How I Read

Posted on February 27, 2015

Comedy Option: Page by Page

I just changed up the method by which I choose the next book that I read. Sometimes it seems like all I do is read, so I thought I’d let you know all about what and how I read.

The first thing to know is that I am never just reading one thing. I don’t really consider it multitasking, and once I get into it, you’ll see why. They’re very separate and distinct categories and styles. So just trust me.

We’ll start with my main book. If anyone asks me “What I’m reading?” this is what I respond with. Since college I’ve had two rules about my ‘main book’:

1) I have to alternate fiction and non-fiction (a rule that can be bent while traveling, for example)

2) I can only read one book by an author a year (this has been bent in recent years only once, and I’m thinking about dropping it)

And that worked for me pretty well for a long time. But there were some issues.

For the last five years I have had a giant booksbooksbooks.txt in my Dropbox folder that had two sections: “Next five books” and “To read”. The “next five books” was, you got it, the next five books I was going to read. But it was the ‘to read’ section where things really got out of hand. If I read about a book that sounded interesting, it stick it on the end of the list. And then I’d forget about it. I never once consulted the list.

So last month I decided to come up with a system to use that list. I’ve recently enrolled in a ‘Computational Linguistics’ program, and to keep myself occupied for about 15 minutes during break, I wrote a script that goes through that giant list that I wrote, and spits out a fiction and a non-fiction title. Computers finally become useful!

I also noticed that I have a lot of physical books, and they were under-represented in my reading lineup. The top of my ‘booksbooksbooks.txt’ now has six books, and here’s the order:

Fiction on my E-reader
Non-Fiction on my E-reader
Random Pick Fiction
Random Pick Non-fiction
Physical Fiction
Physical Non-Fiction

Yes that’s complicated. But I like balance in my life. It’s very important for me to read widely, and this is a system that rewards that.

If you’re curious, I’m currently reading ‘Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.‘ It’s about James Garfield and it’s really awesome. He got the Republican nomination trying to actively prevent it, but people did it anyway because he was so awesome.

I’ve always had this thing, since I was a child, where if I finished a book, I could not start a book that same day. Not as a matter of principle, but as a matter of interest. And I like to read at night before I go to sleep. So what to do when I finish a book like in the afternoon and I still want to sleep sleep? A short story is the obvious answer, but those are often of varying length, sometimes approaching novella length. I’ve found that reading an essay before I go to sleep is just what I need. They’re often short, to the point, and somehow keep my mind from running. For the past two years, I’ve had a copy of ‘One Man’s Meat‘ by E. B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) next to my bed. They are absolutely lovely essays. If anyone ever says that they ‘want to read something nice’, give them this. You get to fall asleep reading the musings of a consummate New Yorker adjusting to farm life.

I’ve also added ‘Waterlog‘ by Rodger Deakin to the pile, in which he writes about swimming in bodies of water all around Britain. Haven’t actually started it, and I hope it doesn’t make me dream about drowning.

I’m also always in the middle of a book about writing. There’s no rhyme or reason to how I read them. Some of them, I start reading and then keep going until I’m done, late into the night. Or, like I’m doing now, I read them sort of piecemeal, a chapter every day or so. Right now I’m going through ‘A Sense of Style‘ by Steven Pinker, which has been nothing but informative.

I’m not done describing ‘what’ I read, but I think it’s time to learn a little more about ‘how’ I read.

If you happen to inherit a book that I’ve read, you’ll notice that there are two types of dog-ears. Normally I use a bookmark, but if for whatever reason I don’t have one, I’ll do the same thing people have done for centuries and turn down the top corner. However you’ll also notice that the bottom corners are often turned over in my books. Those are indications that I’ve found something interesting on that page. I also put bookmarks in my Nook.

About a month after I’ve read a book, I go back to all the ‘bottom corners’ and write down the quote, interesting scenario, life lesson, or whatever, on a notecard. Then this notecard gets put in a giant box with a bunch of other notecards, roughly organized. I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now. No joke, if I was given the chance to time travel, I would go back to my young self and tell myself to get started on this earlier.

Continuing on.

There has also always been a separate book for reading in the bathroom. These books need to be the sort of things that I can read, literally, one or two pages at a time. Short stories don’t really work for this, because I like to consume them in 1-2 sittings, max. I have found that serialized web fiction is perfect for this. It’s 2 – 5 thousand words at a time, and is specifically supposed to be read in punctuated intervals. I’m about 3 chapters into ‘Worm’ right now. It is finished, as in there are no new updates, but it is probably the best in the genre.

I’m also a huge fan of Longform journalism. The problem is that it takes a long time to read, and they tend to pile up. For a while, my strategy was to just leave an article open in a tab until my browser crashed, shrug, and then do it again. But now I use the Pocket plugin, so that I can read them when I’m not sitting at the computer, specifically on a Nook Simple Touch that I hacked like a hacker. I’m fortunate that I commute on a train, so that’s what I read on the way. If you’re looking to read some longform journalism, then there’s Longform.org and Longreads.com. Those websites might be the best and the worst thing to happen to me. Buzzfeed’s longform is some of the best out there, as well.

I also really like to read short stories, and I’ve been trying to read them during lunch a lot more, instead of looking at cat pictures on the Internet. I have about a shelf full of them, and I kind of just grab them at random. I’m really all about Vladamir Nabokov right now. John Cheever is also good, for different reasons.

I know what you’re thinking, this is really complicated and why can’t you just pick a dang book and read it, Heath. It’s always very important to me to read widely, as many different things as I can. Despite everything that I’ve mentioned and changed over the last couple years, the decision to start keeping notecards of the interesting stuff that I’ve read is hands down the best thing I’ve ever done. I’d recommend you start doing it, even if it means just writing a sentence or two after every book.

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2 Responses to “How I Read”

  1. Evie on February 27th, 2015 4:20 pm

    Since you like Garfield, you might want to add (if you haven’t already read it, and you might have because I’m pretty sure your mom is the one who told me about it) Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. Great post, Heath!

  2. Heath on February 27th, 2015 4:27 pm

    I have not read it! I read Vowell’s book about Hawai’i. I’ll add it to the list!!!

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