Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Post: Reading "Rules"

Everywhere one looks, it seems that bookstores are closing or becoming caf├ęs, or that they are selling things other than books:  book things, but not books themselves.    There is a constant lament from booksellers, publishers, writers and the media about the death of the book, the end of reading.  These lamenters tell us we prefer video and film and interactive games and books on tape to actually reading silently to ourselves.

Most recently, this sentiment was expressed on the cover of the NEW YORKER – one of several they’ve published in recent years heralding the end of book selling, book reading, and book buying as we know it.  (Not funny!)


But if you were to spend a little time “surfing” the web, you would be forgiven for thinking that the naysayers are not paying sufficient attention.  There are thousands of books sites on the web.  Practically anyone who reads puts up a blog about their book likes and dislikes; there are book review sites in which books are reviewed by committee; there are book discussion sites; book club sites; book seller sites; book author sites; “modern” book sites; “classic” book sites; science-fiction book sites; mystery book sites; chick-lit book sites; book-a-day sites; library sites; and even book sites which review other book sites!

It is daunting.

I said in my very first post, What I'm Planning More or Less..., that I am a very slow reader, and that I couldn’t possibly read all that there is to read, let alone all that I want to read!  Even dipping into these book sites takes more time than I can comfortably manage!

But help has come my way….

Since 1985, Judy Pollock – a close friend of mine for more years than I care to mention! – has been president of Language at Work,  a communication skills training company.  Judy has been a reading teacher, a professional actor, and a public speaker; and she has designed many courses that help others communicate more easily and confidently.  Her clients range from private individuals to businesses and government agencies.

But Judy has had a “hands-off” policy when it came to her friends, and it is only since I began this blog and have been whining to her about my slow reading that she has finally come to my rescue.  While I can’t say that I am now a speed-reader, I can say that I read much faster than I did only a few months ago.

I am posting here one of the things she sent me that I found helpful; I hope it helps those other slow readers out there, as well as those who want to supplement their reading skills.  If you have questions about her post or other communication concerns, you can email Judy directly; or check out her web blog to see what else she has to offer.

Happy reading!
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Reading “Rules”

Reading is wonderful, but not for everyone. What I frequently hear is, “How I can get through all the things there are to read?  I’m such a slow reader.”  Or worse: “I don’t have time to read fiction.” 

Slow readers can learn to read faster, and all readers can improve their skills. Contrary to what we’d like to think, efficient reading requires some work, and most of the strategies are appropriate for non-fiction.  But, if you can step up your non-fiction speed, you’ll have more time for luxuriating in your fiction!

Here are some things to try:
1.  Silence the voice that says you have to finish reading anything you start.  I give books 100 pages to convince me.  If you’re slogging through books you don’t like, no wonder you don’t have time to read anything else.  And how can you be excited about starting a new book if it means a mandatory sentence of 300+ pages! 
2.  Don’t think you have to read every article in the magazine.   Look for articles that you might want to read.  Tear them out; throw the rest of the magazine away.

3.  Don’t read every article in the same way.  Some will yield their treasures to you with a quick skim.

4.  Identify your reading places: watching TV, in bed, by the phone, in the kitchen.  Here is where you should stash potential reading material. 
Match the material to the place: some things you will skim quickly; some you want to read carefully; some you just need to review; some you want to curl up and read for enjoyment; some you have to work at.  

Now you have a stack of quickies by the phone to whip through while you’re on hold.  You have magazines for previewing in your TV watching chair. Your current book is by your bed, and the latest gobbledy-gook about your health insurance is on your desk where you will presumably be clear-headed and sitting up straight.
5. Preview everything you can.  Look at the title, subheadings, captions, side-bars, table of contents, index.  Many of us begin reading by starting at the first word and plodding along until we either forget what we’re reading or get to the end.  If you take the time to preview your document, you will actually SAVE time because: 
You may decide not to read it; 
If you do decide to read it, the previewing will make the reading easier, and your comprehension and retention will be greater.
6.  Try skimming as an alternative to a thorough reading:
Read the first few paragraphs.  Often the first paragraph or two will contain a little story meant to whet your appetite; skip quickly through the little story.

Read the last few paragraphs if they’re short; just the last one, if not.

