Are you ashamed of skipping parts of books?

Robert McCrum
Guardian

A quick skim through the reasons why it’s not always a good idea to read every page

Must I read all of it? I am on holiday … Open book on the beach. Photograph: Corbis 

Over recent days, I’ve been reading Somerset Maugham’s Ten Novels and Their Authors in the Vintage edition (a Christmas gift).

Before he gets stuck into the lives and masterpieces of 10 great authors (the book began as a commission from Redbook in the early 50s), Maugham gives us an essay on “The Art of Fiction” in which he devotes quite a bit of space to “the useful art of skipping”. Skipping, says Maugham, is perfectly fine, because “a sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion”.

Whereupon a chasm seemed to open up between this reader of 2012, and the reader (or writer) of 1952, for whom the novel is to be treated as an entertainment. Modern readers might include “to be pleasing” as one of art’s aims, but they would also, I suspect, look for some moral enhancement, some thrill of style, and some cultural uplift, too. Strange as it may sound to contemporary ears, however, Maugham contends that “the aim of art is to please” – and of course, if that’s its aim, then when it fails to please, it can be ignored, or skipped. Maugham comes from an age in which the artist was paid to satisfy a largely middle-class, and essentially Anglo-American audience. Reading the book made me realise exactly how much has changed in these past 60 years.

All of this – and there’s much more in Maugham’s first chapter – led me to wonder about our attitude to skipping now. Is it a bad (for which read lazy) habit? Does the urge to skip feel like a defeat, or a necessity? Which books are best skipped vigorously (Maugham said he would never have read Clarissa if he hadn’t found an abridged edition)? Which books simply must NOT be skipped? Does an e-reader encourage the act of skipping?

Either way, I very much doubt that writing schools give any space to the idea that there are some passages in great novels that are so profoundly boring they should not detain our attention. Writers today are taught to write to make every word count – which is, I think, as it should be. Maugham comes from another time, and expresses a different sensibility.

But in the spirit of Maugham, here are three contemporary titles that, on my reading, would benefit from skipping.

1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
2. Possession by AS Byatt
3. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Other nominations, please?

One comment

  1. It is stated here that —Maugham contends that “the aim of art is to please” – .
    This highlights generally the Western view of Art. Many artists whether they are authors musicians or in the graphic arts hold with this view.
    The classical view of Art traditionally in the East was that Art was the expression of the artists feeling and soul. It was not expressed to please anybody. If it did then it was a bonus but should not be created for this purpose..