February 20, 2013

More Than Pages Flying By

This started out as a little post on the benefits of the shocking habit of underlining in books, but as posts are wont to do, it escalated.  I realized as I started out that I really wanted to say something else, and that underlining was tangential; and also that I couldn't say what I wanted to say without first saying some Stuff about some other Stuff.  This, then, is actually a post on reading in general - a snapshot of my thoughts on and approach to the business.

In more literate circles today, it is a common thing to hear people sighing over reading being a lost art.  In general, I tend to agree with the sentiment: the majority approach to reading is not what it was a hundred or two hundred years ago.  On the other hand, like most nostalgic sentiments, it is not entirely true.  Two hundred and three hundred years ago, books were hardly accessible to the general working public - the Enlightenment was significant precisely because of its impact on the dissemination of literature.  Books are familiar things to us now.

And besides that, the fact of the matter is that there are still many people nowadays who do read.  Some while ago in a doctor's waiting room I noticed a mother and her son, both with their noses in books.  Naturally I thought, "Ah ha!  Good habits, good habits!"  ...Then I managed to get a glimpse of the covers and found that she was reading Fifty Shades of Gray, and he was reading Catching Fire.  Now, I have nothing against the Hunger Games series (though personally I thought him too young for it), but the combination was disheartening in the extreme.  It is symptomatic of the "just as long as they're reading" philosophy - as though there were something essentially soul-bettering about the practice of taking in words off a page.  Pinterest says so, so it must be true!

Pinterest aside, there is nowhere that this trend is more noticeable than on a site like Goodreads.  I like Goodreads.  I like keeping track of what I read, and when I read it, and what I thought about it at the time; sometimes I'll even go back later and realize my opinion has changed.  But like most such websites, the practice of adding books, seeing your "bookshelves" grow, and preening over the amount of books read in a year becomes addictive, and the emphasis is frequently on numbers.  If I just read 50 instead of 30 books a year, I will be smarter - or at least I'll look smarter, and hey, that's what counts.  So readers tear through heaps of young adult novels or children's books, some of them good, some of them bad, most of them fluff and most of them forgotten too soon.  The magic seems to be in the reading, not in the books.

This is not the attitude we ought to have when we read.  Naturally, there are times when we need to relax with a light story, even a children's book; there is nothing wrong with allowing the brain a rest and a pick-me-up, anymore than there is something wrong with sitting down with a good movie after a tiring day.  But this pattern should not be characteristic of our lives.  Our list of books-read should not be 80, or 70, or even 60% composed of fluff.

Reading is not an automatic process by which we gain wisdom.  The words and books themselves are what exercise the mind, and in the words of another quote that pops up frequently on the internet: "One must always be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us."  We should not approach reading with a philosophy of carelessness, and we ought to think more than we do about what books we spend time reading.  I am not talking about "bad" books, because most of us accept that concept: I mean the average, the fluff, the entertaining and non-taxing reads that can be whipped through in three days max and which thus teach us absolutely nothing about perseverance.  Methinks, too, that Mr. Darcy would not consider this to be "improving our minds by extensive reading."

Half the moral, then, is that more books does not necessarily mean more knowledge and wisdom.  We must first take care in what we read, and then (the other half of the moral) how we read.  Just as everyone has his own method of writing, everyone will have his own method of reading; these are a few of the tactics I employ.

vary genre

Note that by genre I do not mean the difference between YA dystopian and YA fairytale, but something more like the difference between a biography, a fantasy, and a classic.  Goodreads' "shelves" are helpful in this respect, allowing me to have different categories for history, historical-fiction, fantasy, classics, mystery, what-have-you.  A quick glance at the list of recent reads is enough to tell me that my last-book-but-one was a fantasy, the previous a mystery, and it is time for something rather more sizable.  I am not strict in this respect; my reading pace keeps me varied.  But if I find myself jaded in reading, it is generally due to an overemphasis of either light or heavy reads, and a switch is good for the brain. 

try not to rush

I confess, when I get toward the end of a book I tend to speed up - because nothing beats the thrill of finishing, especially a long and weighty book.  But rushing does not help cement it in my mind, so I have to force myself to go slow and actually think about what I read.


