When it comes to a novel, I feel compelled to read the whole book, unless I decide early on that it just is not for me. I think it’s just natural to finish and understand the message that the author is trying to get across.
But non-fiction, is a lot different. I think it often works to read a non-fiction book cover to cover, but it isn’t always necessary. I’m not suggesting that each book we pick up we ought to judge from page one and bail at any moment, but I am saying that there are books that have sections, chapters, or even paragraphs that quite helpful, but the rest of the book may not be helpful or in some cases not why we we picked up the book in the first place.
I mentioned in other posts that I had worked in professional publishing and readers in that genre often have very specific needs that they focus on. The books we published were often about new complicated areas of professional practice. The author might have been the number one expert in the area and the number of people practicing in the area might be only a few thousand. An interested practitioner might only want to understand the rudiments of the area or they might be fairly expert at most everything and only want to see what the author says about one concept. We liked to promote a beginning chapter that provided an overview of the book’s content so almost all readers could read that single chapter and get something out of it. It would give readers an executive summary of the material. A partner at a firm might get a nice overview of the new practice area that would serve his duties and the details in later chapters might serve those who want to focus their efforts on the new practice. Two people at the same firm might have very different needs.
If you have ever written a thesis, you probably found yourself reading many portions of books with a purpose. You jump into a book and look for guidance on certain subjects and walk away with references, quotes, etc. that help you layout you thesis arguments.
A few years ago I spent an hour or so each week at a community college library. I headed right for their new books on current thoughts and affairs. I sat there with notebook in hand and read portions of one book in each session getting the basics on the writers presentation. What was this New York Times columnist basic message on changes to a particular country? How did this technology guru see the future in a particular international business market? How did this faith leader see the direction his church was heading towards in our modern society? It was a lot of fun and it was all done without much risk. But if I had decided to read each book cover to cover, I don’t think I would have gotten as much value out of the exercise. The basic point was that I did not have to be sold on the book to open the cover up. I made up my mind to spend an hour on each book so I picked up books that I otherwise would never have touched.
For many years, I was a captive audience commuting in my car for three or more hours a day. I got hooked on books on tape from my library and some that I bought. The library supply in those days was fairly limited. New titles would come in dribs and drabs–so you couldn’t be too fussy and about matching your own taste in books. Often, I ended up grabbing something a bit more involved or complicated than I would normally chose because for that week there wasn’t much else. This was another wonderful experience. I found myself listening to some classic literature that I should have read back in my school days. Sometimes I listened to an author who was more popular with women and got hooked on a whole series of books. Sometimes I listened to something that I thought was going to be mind-numbing technical and learned differently.
I’m sure most everyone who reads a lot has had similar circumstances. I think the idea is that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” sometimes has more to do with ourselves than the books. We are complicated human beings and we can find value in our reading experiences even when unplanned. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short or the experience we might find in a book.
As a publisher at Sporting Chance Press, we may want to give every reader something exceptional on every page. But sometimes that can lead to diminishing returns. You can cut the heart and soul out of a book. Some of the author’s background might sound a little provincial or amateurish. But other times you might want to leave it in and let the reader decide.