“You mustn’t want to do everything at once. In a day a man can eat only three bowls of rice; he can’t eat ten or more days worth of rice at one sitting. In a day you can read only so much, and your efforts have a limit as well. You mustn’t want to do everything at once.”
(p. 133, Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage, trans. Daniel K. Gardner)
My reading habits are going downhill. I’ve been reading the same book, Flavor: the Science of Our Most Neglected Sense, for well over a week now. It’s a good book—every time I pick it up again, I enjoy it. So why haven’t I finished it yet?
I’ve had time to read. In fact, it seems like I’ve done plenty of reading recently. I’ve been looking at everything from the newspaper to the latest e-newsletter from our public waste facility. Yet I remember very little of it.
In part, the problem is information over-availability. When I was a child and we were overseas, the reading options were mostly limited to the books we had on hand and a small school library. My mom ordered books by mail and we visited bookstores during visits back to the States, but still, it was possible for me to finish reading my new books and not yet have anything else to read. Fortunately, I was happy re-reading my favorites over and over. I got to know them very well.
Now I have too much to read. If you are a reader and you have only a few books to read, then you spend more time on those books. On the other hand, if you are constantly running into text of one sort or another, then you may end up spreading your time thinly over your various reading options.
Then again, you may not. When I was in graduate school, I read philosophy papers and books. If they were part of a class or relevant to my interests, I read them over and over. It wasn’t from lack of other reading material. There were libraries, bookstores, and my own overfilled bookshelves. But I had reason to read them carefully—to pick out the argument, to consider the objections raised and the replies—so I could come up with my own response.
I’m not in graduate school now, nor am I working in philosophy. I am not compelled to read thoroughly and with attention to detail. Nor am I faced with limited reading options that result in my re-reading anything that seems interesting. Instead, I have piles of books I haven’t read yet, magazines, newspapers (a new one every day!), and of course, the internet.
There’s a lot one could say about reading and the internet, but what matters here is the quantity of written material out there. It varies enormously in quality and subject matter. The only way to know if an article is worth my time is to skim over it.* The same is true of newspapers and magazines, though the quality is a bit more predictable.
So I find myself spending a lot of time skimming over articles rather than actually reading them. In fact, I spend so much time doing this that it is starting to become a habit. I pick up a magazine and skim through it, wondering if there is anything really interesting, and then find myself skimming through an article that does look interesting.
Wait! If the article is interesting, why am I glancing through it rapidly, skipping bunches of paragraphs here and there, checking to see where the article is headed… instead of settling down and actually reading it?
Sometimes I tell myself that right now I am just checking for interesting articles. I will read them later at some more leisurely time. But the amount of time I spend at this half-hearted sort-of-reading could be much better spent actually reading. And when I apply this sort of half-hearted-reading to the newspaper, I end up wasting quite a lot of time.
What is the solution to my increasingly bad reading habits? Is there a New Year’s Resolution that will help me get more out of my reading time?
Here’s one possible resolution, though I don’t know if I could actually carry it off. When I catch myself skimming, I should stop and ask if I have a good reason for skimming. If I don’t, then I should decide—do I want to read this, right now, or do I not? If not, move on to something else.
Sometimes there are good reasons for skimming. If I am looking for a particular bit of information, especially on the internet, then skimming is pretty much required. If I am trying to decide whether to buy or check out a book, I need to glance through it, which is a bit like skimming (but only a bit.)
On the other hand, there is no point in skimming through a book I’ve already bought and intend to read. And yes, I have found myself doing this, even with eminently readable books. All I can conclude is that my mind is restless and I need to focus more. “Read the book, or do not. There is no skim.”
The tricky situation is when I don’t know whether an article is really one I want to read. Unfortunately, the newspaper is full of articles like that, so I can waste a lot of time skimming. How can I choose more quickly? Decide based on the headline only? The first two paragraphs? Make a list of subjects to read about and ignore everything else?
Suppose I catch myself skimming and decide that yes, I do want to read this article. How do I switch gears from skimming to actually reading? Take notes, maybe? That would force me to focus on what the article actually says, and might help me remember some details. On the other hand, it might be more work than I’m prepared to put in.
It will be interesting to see whether I actually do manage to improve my reading habits over the next year.
“In reading, you must keep your mind glued to the text. Only when every sentence and every character falls into place have you done a good job of thinking through the work. In general, the student should collect his mind so that it’s completely tranquil and pure and in its normal activity and tranquility doesn’t run wild or become confused. Only then will he understand the text in all of its detail. Reading like this, he’ll understand the essentials.”
(p. 145, Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage)
Till next post.
*Actually, there are some short cuts. Slide-show style? Almost certainly not worth the time.