From the Mailbag: How Do I Read So Much?

I got a very pleasant comment/question/quemment a couple of days ago from a relatively new reader, Vitor. I’ll cut out the stuff that flatters me (not that I didn’t appreciate it), and stick with the heart of his email:

I’m not here just to talk about how much your writing has been pushing me to read more, but I want to know how can it be possible to read as much as you do, even with our daily routine…

Thanks for the quemment, Vitor — I’m going to try to reply more via email, but for now, I’ll write a bit here because I need content for today.

First off — don’t worry about numbers. Seriously. Yeah, I track them for this and that, but unless I get wrapped up in the ego-game (which happens a lot more than I like), it’s not a focus. Worry about the what you’re reading — is it what you want to be reading and is it giving you what you want?

Secondly, I’ve been a fast reader since I was a kid. That helps my numbers considerably. I’m not a speed reader, I tried some of that years ago, and go so wrapped up in the techniques that I never retained anything I “read.” Also most of the people who really get into that don’t seem to have a lot of fun reading, and what’s the point? (I’m not saying speed readers who get a lot of joy out of it don’t exist, just that I’ve never met one).

Can I interrupt here to recommend Alan Jacobs’ excellent book: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I blogged about here. I think if you get into Jacobs’ mindset (or a close equivalent), it’ll help a lot.

But to sort of actually answer your question, let me start with Nero Wolfe — one of the greatest characters created in the last century — reads a great deal, too. I tried to find the quotation describing his reading habits and couldn’t (which will bother me for a week or two), but essentially, he’s not a quick reader, but he reads steadily. That’s the key. As you read more, you’ll get better at it, and eventually, quicker.

Essentially, here’s how my typical weekday breaks down as far as reading: I get to work 30 minutes (or so) early, spend 20 minutes reading; I get two breaks plus lunch — that’s roughly another hour; and then I get another 30-60 minutes in after I get home (I try not to turn the laptop or social media on until I get some good reading done, and usually succeed.). Then if I have to take a kid somewhere, pick them up from something, etc. — there’s a few minutes to read. Basically, any time there’s a few minutes to kill, I grab my book — it’s better than Angry Birds or Facebook. This past weekend, for example, my daughter was in a school play — after we got in our seats, I had about 20 minutes of reading time, plus part of the intermission. So that’s 2-2.5 hours a day, during the week (plus some occasional bonus time). Sometimes on quiet Fridays I’ll get more done — or if I’m almost finished with a book, I’ll negotiate a few extra minutes with my wife before we start Jeopardy!.

Frequently (especially in December/January), in my Saturday Miscellany posts, I’ll post something along the lines of how to read more, here’s a couple of them that you might find helpful.

  • How to read more books in 2018
  • Ask a Literary Lady: I Need a Better New Year’s Resolution Than “Read More”

  • Anyway, the main reason I posted this response here rather than via email is so that commenters can chime in with handy tips, etc. So, please — help him. (Paul, I’m especially looking at you here).


    From the Mailbag: Reading the Wolfe Books for the First Time

    I received this email in response to my Happy Birthday, Archie! post last week.

    Soooooo, each year you post this, each year I say I’m going to start…just put a request in for Fer-de-Lance, the first of the Nero Wolfe books, right?

    Thanks for the question! This is a tricky one for me, and one that I’ve thought too long about already. I’m going to write for the person already interested in the series, and not to convince you to read them — this is practical advice only, no incitement.

    Short answer: Maybe.

    Longer answer (which I’ll still try to keep under control, because I tend to be hard to stop on this subject, and some of this is adapted from other things I’ve written. Also, because if I start fact-checking some of this, I’ll find myself spending hours, even days, on this, so I might make some minor errors)*:
    Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance is the first of 40+ books (novels or short story collections) featuring the exploits of private investigator Archie Goodwin (2 parts Huck Finn, 1 part Philip Marlowe) and his eccentric employer, Nero Wolfe (1 part Sherlock Holmes, 1 part Mycroft Holmes)–yes, I am one of those who think that Archie’s the main character in the mis-nomered Nero Wolfe Mysteries. It makes perfect sense to start with Fer-de-Lance and read chronologically. I did it myself a couple of years back for the first time (I’ve been reading these books for about 30 years now, and its odd that it took me so long), and I picked up subtle nuances, little callbacks and references that I’d missed before. There are almost no story or character arcs that go beyond a book (exceptions are noted below), and (most of) those that do, are easy enough to pick up and don’t spoil too much. Yes, there are introductions of new characters, a character death or two, but by and large you can dip in anywhere and not notice.

      Two quick semi-parenthetical notes on the reading this chronologically before I continue.

    • Yes, read the short story collections when you come across them in the chronology. Even if you’re not a short fiction reader, do it. There are some utter gems tucked away in those (and I spent too much time ignoring them).
    • The short story collection Death Times Three was published posthumously, but I’m pretty sure they were published in magazines, etc. before the last novel, A Family Affair. Read the collection after Please Pass the Guilt and before A Family Affair. A Family Affair works so, so well as a series finale that it should be treated as one whether or not Stout wrote it as one. It’s oft-debated, but I’m convinced that if Stout lived another year, we’d have had another novel. But he didn’t. So, again, A Family Affair should be the last you read — even if you don’t read chronologically.

    In reading about Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe (either by fans or professionals), there’s an oft-quoted line from Walter D. Edmonds that you simply cannot avoid seeing, “I shall never forget my excitement on reading Fer-de-Lance, sprung like Athena perfect form the Jovian brow, fresh and new and at the same time with enough plain familiar things in scene and setting to put any reader at his ease.” Aside from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ margin note (“This fellow is the best of them all.”), there’s nothing that sums up Fer-de-Lance better, sprung like Athena indeed.

