The Signs You Should Put That Book Down

Sometimes we (meaning I) don’t know when to walk away. Maybe we think we like the book we’re reading. Maybe we think that it’s edifying and we’ll wind up being better for reading it. Maybe it was recommended to us by someone who believed we would love it, and we’re waiting to get to the part where we discover they were right.

Put that book down. Life’s too short.

Here’s how you know it’s time to give up that book you’ve been reading.

  1. It’s been several months and you’re still on the same book.
    Sure, you’re busy. Sure, it’s long. You’ve been telling yourself this. But if you were really loving the book, would it still be on your shelf three months since you first cracked it open? And wouldn’t you be past page 80?
  2. You’re very conscious of how much book is left (or, if it’s an e-reader, you keep checking to see what percentage through with the book you are)
    This isn’t curiosity. This is the same as when you’re on the treadmill and you switch from “calories burned” view to “time to cool down” view.
  3.  Someone asks you what you’re reading, and you can’t remember the name of the book
    Maybe this is just me, but when I’m exited about something I’m reading and someone asks me about it, I know the title, the author, around what year it was published–everything. Even if I’m mildly interested, I at least know the title of the book.
  4. When you have the choice to read or do something else, you very consistently do the “something else”
    Plane time has always been my reading time. But during the last few plane trips, I’ve either worked, played the fabulous Machinarium (oh my lord, so beautiful, so worth the money), or wasted time on my brainless-phone-game-of-the-moment. This is not like me.

So, if you can’t tell, I’m having a hard time with–checks Kindle for the name of the book–Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. I am 58% through with the book (see item 2, and I didn’t have to check the Kindle for that info). If someone has asked me what I thought of the book, I would have said, “Eh, it’s pretty good.” But my behavior indicates otherwise. I’ve been reading this since…well, since I last made a blog post about a book.

I’ve been thinking that I’m just busier than normal, or maybe I’m going through a phase where I really love the poker mode in Bejeweled, or [insert other excuse here]. But there are just too many signs that it’s the book’s fault.

There have been times where I got through a book I didn’t like and I was glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. But on the whole, I want to go on the record as screaming this big, fat double negative, both to me and to anyone reading:

DON’T READ BOOKS YOU DON’T LIKE!

A protestant work ethic keeps so many of us from enjoying our lives. Don’t suffer for the sake of edification, unless that’s your quest for the moment. Sure, try some books that aren’t usually you jam. Try to see why others like them. Try out something that makes you think in a new way. But if you find that reading it feels more like suffering than enjoyment, just put the thing down. You’re not losing an investment. You’re gaining back leisure time that would have been spent on something that doesn’t make you happy.

Read books you love. It’s a message as much for me as it is for anyone else.

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Is Editing Just Reading All Day?

It’s a great day to curl up with a book where I’m at in Louisiana today–storming like crazy, the constant rumbling and cracking of thunder. I guess the tornadoes touching down everywhere don’t add to the cozy reading mood for most, but I’m okay with it as long as the roof stays on.

I did curl up with a great book for my twice-weekly early morning insomnia today (Middlesex, 2003’s Pulitzer, if you’re wondering) (and 4:30 AM, if you’re wondering and also are a sadist). Just a little piece of me is wishing for cozy-ready-time back. But it’s really just a little piece. Why? Because–YAY–I read for a living!

“Reading for Pleasure and Reading for Editing Couldn’t Be More Different”: T/F

When I was in school, I was in a series of classes that dealt with various aspects of the school’s press. One day’s lesson was on what it’s like to really be an editor. I had brilliant teacher that I really enjoyed for this class, and since I knew editing was the likely the path I would take with my future, this discussion was of particular interest.

I remember the teacher saying this:

A lot of kids think, ‘Oh, an editor is just someone who sits around with books and reads all day for a living.’ And I’m here to tell you editing is nothing like that. Reading for pleasure and reading for editing couldn’t be more different. The experiences are nothing alike. It’s almost like having two parts of your brain that can’t function at the same time. You have to consciously shift from editing brain to reading brain and back.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, of course.” But you know what? After doing this for a number of years, I respectfully disagree with my teacher on this. In fact, I think that in order to be a good editor, you have to have your reading-for-pleasure hat on. You have to be thinking of what would make what your reading of the piece enjoyable, if you just came across it in the wild. Putting yourself in the position of the audience is the key to all good writing and editing.