Read the first sentence of each paragraph. And maybe the last sentence.
While your eyes are skimming down the page, be alert to any Stand Out words.  These are words that relate to the subject.  They can give you clues about the general idea, or even specifics.
 7.  While you’re reading, pay attention to the structure.   To untangle long sentences, look for Agent, Action, and, if offered, Object.  Who did what to what?  Try this sentence:
The tired farmer, although a mainstay of the economy, a model of persistence and tenacity, and a symbol of hope to those who espouse a simpler lifestyle, today, in spite of his dogged efforts, faces some difficult choices.
Many a valiant reader would be tired herself about halfway through this thicket.  If you see a hard road ahead, latch onto the agent. In this sentence that would be the farmer.  Now skim across the word weeds until you spot a nice action for him:  Aha! “faces”….and, helpfully right next to it, the object
This seeking of the Agent, Action, Object activity will help power you through long passages, and if you feel later that you missed something, it won’t be hard to go back and find the missing pieces.
8.  Look for key words that direct the traffic for you.  Read along in whatever direction you and the writer are going, but look out for signal changes. Words such as but, however, finally, therefore, also, indicate a change in direction.  When you get better at this, you can mutter little summaries to yourself as you go – great for comprehension and retention.

9.  The speed-obsessed usually want to know how they can increase reading time.  One drill is to practice on easy material, reading at your normal pace for 2-3 minutes, then at a reallyfastpace for 2-3 minutes.  Repeat for a while. Eventually your reallyfastpace becomes your normal pace.

10.  Finally, when you finish reading, recite a review of what you read.  The first few times you try this you might be horrified to realize that you are not able to summarize your reading, or even – gasp! – to say what the main idea was.  Carry on.  With practice, you’ll get better.  With more practice, this will become automatic (well, easier).  And – not surprisingly, your comprehension and retention will improve because you’ll be in the habit of reading for that little test.
Above all, reading should be fun.  If you employ improvement strategies in your non-fiction reading, you should be able to gain some fiction-reading time.  

And that rules!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Makes a Good Personal Library?

It’s quite difficult to answer the question of what makes a good personal library. 

For some, it’s a collection of books on one subject of special interest to the owner:  Golf, Dance, Art, Science, Fiction.

For others, it’s one made up of rare books, coveted books, valuable books.

For still others it’s fine and beautiful bindings, regardless of the subject.

For me, it’s anything I’ve enjoyed reading and hope to dip back into again.

And other than books, what else makes a personal library?  Furniture, bookends, artwork, beautiful or interesting objects that are meaningful to the library’s owner.

My personal libraries – and I have two – are primarily made up of some of the duplicates from my bookstore, and of books that I love – important or not; and it encompasses a wide range of subjects. 

I have separate copies of some of the same books in my two libraries, as I can’t bear to be apart from them when I’m in my other home.  I don’t necessarily need to re-read all of these books, but just passing by and seeing them on my bookshelves gives me pleasure; and sometimes, a flash back to a memory from my past.

One such is a book from my childhood which disappeared but which I recently managed to find in a dusty old bookshop.  It cost pennies when I was a child, but it cost me a great deal to purchase it today.  And in re-reading it now, I can see why my mother chose to buy it for me when I was a young girl.

BEHOLD, YOUR QUEEN is the [quite embroidered] story of the Biblical Queen Esther. It's a “fairy tale” romance that little girls can love, and which makes Cinderella pale by comparison.  But Esther is not just depicted here as the penniless, beautiful maiden carried away by the handsome prince; she’s depicted as something of an “action figure," a powerful person in her own right, and one who never lets fear stand in her way as she almost single-handedly saves her people. 

(Perhaps Esther is the precursor to STAR WARS’ Princess Leah?  Or the inspiration for her?  If so, then creator George Lucas certainly knew this story well!)

Another pleasure of mine is enjoying so-called “quality” paperbacks.  (I presume they mean good quality…?)   They are larger than the paperbacks you find at the drugstore, (often equivalent in size to the hard cover) and are made of better paper - strongly glued and sometimes even sewn - and with clear, attractive type.  I have lots of these.  Even when I own the hardcover, I sometimes have one of these paperbacks along side it.  Why?  I don’t know why;  I just like them! 

Mine are very eclectic libraries, indeed!

But as I keep saying, books alone don’t make the library.  It’s also the artwork and the bookcases, and the rugs, and the furniture, and the like. 

