The List Break: Nine Personal Reading Rules

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All readers have their own set of “rules” – a completely arbitrary list of requirements and habits built up over long periods (in many cases, years) of reading. Some rules are almost universal, but a great many are personal quirks specific to one reader, or a very small handful of readers. Some readers’ list of rules can be counted on one hand, while others have a set of rules closer in length to a manifesto.

Whatever the case may be, every reader has them, and I am no different. Below are my nine personal reading rules.

1. It is all right to react in a strongly emotional manner to anything I am reading and not have to explain why except when and to whom I want to.

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While I was at university, it was constantly emphasised that I should try to be as objective as possible while analysing a text – feel it, yes, of course, but do not let those feelings interfere with the final analysis. But I have since realised that that kind of reading does not come naturally to me. I can do it, of course – I was trained to do it, after all, and if the marks on my papers are anything to go by, I’m quite good at it too – but in my natural state I am the kind of reader who laughs aloud at my books, cries over them, yells and curses and screams at them and would throw them in extreme paroxysms of emotion if I could (but I don’t, because my Kindle is expensive). And reacting that way is perfectly legitimate, perfectly all right: after all, it’s how I enjoy my reading, and I should not stint myself on it because my academic training tells me I shouldn’t. It’s partly why I created my liveblog Twitter account in the first place, so I could scream and curse and keysmash about what I was reading to my heart’s content.

2. Start a book with the best will in the world, and if that can’t rescue it, it’s all right to quit it – unless it deserves to be hate-read, in which case read it with all the fiery rage of a thousand suns and then write about it.

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While I understand the sentiment that drives people to say that one shouldn’t give up on a book midway through, I also understand – and agree – that there’s only so much time in one’s life, and that time is too precious to waste reading something that isn’t really doing much to hold one’s interest. So I have learned the fine art of just giving up on a book I have lost interest in, shuffling it away for another time when I might be able to enjoy it. After all, so much about the act of reading is about timing: a book I don’t find interesting now might prove to be just what I wanted at a later date.

But there are some books that, while reading, I come to absolutely hate, but power through regardless because I want to be able to legitimise my hatred: I read the thing from cover to cover and therefore have the right to complain about it vociferously and at length. People say hate-reading is unproductive, that it’s just a waste of energy that could go into other, more positive things (like reading books I actually like), but some books just deserve to be hated on a level that involves my full mental and emotional involvement.

3. There is no such thing as a “guilty” pleasure, even if I call it that sometimes.

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I don’t understand the superiority complex some readers carry with them like a bad smell: the idea that they’re better readers because they only read Nobel/Booker/Man Booker Prize winners, or because they only read the classics, or because they only read poetry, or because of some arbitrary choice they made some time in their lives that they decided makes them better than everyone else. I admit that I had some vestige of that when I was younger, but since I’ve gotten older I’ve decided that keeping up that sort of facade is just entirely too much work. So I happen to have a thing for paranormal romance novels, or in this case, manga about cute guys in glasses. Anyone is free to sniff derisively at my reading choices, but they make me happy, and my own reading pleasure is far more important than some theoretical notion of superiority that, frankly speaking, doesn’t exist anyway.

4. Rereading is completely all right – even if my TBR has gotten completely out of hand.

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Some readers argue that rereading a book is a waste of time, a distraction that prevents one from making significant headway through the TBR list, but I don’t agree with them. There’s something pleasant about rereading an old favourite, something reassuring, even. I find that it also works as a great way to decompress my brain after I’ve tackled some rather challenging or epic reads – since I know how the story will go, I can just take pleasure in the characters and ideas I love and not have to worry about trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes, I just want to reread a book, with no other reason except that I want to. Never mind that my TBR has mutated into an eldritch monstrosity; if I feel like rereading a book or even a series, I’ll do as I damn well please.

5. Anything can be a bookmark. Anything.

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Yes, anything is a bookmark, but preferably a mostly-flat object that doesn’t drop easily out of the book I’m reading. I used to have a massive predilection for Starbucks paper napkins, when I was still at university, but I have used pens, fabric hairbands, and most recently, earrings. But, when I’m really desperate, even three-dimensional objects that will sit relatively comfortably – or, all right, even a lot awkwardly – between the pages of an open book will do. As long as it won’t stain the pages or outright tear them, they’re usable. Small stuffed toy? Sure. Brass cuff bracelet? Dangerous, but in an emergency, it’ll do.

6. Dog-ears are perfectly acceptable as long as I own the book.

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I know that a lot of people consider this sacrilege of the highest order, but for my part I find that dog-earing pages is quite a satisfying thing to do – at least, in books that I own. I do this because I don’t keep a stock of little sticky tabs or other similar stationery next to me at all times, and even if I did, reaching for the sticky tabs doesn’t come as naturally to me as dog-earing a page. I do, however, prefer to keep the dog-ear relatively small; large folds make me cringe.

7. Highlighting is encouraged, but should be done with small, subtle marks in black or blue ink or pencil, and only in books I own.

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This goes hand-in-hand with my tendency to dog-ear pages, and again, I only do this with books I own. I think it’s a holdover from when I was studying at uni, and would highlight and mark up all my handouts because, well, they were handouts and that’s what they were for. But since I could never, ever mark up my own books like my handouts, I try to do it in a more subtle way: in this case, small corner-like marks at the beginning and end of any quote I find interesting. I used to be able to do this with pencils, but nowadays I just use a ballpoint pen with black or blue ink because those colours don’t stand out too badly in comparison to the text. Since the marks themselves can be easy to miss, I dog-ear any and all pages that include the marks, so I know where to look for them.

8. Cracked spines are just part and parcel of the reading process, and are unavoidable in heavily-read favourites; I must learn to accept the latter and find a source of binder’s glue.

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A cracked spine is proof of readership, of a person having opened that book and read its contents, and, hopefully, taken delight in them. I am, therefore, mildly skeptical of anyone who is able to read a paperback and leave the spine completely and perfectly un-cracked; such a pristine state is only achievable by not opening the book, and if the book is unopened, that must mean it is unread. We mark the things we love, and books are no different. If anyone was to show me a book they claim to “love” and the book is in pristine condition, I wouldn’t believe their claim – unless the pristine copy is meant to replace an older copy that’s fallen to pieces from constant reading and handling.

This is also why I thoroughly believe it when people say they’ve loved a book to pieces; I’ve managed to accomplish that with my own copy of Royall Tyler’s translation of the Genji Monogatari, which has sadly come apart even with my very careful handling. If anyone can point me to a place in the Philippines where I can buy a bottle of binder’s glue, I would be very grateful.

9. Never forget poetry.

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While I would not call myself a true-blue poetry aficionado, I do have a great deal of fondness for verse. I love the magic, the beauty of poetry, whether by a poet I already know, or from one whose voice I’ve never heard before. However, it can be hard to actually remember to incorporate verse in my very prose-heavy reading, so lately I’ve been trying to pick up what poetry books I do own and at least read a little bit from them every week, flipping to a random page and reading whatever catches my fancy. It’s a lovely experience so far, and hopefully this will help me get into the swing of reading poetry again the way I used to while in grad school. It might even encourage me to write again. Who knows?


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