June 2, 2015

How to read books faster


Pictured: your nightstand. (Image via Flickr)

Pictured: your nightstand. (Image via Flickr)

I believe that any successful weekend contains three events to ensure a proper “decompression”: sleeping in, eating one reasonably elaborate breakfast, and striking some media off the to-consume list. For those of us coming to the end of one of the busiest weeks of the publishing year, this weekend meant a very necessary dose of decompression, unless you were working BookCon.

And I’m proud to report that my weekend was successful on all three fronts! In terms of media, I leaned heavily on the visual and aural, consuming the following:


The second half of Mad Men’s final season

The final five episodes of the most recent season of Nashville

Cobain: Montage of Heck

Tales Of The Grim Sleeper

Three very good episodes of American Crime

One not good episode of The Simpsons


El-P, Cancer 4 Cure

Jamie XXIn Colour

Alice In ChainsThe Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

ZZ TopEliminator

I consider this a better-than-average media weekend, though I’m nowhere near Liberty Hardy or Soderbergh level. Yet as you’ll notice, there’s a conspicuous absence on this list: books.

This is all my fault. I, like all publishing professionals, have a too-full bookcase and a smaller, supplementary pile of books that I charitably call my “to read pile”. I am probably lying to myself. Will this pile of books get read? Probably, but not all at once, and certainly not soon. And while I love spending a Saturday morning and part of the afternoon reading an entire compelling book from start to finish, or at least hacking off a good chunk of one, it doesn’t always happen.

Now that we have all returned home with the laughable glut of new books and ARCs from BEA, we’re confronted with this unfortunate reality. We own too many books, and we can’t possibly have time to read them all. One perversely simple solution is, of course, to stop watching television and movies and pretty much just reading at every spare moment. In my opinion, this is a noble but flawed strategy.

We’ve previously covered if and how binge-reading is a thing. It would seem that readers don’t mindlessly chew their way through multiple desultory books the way they do through television shows. Binge-watching is becoming easier on the tech front, but it may be hitting a saturation point programming-wise.In the wake of NBC’s announcement that their new hippie cop thriller Aquarius will be made available in its entirety online while airing the usual one-episode-per-week,  two high-profile creators of television shows expressed skepticism that more, quicker, now TV = better TV:

“I miss having people on the same page,” Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan tells THR, adding, “I do miss being able to go online and have the conversation the day after. But it’s kind of a waste of time to lament that because that’s not the way our show comes.” The comments by Kohan, whose prison dramedy debuts its third batch of episodes June 12, echo Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner saying May 20 that if he created a series for Netflix, he would ask that it roll out episodes over time “so at least there was just some shared experience. I love the waiting [and] marination.”

For sure, not all binged TV shows go down the same way, and neither do all books. Which is why networks face a tricky decision process deciding which shows they would want to make available for binge-watching, and why publishers face the same.

But that doesn’t change the fact that books, while not occupying the same cultural space as TV or movies, do compete with these other sources of attention during our free time. Whether on our commutes, our lunch breaks, our evenings, and our weekends, books are an option, and a time-consuming one. Unless you’re an audiobook listener, books can’t be easily read while doing laundry or working out. They require a stationary and minimum degree of attention.

However, unlike other media, the time it takes to read a book is fairly elastic. Given the proper conditions, one can easily plow through A Dance With Dragons in a couple days (just learn to tune out all the descriptors of the characters’ wardrobe and you save at least a day). But it’s not always easy to create those conditions, and more often, longer works get broken up into bite-sized sessions and take weeks to complete. If you like listening to Thom Yorke music while you read, this isn’t a problem, but the urgency to complete a book remains, especially on the industry side.

I often take on the seemingly impossible task of convincing the people with the most staggering to-read piles (i.e. booksellers) to add one of our books to the stack. This requires acknowledgement that reading our book will require time and energy which the bookseller may not have accounted for in their internal budget. Thankfully, books don’t require the laws of physics to be effective (and can end up creating their own laws of physics if you’re not careful). They always carry the possibility that they will be worth that time, whether simply due to the pleasure of the read and hopefully, the chance that it will spark the bookseller’s hyper-evangelical handselling spirit of advocation.

I can and often do posit that a book will be distinctively enjoyable, even to a well-read bookseller, providing a singular experience worth the time. But that begs the question: what about the other side of the equation? Is there a way to guarantee a book can be read quicker than usual?

Each bookseller has their own routine, so applying a broad-strokes approach to this problem is nearly impossible. But here are a few tips that may help close the gap between page one and the next book.

1) Read books at the same time, but read different types of book

The most obvious tack is to be polyamorous with your literary affections and not just stick to reading one book at a time. While this is often spoken of as an essentialist pursuit (i.e. “oh, that’s just something I’ve never been able to do”) it’s actually quite simple, as long as you understand that like any exercise it takes practice to up your number of books that you can balance, and that you need to acknowledge when you hit your limit.

When I was a more regular Goodreads user (which is to say, before March 2013) I used the progress tracking feature fairly religiously, but it soon became a source of incredulity and grandiose goals than a chart of my progress. Print books didn’t carry the same weight or urgency when I plugged them into a digital widget than when I stacked them on my bedside table; like cash versus a debit card, they were consumed at a more healthy pace when I actually had to confront their physical presence.

But if you create a balanced book load, with a constellation of genres or styles or whatever constitutes variety for you, then it encourages you to continue expanding your tastes while avoiding burnout and abdication to more passive forms of media.

2) Drugs

Simple and easy. I find that I read more when I open a book as soon as my morning coffee finishes perking and don’t stop until I walk into the office. Caffeine can make an obtuse book a joy, render previously uninteresting authors in new and vivid lights, and give you the will to struggle through slow passages. Now obviously I don’t endorse using grey- or black-market drugs like Adderall or Modafinil (i.e. the Limitless drug) to boost your reading, but I do endorse reading a book that tells you where and how to find those drugs for sale online.

3) Chain-read

Whether you read multiple books at once or one at a time, don’t let more than a few minutes go by after you finish a book before you immediately pick up another. You’ll have plenty of time to consider a finished book while you fight your way into a subway car or prepare your dinner or shoot the shit at the bar. But in the immediate afterglow of having finished a book, it can be easy to slide into complacency and the desire to take a break from reading. Don’t do it. Never take a break from reading, ever.

4) Deadlines

If you operate well under deadine, then this approach is for you. Book clubs, award nominations cutoff dates, plans to meet with the author or publisher at some determined point down the line—all of these can induce a greater sense of urgency than what the usual reader experiences (to escape reality, quiet your mind, expand your consciousness, feel less stupid).

5) Use a hundred dollar bill as a bookmark

Withdraw $100 from your bank account in the form of a single Benjamin and use it as a bookmark. Then promise yourself that you’ll only have access to spending it once you finish the book. Since you probably don’t make much money, that should speed things up a bit. It also will make you much less inclined to put down your book and leave it somewhere, so like your phone, you’ll always have it in arm’s reach.

And there you have it! If you have any other tips on how to better attack your book backlog, email me at [email protected].

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.