From Boswell's Life of Johnson, a conversation that took place on 19 Apr 1773:

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson said, "I have looked into it."

"What?" said Elphinston, "Have you not read it through?"

Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, "No, Sir, do you read books through?"

Dr. Johnson was right – mostly. Life's too short, and there's too much written. A slavish devotion to finishing each tome means greater delay before starting the next. Browsing, scanning, skimming, and selective study are essential tools of the competent, efficient reader.

But it's easy to go overboard in the other direction and become a serial dilettante. I've spent hours flipping through newspapers and magazines .. clicking hyperlinks ... looking up a few words in the index at the back of a book and glancing over a few pages. Wasted effort, in the vain hope of finding a juicy bit of information. No, it's not an effective strategy; I realize it, yet I still can't resist. Most of what I spend my time on is obviously ephemeral stuff, with an abysmal probability of long-term value.

Yep, I confess: I'm a literary channel-surfer.

What I should be doing, of course, is investing energy in good books – books that are not worth reading, but worth rereading ...

(see also BooksToConsider (16 Apr 1999), JohnsonOnAnecdotes (19 Apr 1999), WriteManyReadOnce (25 Nov 1999), BookHouses (14 December 1999), LearningInvestment (11 February 2000), BuildingBookWeb (2 Feb 2001), UndividedAttention (6 Feb 2001), ReadingsOnThinkingAndLiving (1 October 2001), ReadAloud (20 Mar 2002), ... and especially ReadWellAndRemember (31 Aug 2002))

TopicLiterature - 2003-02-16

(correlates: CrudeMetrics, SlipAway, LetItSlide, ...)