Discover more from David Moscrop
How To Read a Book
For years, it's been my job to read. I've learned some things that may help the next time you're digging into your latest volume.
Sometimes I get asked questions like ‘What’s the best whisky?’ and ‘What’s the best way to drink whisky?’ My answer is always the same. The best whisky is the whisky you like the best; and the best way to drink it is the way you enjoy it the most. You may experiment with different bottles and ways of drinking, but there’s no normative, god-forbid Kantian, need to transform the experience into an exercise in following socially-determined rules about what constitutes the “right” way.
I feel the same about reading. I don’t care how or what folks read. People read for their own reasons. If one’s reading passes beyond the private realm and into the public realm, the calculus changes. If, for instance, you read conspiracy tracts that animate authoritarian, exclusionary, or violent action, or encourages others to do nasty things, then everyone ought to care what you’re reading and how. That’s an extreme exception.
For most people, day-to-day reading is a diversion or part of their (mainstream) work requirements. For those endeavours, I have some tactics that may help make that experience become more rewarding. But if you don’t care, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I don’t care either. I just want to read and pass the time and then fall asleep. Other times, I want more out of my reading time.
Let your mind wander
The first and best piece of advice I have when reading, fiction or non-fiction, is to let your mind wander and free associate. If you start reading with your inner self-critic turned up to 11, you’re going to shut down a lot of creative and interesting links before you’ve had a chance to explore them. Does a scene in The Count of Monte Cristo make you think of local housing policy? Does some statistic in that climate change book you’ve just opened call to mind some obscure philosophical treatise you remember studying in undergrad? Does this medieval romance novel you’ve cracked call to mind a theme in a reality show you just binged? Chase that thought — or write it down so you can run after it later.
Our minds are very good at making associations and looking for patterns. Sometimes we make bad associations or search for patterns (and even “find” them) where they don’t exist, but often the process of association and pattern-finding unlock powerful creative ideas. Let your mind chase those down when you’re reading. It’s fun. And potentially useful. Moreover, it might help you understand what you’re reading and how it fits into the world.
When I’m writing book reviews, I like to connect the book I’m reviewing to events in the world, historical moments, or other books. Letting my mind wander is critical to making these connections.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
This one is easier in fiction that non-fiction, but it applies to each in different ways. Novels are fiction, but they’re full of real stuff. Sometimes they include real places, people, and events in history. Often when they do, the author has taken considerable liberty with the details. Don’t read novels as you’d read non-fiction texts. That may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised.
Speaking of non-fiction texts, don’t believe everything you read there, either. Writers are people. They make mistakes. They have agendas. They have deadlines that are too close. They have biases. So do the people and outlets they cite. Often non-fiction books are making arguments that you have every right to accept or reject, in whole or in part. Non-fiction books are only authoritative insofar as they are checked against reality, other experts and chroniclers, and those who read them. This applies even (sometimes especially) if the person writing the book is famous or renown in their field. You can always check their work against other books and experts, against reviews and critiques, and other primary and secondary sources. Don’t just take the writer’s word for it.
Novel Details to Look For
When I’m reading a novel, especially if I’m reading it to write a book review, there are a few things I look for. The first is theme. What is the recurring major thing (or things) that the book is about — the bit or bits that connect all the disparate people, places, and things? What’s interesting about that? What’s not? What’s missing?
What about characters and dialogue? Nothing kills a novel faster for me than two-dimensional characters and/or wooden dialogue. Stuff that rings true makes for great novels and stuff that doesn’t bludgeons the thing. Good dialgoue isn’t about being true in the narrow sense of mimicking exactly how people around you talk, but rather about representing relationships between people and places and situations that produces reactions and expressions that match who the characters are and what’s happening around them.
Like bad dialogue, a bad plot can ruin an otherwise great novel. Bad plot breaks the connection between the writer and the reader and ruins the suspension of disbelief, which is often critical to keeping you immersed in a novel. In Misery, Stephen King gets at this idea and develops a good method for sussing out the believability of plot points. The test is whether readers will “buy” some part of the plot, even once they’ve given you the liberties that come with accepting what you’re writing is fiction. He aks whether the reader would ‘vote’ to support the plot point or reject it as an unreasonable stretch.
For instance, people hate what are known as “deus ex machina” resolutions or ending. These occur when some miraculous solution arrives out of nowhere, like a god coming down from the heavens. Imagine a bomb ticking down and the only person around is a postal carrier who has never seen an explosive device in her life. Thirty seconds…twenty-nine…How is she going to get out of this one? Then suddenly she falls, hits her head, and knows how to defuse a bomb! That’s an egregious example, but you get the idea. Watch for this sort of thing. Too much of it and you may be holding a book you should put down.
