Can You Cheat At Reading?

Can you cheat at reading? My high school students would say so – or at least, the ones who frantically Shmoop or Sparknotes the latest chapter of Lord of the Flies before the bell rings and they have to take that day’s reading quiz. But that’s different – most of those kids haven’t even cracked the chapter open. That’s an entirely separate problem.

What I’m talking about now is cheating when you actually read. The oft-debated “are audiobooks cheating?” question has already been discussed in full – the answer to that is, of course, no. You’re still taking in the writer’s words in full, just through a different sensory experience.

But are there other ways to cheat at reading?

My second grade teacher certainly thought so. Just to clear the air, I adored Mrs. G. She was a blessing among elementary educators. Without her, I never would have learned my multiplication tables. However, one bright autumn day, she both betrayed my trust and broke my heart when she (gently) accused me of cheating at my daily reading log.

You see, we had to record a certain number of pages each week during independent reading time. It was largely self-moderated, as we could choose whatever books we wanted and were in charge of making sure we met those page requirements at home, if not at school. The problem came about when Mrs. G. caught wind of the fact that I had a different book on my reading log nearly every day.

“Tara, why is there a new Boxcar Children book on your log every day?” I can still hear the slightly suspicious tone of her voice as I trembled in my seat at her conference table. Look, Mrs. G., it wasn’t my fault that I wanted to get through the whole series on your bookshelf. Does anyone else remember those? Loved them. If you didn’t want me to read them all, why put them out there? I tried my hardest, in my tiny, shaking voice, to explain that I just really, really liked them, and that I tried to read really, really fast so that I could get to the next one. For some reason, she didn’t believe me.

(Suffice it to say, I lied on my reading log after that – it was just easier than dealing with her suspicion. A backwards form of cheating, I guess.)

Looking at my speed reading with more thorough reflection, I realize that, yes, I don’t often read every word on the page. I can skim, especially if I’m rushing to get to the conclusion of the story – and yes, that means that sometimes I skip huge chunks of words. I don’t often do that on re-reads. I cringe when I think back to when I skimmed The Great Gatsby. I can’t stand the thought now of missing any of Fitzgerald’s preciously-placed words.

But this traumatic memory from my childhood got me thinking: beyond just speed reading, how else can you “cheat” at books? For example, does it count as cheating if you only read certain sections of nonfiction books? For research purposes, you’re obviously not going to read the entire text, but when you’re reading, say, a memoir, is it cheating to skip chapters with topics that are less engaging? I’m certainly guilty of this crime, if so.

I am also a notorious skipper when it comes to long flashbacks in italics. I just can’t stand them, no matter how important they are to the plot. Plenty of times, I’ve skipped over a five-or-six page italic flashback just to be forced to flip back to it later when I realize that it contained vital info that I needed to understand the next chapter of the novel. Oops.

And sometimes – and this is probably the worst one – if there’s a book told from multiple perspectives, and I don’t really care about one of them… I, uh, just read the perspective of the character I like. I know, I know, shame on me.

But to be fair, I have precious little time to spend reading. Sometimes, you’ve just got to make sacrifices. I’ll experience a limited number of written words in my lifetime, so I’ve got to make them count when I can. The definition of cheating, after all, is “acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.” There’s no competition for how many books you read, and in this case, the only person I’m lying to is myself.

So what do you think? Which is the worst crime – and how else have you cheated at reading?

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