Charles Petzold

How to Read a Book

June 24, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Back in my Junior High days we were shown a short 60s-era film called something like How to Read a Book. I don't remember too much about it except at one point Little Johnny is reading a book in a library and comes across a word he doesn't know. Rather than walk over to the dictionary stand, he keeps reading. But then the word pops up again and again, and he soon realizes that knowing the precise meaning of that word is crucial to his understanding of the text. When Little Johnny finally consults the dictionary, he finds out his original guess was wrong and he now has to re-read several pages of the book.

What I recall most from that film is not the lesson that you should look up every word you don't know, but that you need to make a judgment call on a word-by-word basis. Sometimes you can guess and often you'll be right. But sometimes you need to look it up. This conflict creates a tension between the dual dangers of interrupting your reading and not understanding your reading, and there is no single rule that applies in all cases.

It's been about four decades since I saw that little movie, and in those years technology has made many activities easier than ever. But reading books is not one of them. Reading books has actually become much harder. What's worse, people are now trying to "enhance" the reading experience in ways that will actually make reading books even more difficult!

Reading a book requires a tranquil mind, yet it is not a passive activity. Reading requires a certain amount of determination and concentration to stick with the text and not let your mind wander. Minds tend to wander on their own, but what makes reading more difficult is the presence of distractions, and one of the byproducts of our technologies is a massive increase in distractions.

(The types of book I am talking about here include works of fiction and non-fiction such as history, biography, philosophy, sociology, etc. Certain books — books on juggling, playing the oboe, or programming, for example — require some kind of active participation that accompanies the reading. This blog entry is not about those books. Nor is it about reference books. The books I'm referring to here are the type that have traditionally been read sequentially in stretches of an hour or multiple hours without frequent interruptions.)

Here's some advice for successfully reading a book: You need to stay focused, so try to avoid distractions. Avoid multitasking. Avoid task switching. Turn off the TV. Shift positions occasionally so you don't get cramps or backaches. Don't get too comfortable or you might fall asleep. (Interestingly, many of these same rules apply to having sex, except that you can read a book with a cat in your lap.)

While reading, it helps to keep a small dictionary nearby if you think you'll need it. But stay away from the computer, even if your intent is just "to look up a little something in Google." Because as soon as your attention turns from the book to the computer, you're no longer reading. Now you're browsing, and it's an entirely different activity. From Google you go to Wikipedia, and then some link in the Wikipedia article, and since you're at the computer anyway you might as well check your email, and your RSS aggregator, and eventually, perhaps, you go to Amazon, where you leave a review complaining that the book you bought is boring and "just didn't hold my attention."

It is best to read a book not at the same desk as your computer, but in a different room entirely, and in a chair or couch without a Wi-Fi'ed notebook tucked underneath. If you find yourself consulting the computer too much anyway, turn it off. I mean it: When reading most books, there is absolutely no reason to "check an article in Wikipedia" every page or two.

If while reading the book you come across things you want to look up later — for example, a bibliographic reference for an old book that you might want to check on — keep a pad and pen nearby, or use those wonderful Post-it flags that 3M sells. At the very least, you should try to give the author of the book a little bit of respect: Writing books is much harder than reading them. If it's a good book you're trying to read, the author has spent a lot of time arranging the material in the book into a coherent progression and logic. Don't interrupt the flow.

As for actually reading a book on the computer screen, I'd recommend against it, particularly if what you really want to do is read the book. Print the book out and take the pages into the next room to read. Or you might want to consider buying one of those pre-printed copies that book publishers make available at a nominal cost.

I continue to be astounded that some people — intelligent people, well-meaning people, even people in the book-publishing industry — are actually proposing that we merge books and computers in various ways. Obviously dealing with an electronic text gives you some advantages over a printed text: You can perform searches, for example, or add "tags," or get access to various levels of information. But does it enhance actually reading the book in any way? Not that I can see: Any real "value" that is added to a book (such as hyperlinks) actually takes you away from reading the book to doing something else! Enhancing a book doesn't add value. It merely adds easier and more immediate distractions.

This week's buzz in the publishing industry involves a demo at O'Reilly's TOC Conference of a printed book that lets you obtain more information about certain words or concepts without leaving the book or the page. It looks pretty cool — rather like electronic footnotes — and as far as it goes, it's fine. Such a book would have helped Little Johnny in that movie I saw 40 years ago.

But that's not as far as this device will go. The more information that's added, the more the text is padded with extraneous fat. And then someone will get the brilliant idea to add Wi-Fi to the thing, and now the book has become a browser and the actual text of the book has become secondary to the entire experience. From the book you'll even be able to link to an online game based on the book that the publisher has posted on their web site. Why read when you can play?

Book publishers are obviously perceiving a real problem: People are buying and reading fewer books. The publishers suspect this problem results from not keeping up with current technology. They believe that integrating books and computers in various ways will help solve that problem.

But the real problem is that people can no longer find sufficient undistracted time to read a book. The contemporary barrage of distractions is too seductive, with the result that many people are out of practice reading books. They've simply lost the skill. Everybody still reads, of course, but only in online chunks of 250-500 words. It's a lot of reading, but it's nothing like reading a book.

I don't know what the real solution is. (I don't know how to stop war or eliminate poverty either.) But merging books and computers in various ways is not a solution. It only makes the problem worse.

Books themselves don't need enhancing. Anybody ever hear that sometimes less is more?