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If You Played Songs The Way You Read Books, You Would Hate Music

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” ~ Howard Aiken

Reading is skimming.

If you played songs the way you read books, you would hate music. You wouldn’t like any songs. You would have no favorite bands. It would all just be a frikkin’ chore. This isn’t a thought experiment: I didn’t really like music until mp3s came around and I was totally freed from the tyranny of “one artist, one album at a time, all in order” 1. The explosion of variety in choice and sequence changed the game for me.

Read books like you listen to music. Skip tracks. A page, like a song, must earn the right to keep being “played”. When you don’t like a song or don’t feel like it right now, you skip to the next track. Book pages are begging you to do the same to them You don’t force yourself to like or even listen to all the tracks in an album. Why should pages in a book be any different?

Here’s what school didn’t want you to know:
You’re not a bad reader — she’s a bad writer. The world is full of bad writers; I speak as one of them. Skip the page 🙂 . There are no bad readers, only bad books. You don’t suck. That book sucks. That page sucks. If it were any good, it would make you want to read it.

People who don’t read enough or are illiterate altogether just haven’t been exposed to any good books yet: if they had been, they’d have been driven by an insatiable urge to read. I can read Japanese in large part because the first 9 volumes of the Evangelion manga are so good. I wanted to read them so badly, I had to become literate. I’d read what of them had been translated into English, but that wasn’t enough for me.

Every boring page that you don’t skip, that you don’t stop reading, is preventing you discovering a book or author or page that you will like.
Every boring page that you don’t skip lowers the likelihood that you will ever discover a page that doesn’t suck.
Every boring page that you don’t skip is like a jealous, annoying sibling, vigorously rooster-blocking you from discovering the page, the line, the author the book of your dreams.

The more boring things you force yourself to read, the less likely you are to ever get to something cool.

You’re trying to drive to Wal-Mart and every boring page is a detour.
Think about it: if you were driving a car, and forced yourself to go everywhere but Wal-Mart 2

Trying to read slowly to get the most out of a book is like trying to play a song slowly to get the most out of it. It produces more distortion than comprehension. To get that part of the song down, you just loop it. Similarly with a book, just re-read it again. Multi-pass reading. Loop the book. You’re far better off reading a book many times sloppily than reading it once well. Even painters lay multiple coats of paint over the same spot, right? But they’re in motion the whole time; they don’t stand there holding the brush over the target, watching…paint…dry. Same idea.

You don’t need to get good at reading to start skimming. If anything, the weaker your reading skill, the more you need to skip. It doesn’t matter that you’re a rabidly voracious reader in English. Get over your English self. Your English self can eat a dictaphone. In Japanese, you’re a baby. You will hate reading in Japanese if you don’t start skimming. It’s that simple. Your reading skill in Japanese is fragile. That means you’re fragile.

“B-But, Khatzumoto-sensei how will I ever learn to read if I skip stuff?”

Wrong question. Let me rap with you, son:
If you don’t skip, you will never learn to read.
There. I said it. The “n” word. Never.

“B-but is it even reading at that point, though? Isn’t one then merely glancing at random things?”
↑ Spoken like a true illiterate. 3 Well, for starters, you’re not a fax machine, needing everything fed in sequence.
You’re a human bean.
And guess what? If you need clarification (drum roll)…you can go back.
Just like you go through music playlists in Winamp 4…the direction is not only forward but also backward.
The trick is to stay the rhymes-with-duck away from boring things.

Sequence is overrated. Which is not to say that it isn’t sometimes valuable (that’s why we go back), but it’s sort of like…like that girl who thinks she’s Helen of Troy’s prettier sister but is actually a 6 at best (maybe a low 7 in the right lighting and at a MySpace angle)? Or maybe even like Helen of Troy herself because, seriously, how pretty could this woman have been that calm, rational, phlegmatic Mediterranean men were losing their oh…men.
Anyway, sequence is like that.

You’re not a fax machine. You’re not a Turing machine needing ticker tape. You’re a person. And a book is like a person. So saying “but if I switch and skip, surely nothing will make sense!” is like saying: “if I don’t hear a person’s life story in excruciating detail from beginning to end, I’ll know nothing about them but random facts!”.

But you know what? Often you’ll know and learn and understand more from the summary, Cliffs Notes 5, headings and table of contents, plus a few random details here and there, than from effing hearing:

“Tuesday, September 22, 199X, I woke up at 6:43 and rubbed the gunk out of my eyes. My vision still blurry, I stumbled to the kitchen, where I opened the cupboard and pulled out a bowl. Into the bowl I poured some cereal — Honey Nut Crunch — and then 2% milk, for there was no skim to be had. I proceeded to eat this cereal for breakfast…”

And all you wanted to know was his name and hometown.

You’re not missing anything important by skimming, and even if you are, you can always rewind, replay change gears, go in slo-mo if need be (rarely necessary).

