On Reading-Part I: Why I don’t read the books I want to read
January is the typical time for reflecting on accomplishments and setting new goals. I have noticed a lot of readers in the blogosphere are putting together lists of what they have read last year and what they want to read next year. I myself have just finished a three year experiment in goal setting. It was an interesting experiment as the time frame was so long and the goals were very specific. The results were mixed. Some goals I did very well. Others not so well. Because the time frame was so long, many goals just became uninteresting or irrelevant over time.
My reading goals had a total number of books as well as a list of particular books I hoped to read in the three years. I easily hit the total number, the amount of reading I do remains fairly constant over the years, but failed miserably at reading the particular books I had chosen. And certainly not because I changed my mind about the books. I still very much want to read them and know that I will enjoy them when I finally get to them. Even more peculiar is that this is not the first time this has happened. In fact it is a regular pattern. Of the hundred or more books that I really want to read, I rarely get through a handful despite reading well over a hundred other books each year.
This has puzzled me for ages. Why don’t I read the books that are most important to me? It is not because I lack discipline or energy. What is going on? I set out to solve the mystery. This is what I found when I looked closely at my reading habits:
Not all reading required the same amount of attention, focus, time, resources and freedom from distraction. In fact my reading seemed to fall into four different levels of concentration and commitment:
1) Casual Reading can often performed in distracted or interrupted environments, with divided attention, in time frames made up of short bits. The most common situations for casual reading for me are on the bus or subway or eating alone in a busy and crowed restaurant.
2) Pleasure Reading requires only some time and a limited number of interruptions and distractions and only occasionally a need to take notes. It works well for texts that are straight-forward, not too complex, and do not need elaborate or complex interpretation.
3) Focused Reading requires an ability to take notes and usually large amounts of uninterrupted time. It works well for complicated and/or large literary works (e.g., Proust or Tolstoy) or easier, less tangled philosophic ones (e.g., Mill or Hume).
4) Concentrated Reading is for books that are complex, intricate, detailed and difficult. It is the reading that pays off the most returns, but is also the hardest to do. It requires the most careful and undivided attention for an extended period of time, a place for taking often extensive notes, and frequently additional reference materials: dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopedias, maps, charts, graphs, etc.
Some books, like Delueze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, can only be successfully understood through concentrated reading. Others like Dante’s Inferno, could be profitably read in all four categories. One could appreciate the poetry of particular sections or stanzas as Casual reading. As Pleasure reading one could follow the story of Dante and Virgil’s journey through hell. In Focused reading one might start to unravel the moral architecture implied by his underworld geography. Concentrated reading might look carefully at the historical significance of Inferno’s inhabitants, understand their position in Hell and their contrasting relationships with their parallel counterparts in Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Typically Casual reading is best for newspapers, magazines, the internet and other ephemeral texts that are not important for recall. The best stuff, those books that I most want to read, require–or at least desire–Concentrated reading. This is why I get through so few of them every year. While I may commit to many hours of reading every week there is only a limited amount of Concentrated reading time. This is the reason why I can only get through a few books off my “To Be Read” list each year. Mystery Solved.