On skimming

Jen L just posted a comment (on one of my recent Facebook posts) about the difficulty of giving up on a book that one is reading, and I’ve brought up skimming in various conversations with Mary Anne recently, so it occurred to me to write about my approach to skimming in a bit more detail.


I think it was being an SH editor that got me started on skimming as a viable approach to fiction. There were many stories where I was pretty sure from early on that I wasn’t going to like them, but I did want to know what happened in the plot. (I very often want to know what happens in the plot, even for works that I have no interest in reading/watching.) But reading all of them in full detail would’ve taken way too much of my time and energy.

So I learned to skim them—I would read the first bit, and at some point if it wasn’t grabbing me, I would skim through to the end. Now and then it might happen that after I’d started skimming, I would realize I was interested after all, and would slow down again; but mostly it was a way to get an overall sense of a story that I knew we weren’t going to buy, without having to read the whole thing.

And that’s carried over to my recent reading, because three years ago I started my unread-books-reading project with about 380 unread mass-market paperbacks on my shelves, and although I used to consider myself a fast reader, I’m way slower than a lot of people are. I read about 350 words a minute (reading silently to myself), which is to say about one MMPB page per minute, so a 500-page book takes me 8+ hours to get through, and given everything else going on in my life, that might mean a week or more of reading. So reading every word of every one of those books would have taken many years—and would also have resulted in my spending a lot of that time bored and annoyed, because a lot of those books have turned out not be books I wanted to read.

(Even for books that I love, I rarely have the experience that a lot of people describe, of not wanting a book to end, of wanting it to last as long as possible. There are always many other books that I want to get to; if I love a book, I’ll read it without skimming, but I don’t generally want it to linger.)

So these days, quite a lot of my reading is skimming. I’ll usually read about 10%-20% of a given work before deciding whether to give up on it and start skimming; it’s rare for me that something I dislike the first 20% of will turn out to be something where I want to spend the time to read the whole thing.

(I know that for some people, later parts of a work may redeem earlier parts, and so it can be worth reading 500 pages of (for example) a despicable protagonist in order to find out whether they’ll turn out to be sympathetic at the end. But for me, (a) I very rarely do like the later parts of a work where I disliked the earlier parts, and (b) even when it does happen, I rarely feel that it was worth spending that long being bored and annoyed just to get to the part I liked.)

So I guess that I see skimming as a way to balance my desire to enjoy the time I spend reading, with my desire to not miss out on what happens.


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