I have the privilege of reading for a living. Someone once asked “What do you do for a living?” I replied, “I read.” Then they asked what I did for fun. And I replied with a huge smile, “I read.”
But not all reading is alike. There is immersive reading of a technical nature. There is escapist reading of a great thriller. And there is cursory reading where you are “browsing.”
It is this last technique I learned as a bookseller, a billion years ago. I’ll never forget a customer in our bookstore asking me, “Have you read every book in here?” I gazed at the 10,000 titles on our shelves and said, “Unfortunately we are sort of out numbered.”
So how do agents and editors read so much? Is it speed reading of the Evelyn Wood sort? At least not for me it isn’t. It is more the ability to read “at” a book or a proposal and grasp the essence of its purpose. It is also one of the reasons an editor or an agent requires a synopsis (for a novel) or a chapter by chapter analysis (for non-fiction) in the proposal. Allows us to grasp the big picture much easier.
But the title of this blog promises some ideas on how to do this and expand your own abilities. I suspect many already do a form of this. And if you have more to add, please tell us your secret in the comments below.
Disclaimer: I understand that the concept of “not really reading” a book is tantamount to heresy among those of us who love books and love reading. This is not a substitute for really reading any book in its entirety. It is a method for absorbing the essence of hundreds, if not thousands, of books in a short period of time.
1) Back cover copy or book jacket flap copy. While the author probably didn’t write it, someone with knowledge of the big ideas in the book did. There is an art to writing good cover copy. Reading this is usually enough to give me the essence of what the book is about. Sometimes even enough to feel like I’ve read the book when I haven’t!
2) Table of Contents. For non-fiction this can be very instructive. It is meaningless in fiction, in my opinion. It is here where you can often find the structure of the book. And depending on how detailed it gets I can go to a specific spot in the book and read enough to know what the author is trying to say.
2a) The Index and/or the Bibliography. If there is one or both in a non-fiction book this shows the research and the breadth of the material. Sometimes a quick glance here can expose a depth that was not apparent from the back cover copy. It can also reveal whether or not the author is from a particular tradition theologically. If every book cited is Baptist, or Pentecostal, or by a Chicago Cub fan (?) you can get an idea where this writer is coming from.
3) The Introduction and the first chapter. Or, better yet, the first 10-20 pages of any book. In five to ten minutes one can grasp style, pace, intent, and more in those first few pages. This works for fiction or non-fiction. If you read books and proposals this way, like I have for the last 30+ years, the best books rise to the top very rapidly. If you have to process a slush pile of unsolicited proposals, this is the only way to survive looking at 1,000 or more ideas each year.
I appreciate the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.com. So often these first three exercises can be accomplished online and widen your search. (Having the “buy” button so close to the “Look Inside” feature is borderline evil.)
3a) If the book is a daily devotional or daily reader of some sort? The trick I use is to read today’s entry. Then read the entry for my birthday. And then read the entry for my wife’s birthday. In seconds you have sampled, at random, the entire devotional. Try it with any of the devotional books you have on your shelf at home. It is a fun way to “test” a book.
4) If you’ve done #3 above, now read the first paragraph in each successive chapter in the book. Again, it allows you to browse through the whole and catch the high points.
You might say this doesn’t work for fiction and you might be right. It actually can ruin a great novel because you didn’t really read it. I understand and agree. At the same time there are many books I really have no desire to read but I do want to know enough about it so if referenced in a conversation or a review or a proposal I have at least a passing knowledge. This may chap some of you, but I didn’t want to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett when it hit the bestseller list in 2009. So I sampled it as described. And read a couple reviews. It was enough for me to know its quality, style, storytelling, etc. Now, if it had been set on Mars or on a Space Station in a galaxy far away and there were aliens, I might have read the whole thing… !!!
With over 300,000 new books being published annually we are all deluged by endless choices. Each year there are at least 200 great new books of fiction or non-fiction that are declared must-reads by someone I know or trust. Believe it or not I actually do read hundreds of books each year. But since I’m in the business of reading I have to find a way to “read” more.