"More than machinery, we need humanity."

How to gut a book

Here is a problem: there are too many books to read and not enough time in which to read them all. What is one to do?

Obviously, this is the sort of problem that ranks rather low on the list of, so-called, serious dilemmas facing humanity. Indeed, some may even be so bold as to call into question whether or not this really amounts to much of a problem. After all, is it not in some ways rather reassuring to know that there are so many things waiting to be read? In many cases the answer to this question is a simple affirmation; however, there are situations that arise wherein an individual feels overwhelmed and anxious when they recognize just how much they have to read and just how little time they have in which to do all of this reading. Furthermore, in such instances the problem is likely to stem from the fact that the things the individual has to read have been assigned. They have to read it all! Or, to reformulate the issue: what is one to do when faced with a syllabus (or syllabi for multiple courses) that leave one gulping that there are too many books to read and not enough time in which to read them all?

The answer, alas, is that one must learn to “gut” these texts (to use the technical term). What follows are some tips on doing so that have been compiled in consultation with a group of experts.

What will I need?

You will need the following:

  • A book or article
  • Information regarding which pages are to be read
  • A knife
  • The ability to recall what you are reading
  • A writing utensil (pen, pencil, highlighter – your call)
  • An apron (to protect you from the splatter)
  • A willingness to claim that you have “read” the book
  • The focus of an eagle

Strategy 1

A common tactic undertaken by expert book butchers is to treat the book as a meal for which you simply don’t have time to sit down for all of the courses. Sure, you may want to do so, but you don’t have time! So instead, what partaking of this strategy entails is going for the appetizer and dessert but skipping the rest of the meal. Or, to put this in clearer language: just read the introduction and the conclusion of the book/article – and if the book should have additional front matter (such as a foreword) at least give that a quick glance. When it comes to books of the academic variety it is common for the introduction to provide some kind of basic outline of that which is to come, and the conclusion wraps things up nicely by clearly restating the book’s argument. By simply reading the introduction and the conclusion one gets a good gist of what the book is about – one may miss out on the details of the actual argument but one still gets an idea of what the argument was. For those who are concerned that this is too superficial a way to engage with a text there is also strategy 1.5 in which in addition to reading the book’s introduction and conclusion one also reads the first paragraph and last paragraph of each chapter.

Strategy 2

Some people enjoy eating appetizers and skipping the main course so as to save plenty of room for dessert, but there are others who cannot imagine such a meal being particularly satisfying (or informative). If one does not have the capacity to finish everything – such folks argue – is it not preferable to at least sample every course and every dish? Those who think in such a fashion may be tempted to gut a text by way of lots of sampling. This means that one reads a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit more later, and so forth – while slowing down and savoring moments that seem particularly important. A benefit of this style of gutting is that it provides one with more of a feel for the total taste of a text and will allow one to stumble across some particularly amusing/interesting passages that one can later refer to in order to really make it seem as though the book has been read in its entirety. Alas, it is easy to start off with this strategy only to realize that instead of gutting the book one has actually wound up reading it in its entirety. If you are going to sample, then the key is to remember that you are only there to sample! Taste a little bit and move on! Read a paragraph and then skip ahead three paragraphs, or read the first sentence of a paragraph and then skip ahead to the last sentence of the paragraph. If at any point you start feeling like you are getting your fill of a chapter (or a paragraph) then that is your cue that it is time for you to move on to the next course!

Burning existential quandary 1

Is gutting a book really reading it?

This is a question that has obsessed scholars for ages. Even in the days when there were many fewer books there were already some who lamented that they lacked the necessary amount of time. Gutting books has been a longstanding tactic to get through large quantities of text, but so too has been actually taking the necessary time to sit down and read the entire book. Alas, this is the type of question which you will need to navigate yourself – but most people agree that there is a distinction that exists between reading a book in total and gutting it. Is skipping around inside a text the same as reading it cover to cover? Obviously not. Is only reading the first paragraph and last paragraph of each chapter the same as agonizing over every sentence? Certainly not. Can you genuinely appreciate the rich complexity of a text by engaging with it in a speedy and superficial fashion? Probably not? What was that thing that Hercules cut? The Gordian knot.

Gutting a book may make it so that you can converse about a book, it may make it so that you can claim “I’m familiar with it,” it may even entitle you to reply “I read it” should a teacher/professor/lawyer ask if you have “read it,” and gutting a book may be preferable to having ignored the book altogether. But to gut a book is not the same as truly reading it. That’s kind of the whole point of gutting it. Rather, to gut a book is to have read bits of it. So, yes, you can claim that you’ve read “bits of” a book that you’ve only gutted – but if you claim to have really read it you will feel a gnawing doubt chewing on the very core of your being that will not let you rest.