Yes, the actual topic of this post!  I know many readers scorn and deride this, feeling that it somehow desecrates the book, but it is extremely helpful - the practice, like the repetition of a sentence, sinks it more deeply into the reader's mind.  And, too, it leaves the reader's mark on the book; I don't know about you, but I like to see what passages stood out to previous readers, and I like to feel myself continuing the trend.  I tend not to underline in novels simply because it brings me out of the flow of the story-world, but if there is a section I want to remember, I can always write it down in a notebook for reference.


After finishing and publishing this post, I realized I had made an unforgivable omission (I blame the headache entirely).  There is a fourth and final step to my approach to reading, which Goodreads also assists in - reason #25 to like the site!  When I finish a book, I almost always write up a brief review: summarizing what I liked, what I didn't, and what, in general, I really gleaned from the pages.  It is for myself, not for other readers, so I tend to be quite subjective here.  I try to keep it short and to the point, and I also try to make it fair, level-headed, and as peaceable as I can - even with a horrible book, there is no excuse for a rage-fest.  No reader should revel in atrocities, nor revel in making fun of them. 

Another part of this process for me is reviewing the book on the review site I help run, Squeaky Clean Reviews.  These are much more in depth, and as I try here to be more objective in my conclusion, it is really the more helpful of the two; I find that a book I review here sticks with me in much more clarity than a book I merely acknowledge on Goodreads.  There's a reason we had to do book reports in school, and when done correctly, it is as enjoyable and satisfying as it is helpful.  My course for literature this year is entirely on Shakespeare and includes detailed essays on each work as I complete it.  I still wouldn't call myself a real Shakespearean enthusiast, but I really do enjoy the process, and I am certain it has helped me engage and understand the writing far more than I would otherwise.  You may not consider it a fun idea, but I would encourage you to give it a shot and see if it helps you retain the book more thoroughly.


  1. You made some great points. It saddens me, too, to see books like Fifty Shades become NY Times Bestsellers. I think forcing people to read select classics in school/college has backfired in the long run. Excerpts would be more accessible, and students would feel encouraged to explore literature on their own rather than cram it into their homework time.

    1. Requiring students to read classic works is a tricky issue, but I tend to agree with your solution. Obviously it's a good thing for young people to be exposed to the great works of literature, but it would be more helpful in the long run if it were done in a more engaging, less tiresome fashion. On the other hand, if the teachers are to blame for not conveying a love of learning, the younger generation is to blame for its narrow attention span!

  2. First off: LOVE the new look. Very very nice. (Bree--congratulations on another job well done!)
    Second: Guilty as charged. I tend to fly through book sometimes, and even this last week I found myself staring at my 2013 Have-Read list and bemoaning the fact that I've only read 4 or 5 completely this year. O.o But those 4 or 5 have been good reads--yea, even necessary ones. So thanks a million for this post and reminding me that half the fun is the journey through a book--not the closing.

    1. Didn't Bree do a lovely job? I keep pulling it up just to look at it.

      I'm glad you found this post encouraging! It was partially inspired by my own feelings while looking over last year's reading list: I completed a lot of books, but felt tired and not terribly satisfied by the time December rolled around. This year I'm trying to pay more attention to what I'm reading, and including more books that I've really been wanting to get to.

  3. It's saddening, the state of reading affairs of this modern world. I am finally getting the librarians at our local library use to the fact that I WANT to read all the classics I check out, and not having to do countless book reports.

    I tend to rush through books, but not intentionally. I'm a fast reader. Always have been. This year, I've focused on slowing down, and tasting the words more than just reading them like a joy ride. I have been quite proud to proclaim, I have been reading the same book for a month. That's quite a feat for me, you must realize. XD

    But lovely post, Abigail, and the design is perfect!