I’ve moved a lot, and I’ve carried my books with me from place to place, from state to state, from house to house.  Depending on the other features of my library, the same books have a different feeling of importance or playfulness or both.

Here are some photos of a few of the libraries I’ve had through the years, including ones from the previous carnation of my store.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that many of the books, furniture and objects are the same, but the “feel” is totally different from library to library:  “serious,” relaxed, ornate, modern.

I design libraries for people, and I love to play with the settings.  Buying the necessary, the wanted books is easy; making the space one in which the owner would be happy to spend time – one which represents the “who” that the owner is or would like to be – is more challenging.   And more fun. 

Here is a link to an article in the FINANCIAL TIMES that shows the libraries belonging to several authors:  not just the books, but the book cases and other appurtenances in their libraries.  Without reading a word written by any of these authors, you might decide which of them writes books you might want to read, and which of them does not.  You might be wrong, but it’s not a bad place to begin, as a personal library can reveal one's soul.  

What kind of library do you have? 
What kind of library do you want?

Monday, November 7, 2011

More on Books as Objects

I’m delighted by the reception of my last Blog post, “Some Thoughts about Books as Objects.”  And surprised. 

Bookstores are closing wherever we look, yet there are book sites galore online; book clubs are flourishing, and people apparently still have strong opinions about books and how to treat them.

This post got the attention of many online book sites (two of which I am now enjoying regularly and will tell you about).  The one called Shelf Awareness has two newsletters, one for readers and one for people in the book trade.  On November 2nd, they had an excerpt of my post in their “Quotation of the Day” section.  Not surprisingly, the excerpt they used was of the very few things I said which referred to new books as objects.

Another enjoyable site but one which is not exclusively about new books, Beattie’s Book Blog, the “unofficial homepage of the New Zealand book community” (which I enjoy because many of the books they discuss are not available in the USA) also excerpted my post, but here, the interest seemed to be more about the difference in “feel” between a real book and an eBook.

And my guest blogger, Pamela Grath, referred to my post in her blog, Books in Northport, adding to the conversation there, as follows:
“My friend Helen at the books, books, books blog wrote recently about books as objects, her point being that there is more to a book than text. I’m sure Helen would not disagree that for those of us who love books, many various aspects—physical, literary, aesthetic and incidental—go into the object we love, and I bring this up because Helen originally wrote of old books, and then she and I and other readers subsequently made the segue, in the comments section following her post, into a discussion of new books as objects and what various people still find valuable in bound, printed volumes."
Later, she made a post of her own called “More on Books as Objects – and One Important Book on the Subject” that I think you will enjoy reading.

On the whole, the people who wrote to me were very positive about the future of books as “objects” in addition to their importance in providing information and pleasure. 

You can read the comments at the end of my post to see some animated and thoughtful opinions about the value of “real” books.  One of the people who commented is someone who publishes books “in all forms – electronic and paper,” but nevertheless, says that she always publishes “limited handbound copies of all [our] books, because books are magical….”

But not everyone agrees.  One person wrote to protest that the printing of books causes the killing of trees, while eBooks help save them.  That’s an interesting point – and would have been posted, had not the sentiment been expressed in some very unsavory language! – and is, perhaps, a topic that can start an entirely new discussion among readers.

The care and treatment of books is another aspect that stimulated a great deal of conversation. Opinions ranged from the extreme of thinking that books should remain pristine and not be marked in any way, to the other extreme of thinking that every inch of a book should be annotated. 

I’m a proponent of the latter: I believe that annotating a book – making it “yours” – is a gift both to yourself and to the book.  I believe that it enriches the reading experience even for those who come to read the book after you.  I know that notations in used books have called my attention to aspects of that book which I might otherwise not have noticed; have given me new insights, shown me other possible interpretations. 

Of course, collectible books of great monetary value are a different matter entirely.  With these, annotating-readers like me have a “hands-off” policy when it comes to annotating or even signing or pasting in a bookplate.  Here, you want marks only by people who have some collectible “value” of their own:  the author, an “important” previous owner, a Melville or other credible person whose opinion illuminates the work in new ways, and the like.   

Imagine if there were such a thing as Shakespeare’s annotated copy of Chaucer – or of Petrarch, from whom Shakespeare took many of his tales.  I would definitely not put my mark on a book like that!

So the questions:

Printed books versus Electronic books;
Writing in books or leaving the pages pristine;

What do you think?