Power and Representation in Fiction and Non-Fiction
Relationships and power are everywhere in books, fiction and non-fiction alike. Ditto representation. When I’m reading, I look to see who is in the pages and who isn’t. Then I look at how those who are in the pages are represented. What do they say? What don’t they say? What’s their job? This works for fiction and for non-fiction. With fiction, it’s obvious how. With non-ficiton, it’s more about the stories, citations, and quotations the writer uses. Who are they calling upon as experts? Which ideas (and assumptions) are they relying on? As I read, I’m asking myself these questions and looking to see if authors are stereotyping individuals or groups or reducing them to a monolith.
When reading, I’m also looking for how power is constructed and represented. One of the rough ways to assess power relations is to ask of a situation ‘Who whom?’ That’ll give you some sense of the dynamic at play. In non-fiction books, I also look to see which ideas and conceptions of “common sense” are given credence and which aren’t. A lot of popular non-fiction books that find themselves on the bestseller shelves uncritically adopt a common sense that won’t ring true for everyone and that won’t upset or challenge the status quo and the powerful folks who benefit from it. When reading these books, I start off extra critical and skeptical.
Look Stuff Up
I remember reading a book in class in grade 5 or 6 and coming across the word “kiosk.” I had no idea what it was or how to pronounce it. So, I got up and walked to the teacher and asked him. He explained what it meant, how to pronounce it, and gave me some examples. (I still remember him saying “Like a little shop in the middle of a mall concourse.) Whenever I read, fiction or non-fiction, for work or for fun, I look stuff up. A lot of stuff. Most of the time I keep a list and come back to it later, so as not to disturb my reading flow. Sometimes I’ll stop where I am and look it up right away if it’s critical to the point I’m reading. Looking things up reinforces what you’re reading, helps you understand it, and helps you remember it. Don’t just skip over bits you don’t get. Chase them down.
Take Notes, Nerd
Related to looking stuff up is taking notes. Doing this with books you read for fun is next level. I don’t. I only take notes when I’m reading for work, but to be honest, I get much more out of books when I take notes. If you’re after more, take notes.
Sometimes I use a pen and paper, other times I use the notes app on my phone. But I find the notes help me understand and track what’s going on and as I take the notes, I find myself making more interesting connections, drawing out themes, and leaving myself lists of things to follow up on or think more about later. Notetaking is thinking. It’s a big value-add.
Sit with Complicated Bits
I’ve read a lot of books and spent a lot of time thinking about a lot of things. I also regularly come across passages in books — or entire books — where I really, really do not get what’s going on. It’s easy in those moments to power through and add the book as another notch on your books-read headboard. But what’s the point in that? That’s a vanity metric that really doesn’t add much value to your life.
I find it tough sometimes, but I work hard at forcing myself to slow down, re-read, cross-reference, or do extra research on books or parts of books that I don’t understand. I try to sit with these books and their complicated passages. Every so often I’ll find that it’s the author who’s made a mess of things and move on, but often it’s me — I’m the problem, it’s me. In those moments, I reset and dig down to understand. Usually I come out ahead, appreciating the book more and learning something new. Sometimes I ever change my mind about something.
As a writer of book reviews, I’m not neutral on the matter, but I think a well-written review adds a lot of a book. You can read reviews either before or after you’ve made it through the book — or both — but a good review will add value to the reading experience. The reviews you read don’t have to come from the New York Review of Books or the Globe and Mail. Lots of smaller outlets and indy sites run reviews, and many of them are great. Goodreads has countless reviews, some of which are very good and comprehensive.
Because the pile of books I want to read is much longer than the hours I have to make progress on the pile, I use reviews to help me decide what makes the cut. Sometimes I use them after the fact to figure out what, if anything, I’ve missed when reading — some plot point or character nuance. I usually learn something new. You don’t know what you don’t know, so bringing in other perspectives helps round out a reading experience.
You’re Going to Die Some Day
Having read all of this, let me close with a reminder that you should read however you want to read. Once or twice a year, I visit this webpage to calculate how many books I’m going to read before I die. It’s a humbling exercise that focuses the mind. Because of the nature of my job, I often have to read in particular ways — the ones I’ve laid out here. But maybe you don’t have to, always or ever. Maybe you don’t want to. But if you do, the above tips might help you navigate your ever-growing pile of To Be Read volumes as the sand in the hourglass counts down your remaining hours.