Read Less But Read It Twice
We don’t read correctly. We don’t read selectively nor do we read carefully enough. We need to read differently: here is my case for a radical book regime.
A multi-trip train ticket in Switzerland has six spaces. Before each journey you insert your card into an orange-coloured machine which stamps it with the date and time and removes a tiny corner from the margin on the left-hand side. Once all six spaces have been stamped, the ticket is used up and worthless.
Now imagine a reading ticket for books with fifty spaces. Same system: Before you read a book, you must stamp a space. But unlike the multi-trip train ticket this reading ticket for books is the only one you’ll ever have. It will be impossible for you to get another one. Once the ticket is used up, you won’t be able to open any other books – and while you may beat the transport system by evading the fare, there is no cheating with the reading ticket. Fifty books only for an entire lifetime – a non-issue for many but for you as a reader of this newspaper an appalling prospect. How is one supposed to get through life even half-civilised with so few books?
My private library consists of 3,000 books – roughly one third read, one third part-read and one third unread. New ones are regularly added, and every year I sort them out and get rid of some. 3,000 books are a modest library compared to that, say, of the late Umberto Eco which is said to have contained 30,000 books. And yet often, I can only vaguely remember what was in my books. When I gaze along their spines, inklings arise like wispy clouds, mixed with vague feelings, a lonely scene lights up here and there, and sometimes a sentence drifts by like a rowing boat lost in a silent mist.
I could rarely summarise a book concisely. There are a few books of which I can’t say with certainty whether I ever read them. These books I’d have to open, look for crumpled pages or notes in the margins. At such moments I do not know which is more embarrassing: my poor memory or the apparent modest impact of many a title. I am comforted by the fact that many friends have shared the same experience. And not only with books but also with essays, reports, studies, texts of all kinds which were once read with pleasure. Little is remembered, woefully little.
What is the point of reading if the content in large part seeps away? Of course, the momentary pleasure of reading also counts, without question. But so does the momentary pleasure of eating a crème brûlée which, however, one does not expect to shape the character of its consumer. Why is it that so little of our reading stays with us?
Because we don’t read correctly. We don’t read selectively and we don’t read carefully enough. We allow our attention to stray like an untrained dog whom we permit to wander freely instead of training it to discover rich and rare prey. We waste our most precious resource on things that don’t deserve it.
Today I read differently from how I did only a few years ago. I read as much as before, to be sure, but fewer and better books, and each twice. I have become extremely selective. A book gets no more than ten minutes of my time before a verdict is reached – to read or not to read. The image of the multi-trip ticket supports me in my radicalness. Is the book which I’m holding in my hands a book worth sacrificing a space for on my ticket? Very few are. And those that are I read and immediately reread. On principle.
Reading a book twice? Why not. In music we are used to listening to the same track several times. And those who play an instrument know that one does not master a score after sight reading it once but only after many repetitions with total concentration – before hurrying on to the next piece. Why not with books likewise?
The effect of a second reading is not twice that of a single reading. It is much greater – based on my own experience I would estimate it to be ten times greater. If after a first reading I remember 3%, after a second reading I remember 30%.
Time and again I am surprised at how much one absorbs when one reads slowly and with concentration, how much one discovers that is new the second time round and how much one’s understanding deepens as a result of such careful reading. When Dostoyevsky contemplated Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” in Basel in 1867, he was so spellbound by the painting that his wife had to pull him away after half an hour. Two years later he could describe this painting in almost photographic detail in his novel The Idiot. Would a snapshot with an iPhone have had the same effect? Probably not, for the great novelist needed to immerse himself in the painting before he could use it constructively. The key word here is immersion. Immersion – the opposite of surfing.
Let me end with four points of clarification. First, effectiveness – this sounds technical. Is it alright so to judge books? Yes, this kind of reading is orientated towards usefulness and is unromantic. Let’s save romanticism for other activities. I consider it time wasted if a book leaves no traces in the brain, either because it is a poor book or because one has read it poorly. Qualitatively, a book is different from a crème brûlée, a scenic flight around the Alps or sex.
Second, thrillers are excepted from the reading ticket as usually one cannot read them a second time. Who wants to meet the known murderer?
Third, you must decide for yourself how many spaces your personal reading ticket will have. I have limited myself to 100 spaces for the next 10 years. That’s an average of 10 books per year – which is criminally few for a writer. But, as I said, I read these excellent books twice, sometimes even three times, with great pleasure and ten times the effect.
Fourth, if you are still young, let’s say in the first third of your active reading life, you should indiscriminately devour as many books as possible – novels, short stories, poetry, nonfiction of all sorts without any regard for quality. Satiate yourself with reading. Why? The answer has to do with a mathematical optimisation called the “secretary problem.” This, according to the classical definition, is about how to find the best secretary among many candidates. The solution lies in gaining a sense of the basic distribution by interviewing the first 37% of applicants and rejecting them. You can check Wikipedia for the details. By reading widely or – in statistical terms – through such wide sampling during the first third of your reading life you gain a representative image of the basic literary distribution. You sharpen your judgment – which later will allow you to become radically selective.
Therefore only get your reading ticket about age forty. And thereafter keep to it strictly. Anyway, after forty life is too short for reading poor books.
This essay first appeared in 2016 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) in Switzerland.
Copyright Rolf Dobelli, 2017