That doesn’t mean that editing is always the same as reading for fun. But I do think that you use the exact same parts of your brain*, especially if you’re an analytical reader (which, if you’re an editor, you better be).

Answer: F (If You’re a Certain Type…)

When good editors reads anything, it’s my opinion that they’ll note what sentence constructions go down easy. They’ll notice what turns of phrase tickle them. They’ll notice the words that grab their attention and the tactics that make them want to keep going. And from observing good writing and synthesizing it, they can often see the path to improving areas that aren’t as fun to read.

This leads me to think my teacher is totally wrong, because in order to get to this place of “good editor,” you have to (1) read (a lot!) for pleasure, (2) have much of that pleasure be derived from trying to understand what works.

Reading for pleasure is certainly an inextricable part of my editing. It’s as if I bought myself a book to read for fun, and I also have the amazing superpower of tweaking what didn’t work quite right.

Editing B2B/B2C communications, white papers, and other works of non-fiction are a little different, but not as much as you’d think. It’s a matter of having your priorities right. If you write, it’s because you have something to say. So it always pays to create enjoyable prose. If you want people to receive your message, that first requires that they read it at all. And they won’t if it’s difficult to work through. You want the applicable characteristics of good literature. (Cohesiveness. Maybe an kind of arcing structure. A powerful conclusion.) It will help people follow what you’re trying to say. But you also want easy-to-read sentences that facilitate rather than hinder communication. (Make action-oriented subject/verb pairs. Keep the subject and verb close together. Cut wordiness and excessive prepositional phrases.) You also don’t want to sound like a robot, and that means making things interesting. (No needless listing. Vary sentence length and forms of syntactic dependencies. And for god’s sake, get rid of every instance of “it is of importance to note.”)

And, if you’re the type of person that delights in that, you’ve learned all of that from reading for pleasure.

What Does It Result In?

I love my work! That kid my teacher talked about, who thinks editing is sitting around and reading all day? Well, sure, if you think you’ll be getting paid to read amazing literature all the time, it isn’t quite that. But if you think you’ll be getting paid to read all day and playing an active part in making it something you WANT to read, yes, that’s totally what I do. And it’s just as good as it sounds, for someone who loves the written word.

*The exception to this is proofreading, which, in my experience, is not in the least like reading for pleasure. That’s not to say it isn’t a pleasurable activity to some, but it isn’t like reading. It’s more like doing a PennyPress puzzle book or playing one of those “spot the difference” games. You can’t be in reading mode while proofing, really–you’ll get too big-picture to see that misspelling on the cover or that misnumbered page.

Writing to Read and Reading to Write

This is a bit off the beaten path, but it has to do with a recently-published article that addresses the way I read in a curious way.

Allow me to preface. I was an English tutor for years. My golden years of tutoring were spent at my college’s writing center, where structured training gave me wonderful, concrete tools that I still use to this day in my job as an editor.

My favorite technique was one I felt not only helped the students I guided but also helped me as I wrote my own essays.  It’s a skill worth cultivating, and it’s simply this: learn how to read as a reader, not as an author.

It’s a bit infantilizing to ask writers to role play, I know. But you can’t imagine how revelatory it is as a college student to pick up an essay you wrote and think to yourself, “I am now my teacher, reading this essay for the first time.” All of a sudden, reading as your audience, you see that things you thought were implied don’t seem clear at all. The point of the essay isn’t obvious. Quotes from other sources are dropped into the text in ways that leave you thinking, “wait, what does your quoted material have to do with what you were just saying a sentence ago?” When you take some time away from your writing (enough time to help you forget your own train of thought as you wrote), distance yourself from your perspective as author, and consciously try to place yourself in the position a first-time reader, you can eliminate a great deal of spots where your writing is unclear.

My experience doing this role playing concerns expository writing–either I’d be doing it with my own essays or helping students do it with theirs. I write and edit mostly presentations of arguments, analyses, and explanations, both at work and in my spare time. Creative writing has never been my forte, and I don’t often write more than one or two creative pieces a year. Yet my greatest recreational delight, as you can probably gather from this blog, comes from reading creative work.

