If you glance at the bookshelf page of the website, you’ll notice that the rate at which I’ve been finishing books lately has shot up, peaking at two books in one day on 3rd August. A bit ridiculous, actually, and as a result I’m a little sleep-deprived.
There’s a few reasons for this. One of which is that reading is a handy escape from stress that I’ve been indulging in lately since I’ve got more stress to hide from than usual. That will pass. In any case, it’s not the principal reason.
There’s no way I could have raced through, for example, The Bone Clocks. It’s too dense, there are too many important characters that I actually want to know about, and when you read a book like that too fast, you miss out on things that are important not only to the story but to the flavour of what you’re reading. Reading it fast is like eating pasta with no sauce. You have to have the sauce!
But recently, I’ve been reading a different kind of book.
This is not to criticise, there’s a place for all these stories, but some stories go further, are more inventive, create more interesting or complex consequences and relationships, and overall just make you think more than others. I have a loose grasp of why that is, why one story or one author tends to make me slow down and read more carefully whereas others make me want to turn the pages faster and faster to see what happens. To describe I have to carefully manoeuvre around the word “better” because it’s easy to say and unfortunately too broad and too inaccurate to describe the difference between these books.
I recently read the first two novels in both the Vatta’s War and Lost Fleet series. Both of these are fun reads, and I powered through them with almost no pause from the first to the last page other than those hours that are not entirely mine to dispose of as I please (work, minimum sleep requirements, the occasional raid on the fridge). They’re not the literary equivalent of fast food, but they’re not the equivalent of a gourmet meal either. I found the stories fun, the writing decent, the narrative strong in places, weak or perhaps a little simplistic in others (particularly characterisation), I valued them for their entertainment value and will undoubtedly read the rest of both series though they’re expensive compared to other works given how many books I will have to buy.
I also read The Bone Clocks, Seveneves and Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. These took more time, were more dense with innovative ideas, depicted a number of main characters of equal complexity and depth, and were captivating and immersive in ways that didn’t make me want to turn the page faster, but occasionally made me want to read slower to ensure that I understood what was going on. Perhaps one aspect of this is that they challenged me to keep up with the research that had gone into writing them in the first place.
I think it’s probably fair to say that some combination of more effort, more skill and/or more time went into those books than the more linear storylines and limited casts of the pulpier novels that I enjoy.
It’s important not to overdose on these things.
Three or four chapters from the end of Old Man’s War, which I just finished (review pending, I have catching up to do, anyway it’s been out for years), I found myself reading so fast that I was skipping bits of description or dialogue. I’d force myself to go back to see if I’d missed anything critical, and I hadn’t. Often I’d subconsciously skipped a paragraph because it was telling me something about a character that I already knew (Vatta’s War and The Lost Fleet are particularly guilty of this). When I got to the end of it, I was both happy I knew how it finished, and strangely indifferent to starting another book straight away. So I stopped.
I’m going to take a few days off reading – to force myself to do other things, but also to let my literary tastebuds recover from too consistent a diet of military science fiction and linear adventure plots so I can enjoy the next book properly.
To me, this has been a bit of an object lesson in ensuring there’s variety in my reading diet.