Strategy 3

How can one know which paragraphs are important? How can one really tell if the introduction is useful? What if there was a mistake at the printing plant and the introduction actually belongs to another book entirely? What if the page you just skipped over is the most important page in the entire book? Those who are wracked by such fears – and yet are still willing to gut a given book – often recommend a strategy that is commonly termed “take the fifth.” And what the “fifth” here refers to has nothing to do with avoiding self-incrimination (though gutting a book is one way to avoid having to say “I didn’t do the reading”) – rather this strategy involves reading every fifth word. Instead of jumping from paragraph to paragraph and page to page, this strategy simply involves jumping forward within sentences. Read a word, jump ahead five words, read that word, jump ahead five words, read that word, jump ahead five words…you get the idea. This strategy is swifter than reading every word but still allows the reader to feel like they’ve at least touched upon every sentence (with the possible exception of really short sentences). Of course, it should be noted, that the speediness of this strategy is quickly undermined if one becomes overly obsessed with precisely counting the number of words to be skipped. It is fine to skip four words or six words or nine words – if one reads a word and then counts ahead then one might as well simply read the words. It should also be noted that this strategy often devolves into a person having to slow down and actually read entire sentences once they realize that zipping through and only reading every fifth word makes the entire text resemble a Dadaist poem. And while turning books into Dadaist poetry has been known to improve many a book – it does not always result in greater comprehension.

Burning existential quandary 2

Does gutting a book make me a bad person?

No. It doesn’t.

Try going a bit easier on yourself.

Strategy 4

Do you really not have enough time to read the book? Do you not even have enough time to get yourself a copy of the book to flip through? In that case you may need to resort to a form of gutting that is perhaps not even worthy of being referred to as gutting seeing as it doesn’t actually involve doing anything to the book (which, as was previously, established you weren’t able to procure). Go read the reviews. Hopefully the book in question is one for which you can dig up some decently detailed write-ups, preferably ones that appeared in scholarly journals, and reading such reviews will at least give you a basic idea of what a book was about. If this is the route which you are going to take (and this should always be a route of last resort) you need to be extremely careful in considering the places from whence you are sourcing your reviews. It can often be amusing (or infuriating) to read book reviews on popular e-commerce websites where complex books are rated on a simple scale of one to five stars and in which reviewers are often eager to provide one sentence reviews of the “I didn’t like it” variety. Granted, just as often as you find an overly simplistic review in such locales you are likely to find lengthy screeds in which it is clear that the reviewer is more interested in engaging in ideological warfare than in actually providing an analysis or summary of a text. Furthermore, if one turns to online reviews one must be wary of the type of reviews that feature comments such as “book arrived in excellent condition” – as that is not the type of information which will allow you to understand the essence of a book’s argument (well…probably not).

But remember: if you have a choice between gutting a book and just reading a review of it…gut the book. Reading online reviews of books can suck you into a vortex where time simply vanishes, and if you had that much time you probably should have just read the book.

Strategy 5

Here are step by step instructions for this particular tactic:

  1. Figure out how many pages the book has (this should be relatively easy to do).
  2. Divide the total number of pages by ten (this should also be relatively easy to do – feel free to use a calculator).
  3. Now place the book in front of you with the cover closed.
  4. Open the book to a random page and read that page in its entirety.
  5. Next, close the book and open it to another random page.
  6. Repeat step five as many times as the number you calculated in the second step (so if a book has 300 pages, you will open it to 30 random pages)
  7. If while executing the previous step you find that you have opened the book to a page you already read than you should re-do the step.
  8. Once you have read a number of different pages equal to the number calculated in step two you are done.
  9. Bask in a momentary sense of accomplishment.
  10. Go get another book.

Strategy 6

Of course, if you really want, you can always just read the whole book.

Sure, it takes a bit more time, but it’s probably worth it.


More questionable advice from Librarianshipwreck…

How to sleep in a library

How to move a large quantity of books

How to avoid ruining a book

How to defend yourself with a book

How to read a large book on crowded public transit


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “How to gut a book

  1. Pingback: how to read like a real academic « drlarakelland

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  4. Pingback: How to keep from getting distracted when you are trying to read | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2016 by in Books, Education, Higher Education, Humor and tagged , , , , , , .

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