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Paul Constant's Guide to Reading Books

In Five Easy Steps

Most people don't know how to read a book. Sure, six out of seven Americans are literate, according to a 2009 Department of Education study, but probably one out of those six actually enjoys reading. This is a skill that schools don't teach, and I'm going to remedy that sad fact right now, in five simple steps:

1. Choose a book you find interesting and you think you want to read.

This can be a comic book, a sci-fi novel, something with cute shoes on the cover (romantic comedy) or sexy shoes (erotica)—whatever you want. Only assholes pretend that they started out reading Leo Tolstoy or Gertrude Stein recreationally. You build up to Tolstoy and Stein, the same way you build up to running a marathon. And if you never run that marathon—who the fuck cares?

2. Cut out all distractions.

Not even music, at first. Eventually, you'll be able to read on noisy public transit right next to a man who's bathing himself with a moist towelette while vomiting, but right now you need to focus. A lot of the preparations you'll make resemble planning for a hot date: Set aside several hours (preferably not right before bedtime) when you can be alone. Sit somewhere comfortable. You want the lights on, not too harsh but not too dim. Don't read on your phone, not at first—the whole internet is lurking on there, enticing you away from your book. In fact, shut off your phone and your laptop. Don't pile up mounds of junk food that will make you wired and crashy, but do have lots of fruits and vegetables around. Stick to either a physical book or a dedicated e-ink reading device—I recommend the Sony Reader Touch or the newest Nook, for the simple reason that you still can't download free library e-books on a Kindle—to keep the flashy sideshows at a minimum. [Ed. note: Oh wait! Now you can get e-books on your Kindle from the Seattle library!]

3. Take it one sentence at a time.

Now the actual reading begins. If you get to a sentence or a bit of dialogue that confuses you, feel free to read it out loud. Nine times out of 10, that'll clear things up. If you space out and skip a couple paragraphs and have no idea what's going on, backtrack and read (or skim) until you have a sense of the situation. Here's a dirty little secret of recreational reading: You don't have to physically drag your eyes across every word in the book. It's okay to fast-forward now and again—you're not getting graded for this. Soon enough, if you're liking the book, you'll look up and realize that an hour and a half has passed. That's the best part of reading: Your brain has just been swallowed by another person's brain for a while. Getting out of your own skin and living inside another person's head—via books, movies, music, or sex—is maybe the greatest thrill of all. But what if you can't reach that weird, ecstatic reading zone?

4. Blame the book, not yourself.

If you don't like what you're reading, put the book down and get another one. If you don't like that one, get another one. Repeat this step as many times as you need to—more perfect books are out there for you than you're ever going to get to in your lifetime anyway, so don't waste any time on the ones that aren't for you. You're not a bad reader because you don't like a book; it's the author's fault for not holding your attention. You've got a library card, right? (Seriously: Go get a library card, dumbass.) Then you have access to hundreds of thousands of better books. Go find them.

5. Experiment.

Don't just stick to one genre. Try different authors. Read reviews, ignore reviews, ask friends' advice, choose titles at random. Reading lots of different kinds of books makes you smarter. Being smarter makes you more well-rounded and interesting. Being more interesting gets you laid—and that's what college is all about. recommended


Comments (8) RSS

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stinkbug 1
Posted by stinkbug on September 21, 2011 at 2:12 PM · Report this
Keister Button 2
If my book club votes against my selection of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, whom do I blame: myself, the book, or the club?
Posted by Keister Button on September 21, 2011 at 2:22 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 3
Wait. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens cut their teeth on Tolstoy. What are you saying, Constant?
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on September 21, 2011 at 5:04 PM · Report this
"Only assholes pretend that they started out reading Leo Tolstoy or Gertrude Stein recreationally. You build up to Tolstoy and Stein, the same way you build up to running a marathon."

Strongly disagree. What if you find it interesting enough to attempt to misunderstand? It's how I got through Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky (and Coletrane and Bach, for that matter). Sometimes you know in your gut that you're facing something important enough, deep enough, that you have to do the manly thing and grapple with it.

Will it throw you the first time? Certainly. It'll throw you the first few times. But each time, you take a few more steps into the work, you see a little more, until you realize that you're standing within a cathedral.
Posted by woof on September 22, 2011 at 12:39 PM · Report this
Canadian Nurse 5
woof: Were any of those really the first novel you'd ever read by choice from start to finish? Were you struggling with doubt about whether you were smart enough to read? I doubt either of those things.

I'm a reader, I've been reading novels since I was seven, so not understanding Dostoyevsky was intimidating but not demoralizing. I have a friend who's been trying to learn how to read novels, and hasn't yet finished one (she's around 30). It'd be cruelty to tell her to start reading Tolstoy.
Posted by Canadian Nurse on September 23, 2011 at 8:14 AM · Report this
slade 6
Get to the point! Buy a Mac, IPod IPad IPhone or lap top.
What ever you do don't buy anything that has the word Microsoft in it.
This not to say you should not study Microsoft stuff as half the economy has been obliterated by technology and Microsoft needs all the help they can get before they screw it up past the point of no return.

Happy to be part of these De Jevu articles
Posted by slade on September 23, 2011 at 2:05 PM · Report this
Knat 7
That there are literate people who can't find pleasure in reading both mystifies and saddens me.
Posted by Knat on September 26, 2011 at 1:03 AM · Report this
Once you get that library card, here's how to use the library recreationally: Any book that catches your attention for more than 2 seconds, for any reason (title, author, subject, pretty cover, nice smell), grab it. Stop when your arms are full - 5 or 10 minutes should be plenty. You don't have to decide what books to read right then because they don't cost anything. There's no commitment. You don't even have to read any of them, but you can try them all when you get back to your comfy reading place. Maybe a few will keep your interest - read those and take the rest back.
Posted by pox on September 26, 2011 at 12:47 PM · Report this

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