09 July, 2007

In praise of skipping

I came across these compact editions recently in Waterstones and I find them incredibly depressing, as does John Mullan in the Guardian.

There's a lot of tutting around about dumbing down: Jenny Diski's post on her blog seems pretty typical of this - but I can sympathise to a certain extent with people who might be drawn to shortened editions of the classics. What I think is a real shame, though - I meant to write to the Guardian Review in response to Mullan's article but didn't get around to it - is that children are not taught at school that it's ok to skip parts of books.

There are plenty of books, from trashy junk to heavy classics, that I haven't read every word of - I'd actually be surprised if any prolific readers have read every word of every book - but it's possible to enjoy a book and get an enormous amount out of it while still skipping the parts that don't grab you. And I suspect that it's literature teaching which focuses with squinty-eyed concentration on covering the entire text which makes people feel that skipping is cheating. But a book is a permanent, solid thing: it will always be there for you. I loved Les Misérables, and bits of it stay with me incredibly vividly, but the lengthy recreations of the Battle of Waterloo didn't hold my attention. If I ever feel I want to read them in more detail, the book is there, on my shelf. If it's not on my shelf, it's in the library.

I wrote earlier in the year about Daniel Pennac and his rights of the reader - he writes very well on the way that the joy of reading is removed from literature lessons. I recommend his book to anyone who's thinking about reading and the joy of reading - he writes so clearly and with such humour.

What the 'compact editions' do is prevent the reader from choosing for him or herself which bits to read and which bits to skip, and it's this that I find depressing. Rather than reading a book which is specifically designated and marketed as 'easier' that the real thing, it's a shame that people aren't given the confidence in the first place to read what they truly want to read, while still feeling able to expand their horizons. I like very much Doris Lessing's advice to readers in the introduction to The golden notebook:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping them when they drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought... Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty - and vice versa. Don't read a book out of its right time for you.

I don't always read like this, but it's splendid advice in principle, I think.


Phil said...

I always read every word of every book (if I finish it) I can't skip - if I do then that means I've given up on a book and I might as well move onto something I'll enjoy better.

woodscolt said...

Don't you ever find that you enjoy some parts of a book enough to want to keep reading, but not others?

Phil said...

Yes, but I carry on. I can't make a complete judgement on a book if I've only had the patience to read the good bits.