Do people ever read books right through?

I think they must in the case of pulp fiction. I often see someone, on a trolley or elsewhere, more than half way through some paperback with a lurid cover, and I would swear from the movement of his eyes that he is reading it, and bet that he will get to the end.

Or he’ll be part way through a shiny oblong microbiology textbook, and may be reading it, or may instead be covering all the words with yellow highlighter. I find this practice odd, for a black felt marker would conceal them more effectively.

He is like an amateur photographer on a sightseeing tour. He may see things that appear through the viewfinder, briefly; and return home with evidence that he was there. He has “covered” the place in the same way, so he won’t have to go there again. Still, it would have been better for him if some greasy, moustached local had stolen his camera on the first day. Then he’d have something to think about for the rest of his vacation.

Whereas, the use of a commonplace book, to transcribe passages, or of a sketchbook, to transcribe scenes, might contribute to actual human experience.

It is another question with those “serious” books. Having since adolescence bought almost all my books second-hand, I am familiar with text markings. If they are in light pencil on stout paper, and the book is otherwise hard to find, I will sometimes buy it anyway. I have a good supply of erasers, and a sharp penknife with which delicately to lift any untoward shiver of ink. (In a very few cases, I have bought a book because it was annotated by a known scholar.)

Here is what I’ve learnt. The average reader of a serious book gets to page six. Some flag before that, some make it to the end of the preface, or the editor’s introduction. A few brave souls proceed a page or two into the text proper. But from the crack of a binding I can tell that most never opened the book at all, beyond the fly-leaf where they inscribed their wretched signatures.

By the way, I am not attacking post-modernity (today). My observation applies about equally to people who bought books in 1996, and those who bought them in 1857, or 1642. Civilizations come and go, but people never seem to change. They only read the first few pages.

This is also the case with highbrow novels, and of course, verse. Here there may be no marks, but soiling to suggest a quick stab. The poetical works will fall open at one frequently anthologized piece, forever; or the first thirty pages of the novel will have subtle finger smears (the rest will be virgin). This latter indicates a noble attempt at self-education.

Self-respecting novelists do their best to throw off these readers, and usually succeed. They will pack their first thirty pages so thickly with new characters and fresh information, as to induce despair. Only from about page thirty-two is it clean sailing.

I do not object to any such reader. If he has paid for the book, he has made himself useful. His task is to keep it in print, or in circulation, until the person who truly wants it finally comes along.

There is a point to this ramble, gentle reader. Perhaps I will get to it tomorrow.