We might be at Peak TV now, but we’ve been at Peak Books for at least a century, and if you enjoy reading, it’s physically impossible to read every book you want to, much less waste time with ones you don’t. What do you do if your book club picks a dud, or your dad insists you read 300 pages that confirm his political views, or you have to give a Nobel lecture? You pretend you’ve read the book.
Photo by Kaleb Fulgham
I consulted the experts on skimming books: Publishing industry professionals. While these people do read far more books than average, they have to get a passing understanding of many more. And in most situations, that’s all you’re being asked to do. So don’t feel bad.
Learn the story
SparkNotes, CliffsNotes and Shmoop have you covered on the classics, and you’d be surprised to learn what counts as a classic: Twilight, The Notebook and The Da Vinci Code are all summarised and analysed for free.
Even if these sites have nothing, googling “SparkNotes” plus your title might turn up a competitor. You might have to throw money at the problem; BookRags charges a hefty $US20 ($26)/month, and eNotes charges $US50 ($66)/year.
Wikipedia is terrible for book summaries. Start with the publisher description on Amazon, which will describe the first act or two. Then read the reviews on Goodreads. Do a Ctrl-F for “…more” to flip through the longer ones. You’re not likely to find a detailed plot outline, but you can cobble together some sense of the direction.
Lastly, read the beginning and end of the book. According to one publishing director, “Book editors often need to read just the first 20 pages of a book and the last page to evaluate the whole book.” You might feel a pang of regret or anxiety; that’s just your brain’s hunger for narrative. Don’t mistake it for a moral qualm.
Steal an opinion
The most important knowledge to fake isn’t the plot or the characters, it’s opinions. Whoever’s pressuring you to read a book, you know what they want you to think of it. You just need to find someone with that opinion — or, if you want to discourage this behaviour, the opposite opinion — and steal it.
You’ll find your opinion in the Goodreads reviews, which are automatically sorted by “most interesting”. These top reviews, no matter the starred rating, often include positives and negatives.
For example, check out the page for the widely beloved bad sci-fi novel Dune. Even five-star reviews acknowledge flaws such as the tired “Chosen One” narrative or the single gay character being a soulless villain, and even two-star reviews acknowledge Herbert’s imaginative concepts and the book’s influence on the genre. You can put your own opinion anywhere along this spectrum.
For a refined, “official” opinion, especially on new books, try a trade review. Gabe Habash, fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, advises:
Trade reviews like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus are short, cover the main trajectory of the plot, include character names and the setting, and even give an opinion, which you can choose to agree with or disagree with! And they have the added benefit of coming out usually before the book itself has even been published, so you can be ahead of the curve.
You’ll inevitably find yourself agreeing with opinions you’re not qualified to evaluate, because you’re on the internet, and that’s what it is for. In fact, the more conflicted your opinion, the more realistic it will seem.
If that’s still too much work, Maris Kreizman, editorial director of Book of the Month, has a great strategy for playing this game on hard mode:
Find a one-star review on Goodreads and learn it and then stick to it no matter what.
“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. 1984 is the most boring book i have ever read!!”
Read the book a little
Reading a few pages of the book is crucial for understanding the tone. Tone, like the flavour of an unknown dish, can’t be accurately conveyed by summary.
I got advice from an editor at Penguin Random House, who reviews hundreds of books each year for possible publication:
If I am reading a book, whether it’s on submission or for my book club, I am looking for the voice or language, plot or atmosphere to draw me in.
And from there when I am a third or halfway through and realise that I am not as hooked by the language or plot (sometimes a voice wears on me after a while), or emotionally invested in the characters’ arcs, then my interest starts to drop off.
I will admit to skimming an entire thriller or psychological suspense novel just to find out the ending, or sometimes I’ll flip ahead to the last third or second half to see what happens.
Obviously there are contexts in which you really have to read your assigned books; if you skate through your university assignments like I did, you’ll regret it. But if someone demands you read a book simply for their personal pleasure, they’re bullying you, and by even pretending to read it you are already a Christ-like humanitarian. There is no single book you have to read cover-to-cover in order to be a good person, and there are plenty that will make you a worse one. Save your time for the books you do want to read. Or at least for some good TV.
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