Monday, January 31, 2011

Skimming: A Crime Against Literature?

by Julia Buckley
I'm in the middle of THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, the third of the Stieg Larsson trilogy. I realize that I am probably the last person in the mystery community to read these books, but as everyone promised, they are great reading. Yes, really compelling reading--except for every once in a while, when Larsson the narrator shines through and gives a sort of political rant. At that point, my eyes glaze over and I start looking for a lifeline that will lead me back to the plot I was enjoying oh, so much.

Yes, even I, a self-proclaimed purist of reading, am occasionally a skimmer. I have skimmed the likes of greats like Ian McEwan and J.K. Rowling as well as lesser-known writers who wander away from their own plots and leave me scrambling to get back to them.

Yet as I admit this to you it feels confessional. Is skimming a sin? And if I do it, am I missing out on something vastly important that the author wanted me to read?

I don't skim with every book. There are some works which are paced in such a way that I would never consider skipping ahead--in fact I linger on each sentence, savouring its construction and style. Other books absorb me to such an extent that skimming is not an option; I need each precious detail.

So what does skimming suggest? Am I, as a reader, just too impatient for some resolution? Or is it a sign that a writer may have spent too much time on something that he or she cares about more than does his or her reader?

Don't get me wrong. I think Stieg Larsson was a genius of plot and pacing. Except when he wasn't. :) In each book there was at least one portion that had me setting the book down, not that interested in picking it up again. And that was after a fair amount of skimming. But I would persist, and get to a large chunk that was so exciting I could barely contain myself. Once, while reading on the El, I actually wanted to turn to a stranger and start talking about the novel--a sure way to be branded insane. But Larsson's books have that magical effect. They are uplifting. And yet I skimmed in every one.

I guess I'm writing this in hopes that someone out there will forgive me my skimmery. Or perhaps they'll even admit to skimming themselves.

As an author I'd like to think that my readers savor every line. But as a reader I know that skimming is a reality of individual taste.

What's your take on skimming? Did you skim this post? If so, where did I lose you? :)

(art link here)

20 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm not sure where to draw the line between skimming and reading.

When I was in eighth grade, in another millenium, I took a speed-reading course, not because I read slowly but because I read quickly, and I was curious about the process. If I recall, the recommendation was to train yourself to read down the center of the page, and somehow your mind would pick up what happened at the edges.

From the way you describe it, it sounds as though your mind or eye picks up the keywords that tell you when the political digression is over and the plot picks up again, so on some level you're absorbing the story. Admittedly, reading for language and phrasing is a different process.

You are not alone: I have read only the first Larsson book. I'll get to the others eventually.

Sandra Parshall said...

I skim through parts of many books. My attention span and free time for reading have both diminished radically in recent years. If a particular subplot bores me, I may skip it altogether and pick up the book in a later chapter.

Bill Crider said...

Trust me: You aren't the last to read these books. I haven't.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Interesting. Although I don't remember having a problem with either of the first two of Larsson's trilogy, I definitely found myself skimming in the third. I'm not a skimmer in general so maybe there was something about that third book.

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila, how interesting! Did you feel you could take in more after the course?

Sandra, I'm glad you said that. I often feel guilty, but I notice it doesn't stop me from skipping things. :)

Bill, good to know. :)

Linda, I think that because a certain character is sort of out of commission for long parts of the third book, it loses some of its momentum. (No, that's not a spoiler).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I think skimming is the responsibility of the author rather than the reader. It's why Elmore Leonard (or whoever said it, there are various attributions) talks about the secret of good writing being to leave out the boring parts. I skim turgid prose, overly detailed descriptions, technodetails, eg of weaponry, and yes, explicit sex scenes. To be fair, I may also skim because the puzzle or suspense is so engrossing that I'm impatient to get to the end. But even when the plot is that exciting, in the best writing, each image and sentence is so delicious that I don't want to miss a thing.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ah, but Leonard forgets one thing: What I find boring, you might find engrossing.

Julia Buckley said...

I see both points, Liz and Sandra. I guess it can be a chicken or egg proposition, but in general I don't think it's a sign of quality--I realized today as I read this that I've skimmed my very favorite authors!

joe said...

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