How to read library books

There are 14 library books on my table staring back at me as I write this. Six borrowed on my card (maxed). Six borrowed on my dad’s card, which I have permanently borrowed (also maxed). And two on the wife’s card (not maxed, but soon to be).

As the wife tidies my desk (again), she looks at me despondently, resigned to the fact that I’m never going to change this habit of borrowing books I “never read” (according to her).

“But I do,” I say, for what must be the millionth time.

I may not finish the books, but I certainly do read them. If not the whole book, then half. If not half, then perhaps a chapter. If not a chapter, at least a page.

This was a habit I learned in secondary school. I vaguely remember it to be our vice-principal who taught us this, a man very into Edward de Bono–Mr Lateral Thinking–and Tony Buzan–Mr Mind Mapping–type of learning techniques (and who tried, unsuccessfully, to turn us goose feathers into foie gras).

“Go to the library,” he said, “and borrow books. Don’t worry about finishing books. Select chapters that interest you and read them. Read what you need; skip the rest. The great thing about library books is that they’re free. When you’re done with one, just go on to the next one.”

For some reason this lesson stuck with me. Trips to the library are no longer about finding that one book that will change my life. It’s about finding the books that will contain some content that will, in sum, add up to change my life.

It is not uncommon for me to borrow ten books at a go, thinking maybe one or two have potential to be really great reads, while the rest fulfil their duties as fillers for thinking periods on the toilet bowl. And it is not uncommon to have these “fillers” turn out to be significantly better reads than their “high potential” counterparts.

But this would never have happened if I hadn’t ditched the mindset that books are meant to be finished–that books are to be read from cover to cover.

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