    1. Good for you, Ashley! I wouldn't call myself a fast reader - I'm "moderately quick" - but like you, I've been trying to steady my pacing this year. It's difficult, since finishing a book is such a rewarding feeling, but I want to make sure I savor what I read. Thus far, I think the one I enjoyed most is "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Pitcairn's Island" also stood out vividly, though, dark as it was.

      Glad you like the design! I'm really tickled with all the little details Bree incorporated.

  4. Oh my goodness! What a change! I thought I clicked a wrong button when I came to visit. Shall read later, but thumbs up on the design! It's gorgeous!!
    Only thing...I have to scroll - it's a little wide or something. Maybe just me!

    So exciting!


    1. I asked Bree about the wideness issue; I'm not sure if it's something that can be easily fixed or not. Thanks for letting me know, though!

  5. The new look and design is wonderful, Abigail! Bree did a great job with it! Beautiful!

    A Fellow Writer,

    1. Thank you! I'm thrilled that everyone likes it so much, and I'm sure Bree is as well. She did a splendid job, I must say - this individual reply feature is quite a treat!

  6. Yes, that is how I feel! Very good post, very insightful. I love the good old day classics, and is so sad the way that literature is declining. Must visit Squeaky Clean reviews. Like the name. :)

    By the way, the little birds when I go to click on your link is so cute. ;)


    1. You should take a peek at the site! The idea behind it is to give readers the ability to check up on the content of a book before reading it - without giving away spoilers. There are two sets of ratings, one for the entertainment level and one for values, and each review is divided into sections - Plot; Morality; Spiritual Content; Violence; Drug/Alcohol Content; Language; Sexual Content; and then the Conclusion. Fantasy is currently the largest genre, but it's been exciting to watch the whole site grow.

      Isn't the bird cute? I love what Bree did with that.

  7. Hi Abigail, here I am!

    First off, I just LOVE your new blog design. It is really neat, tidy and crisp and fresh and the design sure does the title of your blog justice ;). The only thing that irks me a little is how tiny the font of the posts are: do you think you could by any chance make it slightly bigger? (p.s. the size of the fonts on the comments are great!) Aww, and I just love your blog-button <3. Well done, Bree, and congrats, Abigail!!

    You actually underline novels? Shocking! Haha, I personally think that's kind of ruining the beauty of the crisp, clean book (especially considering how wobbly my underlining usually is!), but I see the pros in underlining as well, thanks to this post :D.

    It is so sad, the kind of reading material folks are ingesting these days, and that whole false notion that as long as one is reading, it doesn't matter how good the book is, or how bad it is for that matter. Dad being a doctor, he says how often he sees his patients walk into his office and have with them those trashy, large novels that are not worth the ink and paper that was used to print them! That, or tapping away on their iPhones :p.

    Thankfully, I'm never stressed about wondering how many books I have read in the year, though of course I love to know how many once I have. But currently, I am actually trying to restrain myself from reading too fast, too much, because simply I have schoolwork to reckon with! I like how you stressed in this post about one's reading variety and keeping a healthy reading diet while not gobbling up the books too quickly. I personally am a very fast reader, and if the writing is compelling I must really pull the reigns not to finish that end part in an hour's time! But also, as you pointed out, to appreciate the full beauty of the story, the sentences, etc, and also to be able to observe and learn from the books we read, slow reading can sometimes be a good thing.

    1. One way you can make the post easier to read, Joy, is to go to "View" on your toolbar and zoom in a little bit. (Ctrl plus "+" is the keyboard shortcut.) That should right the issue!

      I tend not to underline in novels, though perhaps I should, since I never remember to write down passages that particularly strike me. Jenny keeps a notebook for memorable quotes and I've dabbled with one, but have never stuck with it. I do underline in nonfiction, though; I'm reading "Knowing God" by J.I. Packer at the moment, and he has so many good lines I might just as well underline the whole book! You'll be glad to know, though, that I don't dog-ear pages. Why would you do that to the poor book?


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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