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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mining Books for “Hidden” Treasures

Most people approach a book the same way: they start at the beginning and read until they reach the end. While that method is certainly an efficient way to barrel through the material, it’s NOT the most productive way to approach a book. It doesn’t take advantage of everything a book potentially has to offer.

If you want to get the most out of a book that you possibly can, you need to start at the back.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating reading the book backwards.  If you did, you’d probably spoil several (if not all) major plot points – if you could understand anything that was happening at all.  No, what I recommend you do the first time you pick up a book is to immediately search for the “extras.”

If a book has “extras,” they will usually come in the form of indices and appendices. An index, when referring to a book,  is a system that makes finding information easier and it is almost always located at the back of a book.  An appendix, when referring to a book, is a document providing supplementary information and is also usually located at the back of a book.  These two sections are invaluable when it comes to understanding the material presented, especially if it’s unfamiliar or densely packed. 

If you read fantasy or science-fiction, you know how weird character and place names can get, and how hard it can be to try to remember where the character has been and where he is going when the author is writing about a different world with different geographical locales.  If you have a story with several storylines occurring concurrently, you might as well just give up.  I know I used to give up when I read books like that; I’d read the whole story through not remembering how one character was related to another or where the adventure had taken the questing company. Sure, I got through story, but I missed out on many of the jokes (“Ohhh, that was funny because those characters are siblings so his mother is her mother”) and subtler plot points (“If I’d had a map I could’ve seen they’ve been traveling in a circle without realizing it”).  It wouldn’t be until I’d get to the end of the book and see the appendices that I’d realize there HAD been a map for me to refer to all along.

If you bother to check the nooks and crannies of the books you read, you might discover some interesting (and useful) things.  Pronunciation guides, maps, genealogical charts, and indices of names and places are just a few of the tidbits you could find in the back of  a book.  Don’t think these guides are limited to physical books, either!

If you read web fiction, poke around the author’s website or the forums (if a forum exists for the story) and see what you can find.  For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find a wiki for the online serial Above Ground when I first read it last weekend.  The wiki made keeping track of all the different races so much easier.  You can even vote in the forum for what content is covered in bonus stories!

I’ve been referring mainly to novels in this blog post, but don’t neglect the value of leafing through the back of a textbook before getting to work on the chapters.  A new school semester is starting and I just know there will be students who read only the pages they are assigned to read for homework.  When you pay so much for a book, it just doesn’t make sense not to get as much value out of it as you can.   

So, from now on, read your books Japanese-style and start from the back!

Photo credit: Ifijay


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