comprehend a book written about one of the main pursuits of my life, it’s time to move on.

Why do people do that? Why does so many academics feel a presentation or approach have to read like pulling teeth? Is it to make what would otherwise be a point that the regular guy could understand accessible only to egg heads with Oxford Dictionaries attached surgically to their own asses? I don’t know. I’ve never known. I do know this, however; my bookshelf is filled with academic books that don’t do what this book does. Books of depth, intelligence, insight but also sentence structure and diction that can be read without laborious dissection of every clause.

In short, they are actual books, as books should be. I know that’s a bit of a low blow, as obviously plenty of people are satisfied with such labyrinthine writing, but for my part, I pick up a book to experience its ideas or its story. If the idea in a book is lost to me because it is a complex idea that I need to mull over, that’s fine. But if the idea eludes me because the writing itself is inaccessible or boring, then no thank you.

Sometimes I will skim such books, to see if I can glean from it a few passages of coherence. I don’t need to understand or enjoy 100% of such a book in order to find value in keeping it on my shelf. Skimming this one produced no lasting results. So, as I said, it’s out of here.

Skimming has produced some results for the next book from the magic bag. This one also about theatre, but only on a certain level. It’s a collection of interviews about the state of American playwrighting. It was published about 25 years ago, so the observations about the state of American theatre are outdated. Discussions of having met who and receiving what award are also of little interest to me. What is of interest, however, is that each playwright interviewed was asked to share their thoughts about the writing process. I’ve not heard of most of them, but by skimming to the sections that talk about their writing process, I’m finding much to enjoy and contemplate. The rest is just so much outdated insider kibitzing, from what I can tell.

But it doesn’t matter. As I get older, I feel less guilt about skimming books under certain circumstances. Again, this volume cost me about 40 cents total. If I only skip to the parts about the writing, and skim over the rest, I’m not even out the price of an order of fries. And I gain much more than I would trying to read every interview word for word. If the remaining interviews I skim for thoughts on writing prove as thought provoking as the first several, if only for a few minutes, this book is probably going on the shelf.

I wonder if, in the end, a smart reader is the one who reads in such a way that they glean the most out of the material. (So long as it is true.) I ask you, who is the wiser reader out of the following two scenarios.

1) Somebody has ten dense academic tomes before him. Reading a page in each one requires much study and rereading and dissection, not to mention breaks from the material for long periods while he reads something else. But he persists, and finishes each and every one. But it takes him years and retains maybe three or four pieces of information. (Even the, only after much clawing, digging, grinding labor.)

2) A guy with twice as many books that strike him as interesting at first, but who is willing to set the boring thick one aside in order to start the next one. The second being not as bad as the first this guy nevertheless skips through to find the knowledge most useful to him, writes his thoughts in the margins, folds what he has found in the dozens of useful snippets into his consciousness, and proceeds to the next book. (Snippets he may not have been able to get to, had he numbed his mind by forcing his way through the entire book.)

He may even find the next one easier to read because of the snippets he found skimming the previous one. By the time he is finished with his pile, he’s only read maybe three of them cover to cover, but has found pieces of value in all but three, because he is willing to skim. This takes a few months tops.

My money is on guy number two. Though to be fair, I am guy number two.

Do you skim? Do you give up books that aren’t engaging your mind?

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