November 4

The Art of Reading Revisited: Why You Can Sound Well-read Even If You Just Skim

Okay, although the title may seem like it, this isn't an article about how to fake it till you make it. On the contrary, it is an ode to the art of reading and an attempt to dispel the notion that reading is a time-consuming pursuit or that it's something only the cultured (or nerds) should pursue.

The joy of the "comments" section

Some people go to Twitter for the news. But most go for the comments. Sure, there's a lot of vitriol out there on the internet. Still, according to the book Reading the comments by Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, Joseph Reagle, "we can learn a lot about human nature from the informative, manipulative, confusing, and amusing messages at the bottom of the web." I agree.

I love comments for their amusement value, but you find a hidden gem every so often. Like the comment below by someone named Hudson, that touched a chord with me. Hudson describes a subject that shouldn't ever be but has become very contentious and divisive—the art of reading.

The Art of Reading, redefined

In the comments section of NYT's book blog Paper Cuts, Hudson eloquently says, "Sorry, but reading is not dying… Reading has taken an oral swerve in contemporary culture that the literary set hasn't quite found the answer to, from books-on-tape, to YouTube, to open mic. All of which, I am happy to say, fits within the larger context of the solitary reader and the text, whether on screen or printed page. And, no, the ink does not smear."

Translation: Reading, whether as an art, a hobby, a pastime, or an intellectual pursuit, is alive and well. How we read may look different now from before, and it may not even require the physical act of actually reading. And that's A-okay. You don't have to take my word for it. Professor Pierre Bayard's 2008 best-selling book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, is proof. It's in French, by the way, but how does that matter? It's not like we're going to read it anyway.

"How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" by Prof. Bayard

Bayard reckons you don't have to read a book cover-to-cover for it to count as reading. Skimming, glancing at the cover, reading tidbits about the book on the internet, listening to a podcast promoting the book, etc., all count. Radical, you think? The prof says not. And he has the chops to prove it.

Bayard isn't just a literature professor but a psychologist too. If those credentials don't blow your mind, wait for it, he's French. Now, here's the thing about the French. They delight in their cuisine, style, and way of life, but they are most proud of their culture and their embrace of the arts and literature. So, to suggest a shortcut to the process, and of all things, pretend to have read a book when you didn't, can sound sacrilegious. But Prof. Bayard chooses to go that far. For a reason. He redefines what it means to be well-read and why something as joyous as reading has become so onerous and subjective. It starts with the pressure to read.

Obligated reading

Much of our baggage about reading comes from our perceived obligation to read up on the subject, depending on our interests and our station in life. What sort of self-respecting sci-fi fan would admit to not reading Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five? Or imagine the peer pressure of a ten-year-old who hasn't dug into a Harry Potter or an anthropology fanatic who hasn't heard of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens.

Even if the subject is required reading like Proust is for a literature student, how many can claim to have read Proust's masterpiece In Search of Lost Time in its entirety? It's not an easy read: running 3616 pages long and spanning six chunky volumes.

I'm thinking of Proust to be able to evaluate whether my colleagues are telling the truth when they talk about his work and to know that, in fact, they rarely are. Pierre Bayard.

Another reason reading carries baggage is because of how integral it has become to associate a cultured individual with the act of reading. But it pays to question some long-held beliefs.

What exactly does it mean to be cultured?

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, a cultured person "has had a good education and knows a lot about art, music, literature, etc." It follows then that to be perceived as more cultured, the more highbrow and traditional your reading choices have to be.

We forget that the definition of cultured is by no means universal. It all depends on which culture you are/were exposed to. An old lady sitting in an upholstered leather chair, wearing comfortable Mary Janes on her feet, and sipping tea from a fine China cup with one pinkie finger out may be the epitome of culture to someone from England. That same behavior—shoes in the house or touching lips to a cup—may be frowned upon in parts of South Asia.

The goal of reading

Bayard makes the case that reading is somewhat similar in that there isn't one universal definition of what it takes to be well-read. It is imprudent to think that the only way to read a book is cover-to-cover. The art of reading is much more nuanced.

