Monday, December 06, 2010

Do you skim?

In her review of the new super-indie film Tiny Furniture, Manohla Dargis wrote of the writer-director-star Lena Dunham that she's "not afraid of boring you," a phrase I am convinced is going to come in very handy when I have to say something at least nominally nice. I've already used it while watching In Treatment.

Dargis meant it as a straightforward compliment, though, and I can see what she means. There are moments in film (or tv, theater, opera) where we accept being bored as either part of the work's artistic strategy (my example of this is always Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, which uses our boredom to set us up for the explosive ending) or as a time-out for daydreaming until things get interesting again. That's a lot harder to do with a book, though, because a book can't read itself, tapping you on the shoulder when it goes back to being good. Thus the power and pleasure of skimming. While I'd never skim something I was reviewing (cross my heart), I do it all the time in private life. And if it doesn't cause me to give up a book entirely, it frequently enough sends me back to read what I skipped once I've found out that it's going to be worth it. People do get huffy about skimming though, insisting you haven't "really read" a book if you've skipped the snoozy parts or ducked out before the end. But there's reading and reading: I don't know about you, but once I'm bored, I've stopped "really reading" anyway, as my awareness of my discomfort has pushed me from the world of the book.

Hazel Rochman tells everybody to skip the first chapter of Wuthering Heights. I believe I shall, should I ever try to read it again.

7 comments:

marfita said...

Heh! If I'm not sure I'm going to like something, I'll start 1/3 of the way in (gets rid of all the tiresome exposition). If it really grips me, I'll go back and start from the beginning. I have to admit to trying this with Hesse's Out of the Dust, thinking ever-so-wrongly that a novel in verse would be ghastly. It captured me very quickly and I avidly whipped back to the start to see how we got to that point.

Jeannine Atkins said...

This is slightly off topic (which I point out lest you think I skimmed your blog), but when I talk to students about doing research, I advocate skimming. Really, how else are you going to find the one image you want in a 500 page biography? Most students "learn to read" in English classes, and the lucky ones are reading works in which every word counts. But life is bigger than, say, "Mending Walls" or "Charlotte's Web." And time is short. Skimming is an excellent skill.

Anonymous said...

I fast forward through quidditch matches.

mb said...

Skimming is why I read Moby Dick at age 12 and thought it was a terrific book.

Roger Sutton said...

Skimming does take confidence--you have to not be afraid of the book you are reading (or reading in general). I also skip quidditch matches and any kind of sports (or sex) play-by-play generally, although I am loving what Lionel Shriver does with tennis AND sex in Double Fault,. When I'm reading for fun, I figure it's the book's job to make me want to read every word.

Ashley Hope PĂ©rez said...

Please, please, please teach me to skim. I succeed at it occasionally, when compelled by extreme boredom or time constraints.

But in most cases, I'm a compulsive reader, and I read from beginning to end, whether it's Proust, YA fiction, a scholarly article, a shampoo bottle, or all the warnings in all the languages on a changing table in a public restroom.

This must be pathological.

www.ashleyperez.com/blog

gail said...

I refer to certain books as "skimmers." They're books I feel I need to be familiar with for some reason but really can't bring myself to read word for word because the writing is plodding or too improving for my taste or I have some other objection.

Sorry to be coming in so late.