On Essays, Slowing Down, and Reading Purposefully


I’ve been reading a lot of essays recently. From Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to a collection recently posted online by Flavorwire entitled 50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person, I’ve found myself suddenly sitting down a half hour before the children wake up for school or in the quiet hour after the household has gone to bed at night and reading an essay.

A lifetime of devouring novels and non-fiction tomes has made me ill-prepared for the art of essay reading. And it is an art. Essays - and short stories, as well - require the reader to slow down. Each word counts. It was placed there for a reason. No skimming allowed. To read an essay or a piece of short fiction requires thoughtful reading. Purposeful reading. And this is an act that often gets tossed by the wayside in the frantic world of a book reviewer.

A conservative statistic: around 300,000 books are published each year, not including self-published books. 300,000. Think about the dozens and dozens of new releases splashed across book review sites, Twitter, and Facebook every single day. Book bloggers are inundated with advance review copies trying to keep up with the latest and greatest novels, reading and reviewing as fast as possible. And somewhere in there the art of purposeful reading is lost while the art of speed-reading and plot summarizing is perfected.

Partly this is the result of the blazing-fast society we are a part of. Information comes to us fast; our very lives are fast. It stands to reason that we also read our books fast. Your standard mass-market paperback found in the airport gift shop is usually a fast-paced thriller meant to make the your time on wasted on board that metal tube hurtling across the ground at .80M (that’s just shy of the speed of freaking sound, people) go by even faster. If we read books fast, we need them published faster.

But it’s also the result of a shift from book reviewing to book marketing. Sometimes this is obvious, as with book sites that feature nothing more than the publisher blurb and a giveaway. But oftentimes it’s more subtle than that. Book reviews frequently turn into nothing more than a cleverly re-worded plot summary, a random quote thrown in for good measure and topped off with a star rating. “I liked the story” or “the main character wasn’t very likable” isn’t much of a book review, is it? Yet the more hurried and frantic my reviewing schedule became, the more I found my own reviews slipping into this very format.

Egads.

And all due to the frenetic rush of books, books, books….review the books.

I keep a small notebook - I redundantly call this my Book Notebook - where I make notes of books I want to read. Whenever I see an interesting book recommended in a review, being chatted about on Twitter, or even advertised somewhere, I jot it down in the Book Notebook along with the source of the recommendation. Last week, I wrote down no less than 16 books I discovered via my online meandering that I wanted to track down and read. Most of these were new or upcoming releases. 16. In one week. I looked back over previous weeks. 16 books, as it turns out, was about average.

Now I am a pretty voracious reader. Last year, according to my Goodreads tracker, I read 132 books. Admittedly math was never my strongest suit, but even I can figure out this isn’t going to turn out well. And let’s step away from the math for a moment and get back to those 132 books I read last year. Of those 132 books I read in 2013, only a dozen - at the most - have stuck with me. A dozen. This cannot possibly be because all of those books were mediocre (I like to think that my literary taste is more discerning than that). It’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that the rush-style reading of the book reviewer is largely at fault here.

And so essays and short stories are re-introducing me to purposeful reading. How to ruminate on the way a certain sentence is constructed or why a certain word was chosen. How to deconstruct and identify the parts of what I am reading and then put it all back together so I can appreciate what the author accomplished.

While reading a book is enjoying a good story, that is only scraping the surface. For those who care to delve deeper, there is so much more inside of good literature. If you know what to look for and you take the time to read purposefully, you’ll find a whole new layer of underneath what appeared to be just a darned good story. And it’s that discovery that opens your eyes to a entire new world of literature: it’s like discovering books again for the first time.

The key, of course, is knowing what to look for. But that will have to wait for Part Deux…..

10 comments:

  1. Boy can I ever relate with this. I just received a book yesterday (a nice 700 page monster!) and all of the early reviews mention how challenging it is, but how rewarding it can be when read carefully. I fell pretty determined that I want to do that justice and not get caught up in the rush I so often feel when reading.

    And it really is the sifting through recommendations that becomes difficult, paired with knowing what works for you as a reader. So glad to see a post like this and really looking forward to your next post.

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    1. Well LONG TOMES are all the rage these days, don't you know...and McEwan and his blue pencil are going a little crazy, hahaha. As you can probably imagine, The Goldfinch has inspired a lot of my thoughts on this, as well. ;)

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  2. This is yet another reason why you are my sister from another mister, twin from another den, whatever. You just posted about something I was totally JUST THINKING ABOUT. I am glad to see you finally got to Flavorwire's essay list, as I have not yet. I want to take more time to read short stories and essays because I love them dearly (they are sweet sweet music to an A.D.D.'s brain) but I haven't been making enough time for them. I tend to read slowly so I think I am reading and absorbing everything. Then I will see someone review a book I read months or a year ago and I'm like I remember absolutely nothing about this book except whether I liked it or not. Yikes!

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    1. Oh, I forgot (imagine that) to say that knowing 300,000 books are published per year makes me feel a little better, actually, about knowing I can never get to all the books. I know now it is not "just beyond my reach" but so far past it's impossible. Somehow that makes me feel less anxious about not being able to read faster!

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    2. Too. Many. Books. We do it to ourselves really. At least I do. It all comes down to what kind of reader I want to be. Choices. Gah.

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  3. I Bad Feminist a couple of weeks ago and I'm taking the time to read it slowly and really think about what she has to say. All too often I just speed through books - and that is fine for some - but there are still those books that we need to savour. I think it is great that you are taking the time to do that.

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    1. Excellent point about *types* of books. Because there ARE books that it's completely okay to to zip right through. They're made for that and fun. But it's so NOT okay to zip through books like The Goldfinch and others....we miss out on so much.

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  4. I LOVE this post. I think a lot of this is a reason why I haven't actually picked up The Goldfinch yet (sadface) or Bad Feminist. Lots of food for thought here...

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    1. Yes, wait. Smart move. It's better to wait than to try to read when you're not ready. If you try to skim, it's wasted reading time and that's the *worst*. Icky. :(

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  5. Great post. I've been doing more fast reading than purposeful reading, especially this week, all because of wanting to reach a goal of reading a certain amount of books by the end of the year. While I've enjoyed what I've been reading, I do miss reading at a slower pace, absorbing the words, and becoming fully engaged with the book.

    A friend of mine was reading a book for our book club recently, and she told me several times that she was enjoying it so much that she wanted to read it slowly, so that she could make it last. I've been doing the opposite, and there's one book in particular that I've been putting off reading, and I think that's partly because I know I won't be able to read it in one sitting. But after reading your post, I think I'm going to start it, and read it slowly, so that I can really savor the book, read it mindfully, and just enjoy it as much as possible. Because really, who cares if I reach my goal of reading x amount of books this year if I'm not enjoying what I read as much as I could be?

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Fire away!