I love knowledge, but I need the information to be beamed into my head via laser or something. Reading nonfiction absolutely puts me to sleep. Even the things I’m most interested in–history, biography, natural science, cars, and yes, even grammar and language–can only command my total focus for a few minutes when presented in book form. I read almost solely fiction because I adore stories, characters, symbols, experiences. I can’t create it myself for the life of me. But I love to enjoy others’ work.

An article called “The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer” showed up in my Twitter feed the other day. Because its wording so closely mirrors (yet puts a twist on) my mantra of “read your writing like a reader,” I was intrigued. And I found that, though I’m not at all a creative writer, many of the things the article’s author lists are exactly the things I do when I read. It’s why many of my blog posts even exist.

The author, K.M. Weiland, first says that you should be able to see both the good and the bad in the authors writing and, instead of focusing on it, learn from it. I’m often very much aware of an author’s technique, and I’m often thinking of where it’s going wrong and right. I’m lucky that I’m able to be caught up in a story while understanding there’s a real person who’s penned the thing, composing every word and orchestrating every turn. Paying attention to these things things doesn’t detach me from a novel, and in that sense, I think I’m pretty blessed. But my ultimate goal isn’t to write myself–it’s to understand what I like about writers and help me know why I think what I read is good or bad.

The article’s author also encourages her reader to take in works that are superior to what you produce, saying “Absorb them like a sponge. Figure out how they tick. Supposedly we’re each an aggregate of the ten people with whom we spend the most time. Same goes for the authors we read.” Funny–I should be a better creative writer from all my reading, shouldn’t I? I spend way more time with great authors than I do actual people. But I know what she’s saying. I love becoming acquainted with a really great author and taking in all their techniques. I love experiencing something and then trying to figure out how he or she did that–made me feel the way I felt, react the way I react. In a lot of ways, I feel it’s like watching a magic trick and allowing myself to be totally astonished. Then I learn how the trick is done. But seeing the trick isn’t ruined for me once the secret is revealed; rather, it’s enhanced when I watch someone with great skill do it so smoothly and with such finesse that I’m still enraptured. And awareness I would never have the grace to pull off the same maneuvers only enhances the experience.

The author of the article suggests to mark up your books like crazy, which I also do. Anyone who’s ever let into either my personal book stash or Kindle will see an abundance of observations, connections, and (in books with which I’ve had bones to pick) obscenely-worded tirades that would make the squeamish blush. I revere the skills of the author, but I never have been the type to see books themselves as sacred objects. They are alive and meant for interaction. Writing all over books is how I interact. I image this may result in problems one day–I might skew a future reading by prejudicing myself toward old interpretations just by their presence in the margins when I’d otherwise be open to a new interpretation. But if I find this happening, I just buy a new copy. The glory of the Gutenberg is that books aren’t sacred. They’re a dime a dozen (literally so, at garage sales and your library book sales).

But the article’s reading-as-writer point I liked best and related to most is the “study specific topics” suggestion. Here, she suggests doing what I do to particularly riveting songs–dissecting them piece by piece.

If I find a song a really like and that I also think is complex, I like to go through the track several times, once focusing only on the bass line, once only on rhythm guitar, once only on drums, etc., until I’ve figured out how every piece fits together. Weiland suggests doing a similar thing in her “reading to write” article, specifically “studying narrative, dialogue, character arcs, or foreshadowing.” It’s not often I’ll actually go through and read a book over and over, once looking at character arcs, once examining foreshadowing, etc., but I do try very hard to pay attention to how all these the instruments come together to make a symphony. And I think you can only do that if you’re cognizant of all the parts.

Anyway, I thought it was very interesting that I, without ever having any hopes (or illusions) of becoming a novel-writer, accidentally practice all the reading techniques she suggests for becoming a better novel-writer. I wonder if it’s from all that advocating for role playing in my college’s writing center. The reverse of reading your own writing as if you were the audience is to actually be the intended audience and try to understand the author. And I very much love to use a book to pick the author’s brain. It allows me to enjoy what I read so much more and appreciate a talent I simply don’t have.