In Defense of Skipping

Skipping is not just for prize boxers and pig-tailed girls, but for serious readers too. Over the festive break I did quite a bit of it. Two days after Christmas I sat down to read The Hobbit by a suitably crackling fire. It was all going splendidly. And then the dwarves started singing.

For anyone unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, the old codger loves giving his characters songs to sing. He has an unfortunate habit of underscoring certain scenes with a bout of hobbit karaoke. The songs neither advance the plot nor deepen the characters. These are no Greek choruses, more the literary equivalent of extended drum solos or the Ringo songs on Beatles albums. And hence are eminently skippable.

Skipping is okay. The journalist and editor Robert McCrum has been musing about the same topic. He too was inspired by another festive reading experience (maybe with so much other excess at this time of year, we tolerate it less in our books?).

As McCrum notes, there is an almost puritanical compulsion that we should read every single word in the books we pick up. How else can you explain the existence of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – a book with more appendices than an anatomy museum. Not doing so, the puritans say, would be a slight to the author, plus we might miss something.

And yet, what if the author was having an off day whilst writing that dry bit of exposition? Surely it’s okay to self-abridge if it keeps us reading and interested? McCrum asks, should we be ashamed at skipping? Not a bit.

I’ve done some major skipping in my time. Tolkien perennially inspires it: The Hobbit pales in comparison to The Lord of The Rings, which is essentially the Great Elvish Songbook.

I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau last year and had trained myself to recognise patterns of words that signalled whether this paragraph would be life-affirming prose or directions for building 19th century flat pack furniture. I skipped accordingly.

In A Prayer For Owen Meany I spent much less time in the contemporary chapters with John, the narrator, grapping with his life and faith, than in the flashback chapters with the wonderful Owen. Hands up who read all the chapters in The Grapes of Wrath about soil type? Nope, me neither.

Had I given in to the puritanical instinct that sometimes takes hold, these books might have become at best a drudgery, at worst unfinished. But because I skipped, I loved.

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Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, works for an ancient university, and writes about culture for fun. Follow him on Twitter: @EddMcCracken

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