How to get the best out of books | Sunday Observer

How to get the best out of books

One day, I noticed my 18-year-old granddaughter having trouble when she started reading Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” She put the book aside and asked me whether I had read it. I told her that I had the same initial difficulty when I started reading it.

“What am I to do, grandpa?” she asked.

“You just skip the first chapter and come back to it later,” I said.

The trick worked. I watched her turning the pages happily. She never gave up reading difficult novels thereafter.

Most of us experience such difficulties, especially, when we try to read classics. For instance, the celebrated American author, William Faulkner’s novel, “The Sound and the Fury” starts with a description of a game of golf from the point of an idiot boy. Unless you know how to face such problems, you might give up reading it.

The cover

Most of us have the habit of looking at the cover and buying books. No doubt, a book needs an attractive cover. However, the contents of a book are more important than the cover. Seasoned readers know how to select a book. First they look at the cover and then glance through the preface. Thereafter, they scan the table of contents and quickly run through the index and the bibliography, if there is one. The process of selecting a book is not yet over. The next step is to read up a few key references in the text and also find the author’s background.

Such a process of evaluating a book takes about 15 minutes. You can afford to do so in a large bookshop, but not at a crowded international or local book exhibition. Sometimes, I return empty handed after visiting the Colombo International Book Exhibition held annually, simply because it does not provide me the space and time for selecting a book. Skimming a book is like prospecting for oil. After you learn the signs, you get fewer dry holes.

Prestigious bookshops have facilities for readers to select books leisurely without knocking against other customers. In Sri Lanka, most of the bookshops are full of books and customers. Nobody can select a book spending 15 minutes uninterrupted by other customers.

However, some bookshops offer this facility where customers can sit comfortably and scan books before purchasing them.

Good method

In the past, we used to read a book from chapter one to the end. This is a good method to understand a great author and his views on a particular subject. However, William Perry, Director of the Bureau of Study Council at Harvard University said, “This consumes a prodigious amount of time and energy and not all books are worth it.” According to him, a busy reader should ask of a book, “What is this author driving at?”

Those in the scientific community rarely start with chapter one of a book. First they read the author’s conclusions and then turn back to check the basic findings. However, this method will not work with fiction. If you read the last chapter of a novel, you may not want to read the full story from the beginning. This is because you will not find the suspense which is a basic ingredient in fiction.

Sometimes, we just cannot start reading a book for some unknown reason. Once my English Professor advised me not to take a book by storm! He explained that when you try to read and nothing happens, put the book away for some time and then come back to it with renewed enthusiasm.

Difficult passages

When you start learning a new subject such as, Psychology or Philosophy, you invariably come across difficult words, phrases and whole passages. The only solution is to read as many books as possible to understand the subject. This would work because one book illuminates another. If you keep on reading the same book several times, you will get nowhere. The simple rule is that if you find it difficult to understand a subject by reading one book, read another book on the same subject.

Pulp novels are easier to read than books on serious subjects. The trick is that you do not have to make an effort to understand popular fiction which is a product of a simple plot, plain language and a happy or sad ending. The cardinal rule is that if a book is not difficult, it is not worth reading. Once you acquire the habit of reading you will be surprised to note your capacity to read and enjoy books on serious subjects.

Seasoned readers have the habit of annotating the books they read. If you are going to read a difficult book, be ready with a pencil to dig into the meaning of words and phrases. Use the pencil to underline key passages and write your comments on the margin. If you are preparing for an examination, the short notes you make on the margin are going to help at the revision stage.

Making summaries

Intelligent students summarize difficult books, chapter by chapter. This is a very good method to understand a subject. Contrary to popular belief, speed reading is not going to help with serious subjects. Most of the fiction can be read quickly, but other books have to be read slowly and even laboriously. It is a rule of the thumb that you should read different books differently.

Reading enhances other pleasures of life. Former US President John F. Kennedy used to read a magazine in between meeting so many visitors. He used to say, “I get most of the ideas from reading.” Kennedy is closer to the truth. How else can we learn something new without reading?

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