We don't become cultured or intelligent just by reading every book religiously without skipping a word. Instead, it is our ability to absorb concepts and connect the dots across lots of material that allows us to reason, form, and share original opinions. In short, there is more than one way to "read."

Many ways to read

Bayard suggests many ways to engage with a book, including skimming, glancing at the cover, hearing about it from someone else, etc. In his book, he even proposes a two-character code for engaging with literature:

  • UB - book unknown to me
  • SB - book I have skimmed
  • HB - book I have heard about
  • FB - book I have forgotten

The point is that with each book we read, skim, glance at, hear, or simply crack the spine open on, and even the ones we eschew touching, we establish a connection between ourselves and the written word. We are all authors in our own rights and are experts at filling in gaps and telling ourselves stories. Reading is integral to that creative process because it sparks our inner storyteller and helps us not just innovate but make sense of the world around us.

The art of reading: How to be (or at least sound) well-read

Reading should never become a chore. And definitely, not one triggered by guilt. Here are some ways to embrace the art of reading by making reading more fun and less daunting.

Skimming isn't a sin

You may have noticed more and more authors preface their non-fiction books with some version of "you don't have to read every page of this book sequentially from the beginning to the end. Instead, feel free to dip in and out as you please."

Well, as someone who's written a book, I feel I can speak for the writing community on this subject. It's not that we don't want readers to read our books from cover to cover. We'd be elated if they did. But knowing how competitive the space for eyeballs is, putting such an onus on the reader to read (to read the entire book) could backfire spectacularly and completely turn potential readers off the book (and all books).

The compromise—guilt-free skimming—is, therefore, a great one for both the reader and the writer!

Skim purposefully

Amazon has a "look inside" feature that lets readers sample the first few pages of a book (between 10% and 20%, depending on the format) before they buy a book. It's a good way to skim. But simply using this material to write a book report, or worse, review the book, is a dead giveaway that you haven't really read the book.

If you want to sound well-read on a subject, then you need to skim purposefully. This means picking passages from the beginning, middle, and the end. Highlighting a few original quotes from the book can also help establish your grip on the content.

Learn from late-night comedy show hosts

On average, not accounting for holidays, late-night talk show hosts such as Stephen Colbert put out five shows a week, which means interviewing 2-3 guests every night to promote whatever book/movie/music the guest has going on. With such a packed schedule, the comedy show hosts will unlikely have time to skim, let alone read a book, before interviewing the author. And yet, they effortlessly engage with the creators. How?

Yes, they have a team of researchers. But they seem to so effortlessly engage in material because they keep the discussion general without getting into too many specifics. And they let their guest do most of the talking.

Read or listen to book summaries

In today's information overload age, one thriving industry is the "book summary" business. Apps such as Blinkist aim to summarize non-fiction books into condensed, super short reads that readers can consume in the time it takes them to down a cup of coffee.

Well, personally, I'm not a huge fan of summaries, but then we should never let perfect be the enemy of good. As any high schooler with an impending book report will tell you, Cliff notes and book summaries are a godsend when you're in a pinch.


Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is an epic novel heralded by NY Times critic Robert Gottlieb as "the most impressive novel written since World War II." But at 896 pages and a plethora of characters, the novel isn't a breezy beach read. I started to read the book and spent a good part of one evening with it when I realized that the meter on my Kindle had barely moved. I had barely made it to 1%. Disheartened and guilty, I shelved the book hoping for some uninterrupted quiet time in the future. Even I know that won't come.

Prof. Bayard's words have changed my view on the unread, barely read, and half-read books lining up my physical and digital bookshelves. The guilt is gone. It has been replaced by a feeling of connection. I'm convinced that every one of those books has played and continues to play a part in making me who I am.

Ultimately, here's the thing: Books are wonderful. But let not the number of pages or the heaviness of the content scare you. Skimming the book, glancing at the cover, hearing about it from someone else, listening to it, or heck, even just cracking the spine open and smelling it will make your day better. And may you get to also read some of them.



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