A reader writes:
You recently mentioned reading “Brideshead Revisited” on your way to Minnesota, and you frequently allude to books you read over lunch and such. As someone who is chronically behind in his reading, I’d like to know two things: how fast you read, and how you read. You’ve already looking at biographies back to front, so no need to go into that again. But are you a speed reader? Or do you selectively harvest paragraphs or chapters from a book? And I gather you keep some sort of commonplace book or electronic file of juicy lines to repeat at a later date. Do you note those as you go (copy them? mark the book for later retrieval?), which I imagine might slow you down, or do you go back and fish them out later?
And in light of all this, how, exactly, would you want people to read your books?
I read a book on speed reading once, but it was slow going.
I don’t know how fast I read, but I can polish off a book of normal length and density in three or four hours, and if absolutely necessary I can read a newly published book and write a thousand-word review of it between Friday night and Monday morning. (On one horrendous occasion I actually read a short book before lunch and filed a review by dinnertime, but that was a special one-time-only favor for an old friend.) Speed reading, if that’s what I do, comes naturally to me: I’ve never taken a course in it. I think I’m glad I read so quickly, but it’s like spelling really well or having perfect pitch, two of my other peculiar endowments–a convenience, nothing more, especially for a working journalist.
It’s occurred to me more than once that I may not be getting as much pleasure out of the books I read as do slower readers. In any case, and perhaps not surprisingly, I’m a reflexive rereader, and my guess is that over the course of my lifetime I’ll probably spend about as many man-hours with my favorite books as a slower reader. If that’s true, it all evens out in the long run.
I’ve kept an electronic commonplace book, organized by subject, for the past decade and a half, and I drew on it regularly for the almanac entries I posted throughout the first seven or eight months that I kept this blog. Now that I’ve mostly exhausted its contents, I simply post quotations from whatever book I happen to be reading at the time. Long experience as a journalist has given me an eye (and ear) for memorable quotes, and I dogear the pages on which they appear–an ugly but unbreakable habit–then input them when I’m working on the next day’s blog.
As I wrote back in June:
I hasten to point out that the authors of “About Last Night” do not necessarily agree or disagree, in whole or in part, with each day’s almanac entry. To be sure, I usually do, at least up to a point, but not always. (Our Girl in Chicago has nothing to do with the almanac, by the way. Instead, she posts her own “fortune cookies.”) Similarly, the almanac is occasionally meant to provide oblique commentary on current events, but not normally. As a rule, my sole purpose in posting each entry is to give you something to think about–and to let you do your own thinking.
(Go here for more on the almanac and my electronic commonplace book.)
Regarding my correspondent’s last question, if I may be flippant for a moment, I want people to read my books after buying them! Beyond that, I’m not even slightly fussy. I’m glad when anyone cares enough to go to the trouble of reading what I write, though I do get irritated when people write nasty things about my work without having read it attentively, as occasionally happened with The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Take a look at the reviews posted on amazon.com and you’ll see what I mean. (I got off a lot easier with A Terry Teachout Reader, no doubt because fewer people bought it.)
By the way, I also post quotations from readers, so long as they’re sourced and checkable. Today’s almanac entry, for example, came from a correspondent who heard me speak last week in Minneapolis. I revel in your contributions!