John Rawls, introducing his influential A Theory of Justice, does a remarkable thing for an author. “This is a long book,” he writes, and then proceeds to explain how you can get the theory he presents along with explanations of terms and pertinent examples by reading sections of the book that amount to only about a third of his 600 pages! It would be churlish not to take this advice, I thought, choosing the 200-page option. Plenty of other books, in my opinion, famous ones, classics, and supposed must-reads, should be preceded by Rawls-like advice about how to read them without reading all of them.
According to Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be hewed and digested.” Yes, even the classics may need some selective tasting. Read every word of The Odyssey, the master narrative of Western literature, because it will entertain, and, if you are a storyteller, train you as well. But The Iliad is another matter. When Homer describes encounters between Paris and Hector or Hector and Andromache, still more when he turns his merciless attention to Trojans and Greeks killing each other, he will keep anyone’s interest. But if you read every item in his catalogues of which country sent how many ships to Troy, only if you have a map of ancient city-states before you and a passion for ancient geography will you stay awake. By all means, skim Homer’s lists as you would the begats in Genesis. Just keep in mind that Homer’s catalogues really did interest his first readers and still command the attention of students of the ancient world.
The Aeneid requires cutting on a different plan. Here it’s pretty much a matter of checking out after the councils of the gods in Book 1, the escape from Troy in 2, Aeneas’s travels in 3, the romance of Dido and Aeneas in 4, and the trip to the Underworld in 6. In 6 we get a prophecy of what happens until the founding of Rome, but we don’t have to actually live through the enactment of the prophecy.
Authors may not be as helpful as John Rawls, but they do sometimes signal where your attention can wander. When a shepherd in Don Quixote begins to tell a story peopled by no one we’ve yet met but rather folks with conventional Romantic names, it’s safe to skip the rest of that chapter and possibly the next; the chapter titles will tell us when the main narrative resumes.
The point is that life is short and some books—even some very good books—are too long. A lot of selective reading is just taste, of course. At the halfway point in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich I realized that Hitler’s monomaniacal hobbling of his generals’ freedom to act and other aspects of the war’s progress were going to be far less interesting to me than the story of Hitler’s complicated and politically astute climb to power had been, and I just stopped reading. It’s your reading life, after all, and no one else’s; find the good parts and leave the rest unread.