    It really doesn’t matter how many times you’ve read it, but upon re-reading (and probably even initial reading if this isn’t your first encounter with Wolfe and Archie) you can’t help be struck by how much Fer-de-Lance fits the model of a mature Wolfe novel–almost all the elements are there. These characters are introduced in practically their final format — a little tweak here and there over the course of the first few novels will get them in their final form. The addition of a few other characters will be necessary, but the cast of characters is already over 90% complete. In the first chapter alone we already have Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Theodore, Fred and Saul presented in a manner fully recognizable to the familiar reader. The story follows a fairly typical route (although the identity of the murderer is revealed far earlier than is the norm), and the essential environmental elements are there — the beer, Wolfe’s eccentric schedule, the orchids, a relapse, the food, a cocky scheme to land a client, an outrageous stratagem for getting that last essential piece of evidence (not that Wolfe needs it to solve the crime, merely to prove he was correct) — the only thing missing is the gathering of the witnesses/suspects/clients for Wolfe to reveal everything in his characteristically dramatic fashion. One recurring thought I had while reading it the last time was that Fer-de-Lance could just as easily have been the fifteenth installment in the series as the first.

    If you didn’t understand half of what I wrote above because you’re new to the corpus, well, you’ll get it soon enough. There’s a formula of sorts to Wolfe/Archie novels — violated all the time, despite what we purists like to think, these variations on the theme are some of our favorite moments. You’ll pick the formula up quickly, and find it as comfortable as Wolfe’s nigh-inviolable daily schedule.

    So while there is glacial development, the order is almost negligible. I do endorse and suggest a chronological read — but it’s not essential. In fact, I typically recommend The Golden Spiders (#22) or Before Midnight (#25) to newbies before plunging into Fer-de-Lance, they’re among my favorites, and are pretty representative of the fully-developed Wolfe/Archie. A&E used The Golden Spiders as the pilot to their recent series, so I’m not alone in thinking it serves as a good introduction. If you like them in their final form, you’ll have an easier time appreciating Wolfe/Archie in their almost-final form in the early books. Think of the development of Bugs Bunny over the first few shorts as a rough analogue.

    Therefore, if your library/used bookstore isn’t sufficiently stocked to do the chronological read, you shouldn’t avoid the series and can dip in wherever you can. It’s like old episodes of Law & Order that you come across on cable. But there are a few things you should read in a certain order for full understanding/emotional impact, and a few others you should read after you’ve acclimated to the world/series a bit, you’ll enjoy/appreciate them more than in they’re in the first five:

    • The Doorbell Rang (#41)
    • Too Many Women (#12) — a lot of people think Archie comes off like a cad here, it’s never bothered me, however. Still, if you already like him, you’ll forgive him this.
    • And Be a Villain (#13), The Second Confession (#15), and In the Best Families (#17) — just seeing the numbers now, surprises me — I’d have thought these were in the 30’s. If Stout had been planning out a 40+ book series, he’d have put them later. Not only should you read them with experience in the series, these three need to be read in this order. There is an omnibus edition in many libraries with these three called Triple Zeck.
    • The Black Mountain (#24) would be best read after Over My Dead Body (#7), and after you’re acclimated to the world.

    A couple of other suggestions:

    • Some Buried Caesar (#6) — should be read early (but not first) and often.
    • A Right to Die (#40) should be read only after Too Many Cooks (#5), it’s one of the only times that a non-regular character shows up again. There’s some racially-tinged language in Too Many Cooks that Archie’d grow out of almost immediately. Remember it was originally published in 1938 and cut him a little slack — mostly, be happy that he grows out of it.
    • And again, A Family Affair should be read pretty much when there’s nothing left.

    Granted, these are all only suggestions. But ones made by a passionate fan. Still, at the end of the day, just read these books, you’ll enjoy them.

    Maybe sometime I’ll get into the official continuations by Robert Goldsborough in a post like this.

    * Okay, I lied — I pulled up the goodreads page for the series so I could get the numbers on them just to help. But that’s it.

    From the Mailbag: Whither Pratchett?

    Received this e-mail today from someone submitting a comment to the “Suggest a Book” form:

    Do have reviews on ANY Terry Pratchett book. Would love to “hear” your thoughts…

    Thanks for the question! Not just because I like getting suggestions/e-mails, but also because I had nothing else to post today, having opted for sleep and time with my family over finishing a book.*

    Pratchett’s a legend — almost universally praised and adored. I read the first two Discworld novels back in 2011, and didn’t care for ’em. Which I assume is an indictment of me, my taste, and very likely my morality, patriotism and love for my wife. So, readers, is it just these first couple of books? Should I start with a different Pratchett book? I’d like to bask in his particular brand of genius, just need a hand.

    Anyway, I wasn’t going to bother dusting these off as they’re so short, but since you asked, here are my 2-star reviews for the first two Discworld novels.

    The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic

    by Terry Pratchett
    Hardcover, 183 pg.
    St. Martin’s Press, 1983

    It was amusing enough–chuckle-inducing in more than one place–but I never connected with it, not the story, not the characters, not the world. Left me pretty durn blah.

    Probably just me, eh?

    The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)The Light Fantastic

    by Terry Pratchett
    Hardcover, 189 pg
    Colin Smythe, 1987

    I liked this one better than The Colour of Magic — it was better constructed, the characters were a touch more believable as characters, and I certainly laughed more. But, I had the same issues with this as I had with the previous.

    I just didn’t care about anything or anyone, and saw no reason why I should.

    Funny, clever stuff, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it.


    * Not that I didn’t try for all three