So, yeah, books are like people. And you don’t need to have read all the words in a book — or even most of them — to get the picture, any more than you need to see a printout of the quantum state of every subatomic particle of every atom of every molecule of all 10 trillion cells in a person’s body at every point in time since they were conceived and while we’re at it, every quantum state of every subatomic particle of every atom of every molecule of all 10 trillion cells at every point in time from division to apoptosis for all N-million of their direct ancestors…in order to know a person.

The real world is “random”. Much more than we generally give it credit for. Sequence, smooth linearity is largely an illusion that we create. That’s why movie editing works — because we make up a sequence of events where none actually existed. It’s why any kind of storytelling works, because our brains are machines for creating patterns and sequence and filling in blanks.

Virgin Mary in a tortilla, anyone?

So skip around. Eventually something will draw you in. But to get to that something you have GOT to skip. Japanese itself is at stake here. And that is the irony.

Fact: The most beautiful rooms and homes are the near-empty ones. Wabi-sabi and all that.
Bear with me momentarily while I tout a design philosophy that my site does not actually embody. If you want to think clearly, to live in comfort and dignity and true opulence, then you throw things away. Throwing things away sets you free and makes life fun. Same story with reading. If you want a happy reading life, then you skip. You skim. Regularly. Frequently. Religiously.

People who try to read everything are like hoarders who hoard things, like on the show “Hoarders”.
“B-b-but…I should…it might be useful”
Yes, and that’s why your house is full of trash and you sleep in dark corners — much like the vermin who now rule it.

Just like hoarding things turns them all into trash, forcing yourself to read everything, in sequence, one-duckling-character-at-a-time-till-death-to-you-part turns all of reading into a pile of metaphorical feces.
Disgust is very hard to localize. When you read a Japanese book in a boring way (i.e. by not skipping the boring(-to-you) bits), you don’t get bored with the book, you get bored with the entire Japanese language.

But all you had to do was skip. All you had to do was not-do: not-read. Not-read the boring parts.

You still don’t believe me, do you? I’m that shady uncle who takes you to whorehouses and underage drinking, aren’t I?
Fine. It pains me to do this, but…let me just pull rank on you second.

I am literate enough in Japanese to…I dunno…be mean-spirited and pedantic to Japanese people and not show enough weakness to get any comeuppance (I am still talking about reading BTW). Conversely, everyone who raises the “b-but, it’s not reading if I don’t do everything in order and feel boredom and suffering” argument…isn’t. Literate in Japanese, that is.

I’m like an experienced pilot giving flying advice and people who are yet to ever fly a plane are freaking out and raising objections to me home-brewed tips and pointers arrr. And Japanese people? Cannot help you, because they’re like birds now; they can’t even remember how they learned how to fly. But I do. And I’m telling you.

So listen to me. Trust me on this. Don’t be a hoarder. Start skimming now. The reading rooster must not be blocked!

It’s funny. I get flack sometimes for not giving enough concrete advice here at AJATT. But at the same time, as soon as I do give it, people freak out like: “THERE’S NO WAY THAT COULD WORK!!!”. 10k Sentences, MCDs, Lazy Kanji…always greeted with the same violent incredulity.

But don’t worry, I’m not blaming you and the Jews. Just the Jews. It’s not your fault. The truth is, I hate giving concrete advice. It requires a great deal of effort to impart (endless cajoling with explanations, qualifications and examples), yet has such a short shelf-life that by the time you’re done imparting it, it’s no longer current.

Ironically, when I was a youngling in Japanese, when the iPhone was but a twinkle in a certain Syrian‘s eye, I scoured these Internets, desperately seeking concrete advice and techniques. And I found some. Spread out all over the place. And I brought it all together. And it helped. And it worked. Hard.

Concrete advice and techniques definitely have their place. We could sit around like potheads musing on martial arts all day but eventually, yeah, you’re probably going to want to spar or do some dummy work or something. Concrete.

The only teensy-weensy problem is that (my) concrete advice too quickly becomes dogma. It hardens (in) people’s minds, like, well, concrete. I’ll never forget how skepticism over the old “10,000 Sentences” method (pre-MCDs) turned into fervent devotion to it and then rabid defense of it (as if it were literally a noble and venerable tradition) when it was supplanted by MCDs.

And that’s just the thing. Methods change. Remember the “Unified Reading Process“? I mean, I kinda sorta do it still, but not really; it’s evolved so much that it barely resembles the original.

So where does my loyalty lie? Certainly not with a technique. Techniques are just tools to me: I care little for drills and drilling, all I want is holes. That sentence will never get taken the wrong way. If it catches mice, it’s a good cat and all that.

You get relatively little concrete advice from me not because, well, because the mindset that acquires and produces and — most importantly — adapts and evolves that concrete advice is far more important. Without that mindset, you could easily latch onto the advice and hurt yourself. History has shown this to be, yeah, a thing.

At some level, I think, and this is going to sound incredibly arrogant, but I think…I want to free the greatest tool of all: your imagination. I want you to be able to imagine yourself being native-like in Japanese.

I dunno…I’m not good with words like you are. I’m not eloquent. I don’t know how to explain why stuff works or even how. I can’t justify any of it theoretically; I can’t convince you with or without logic; I’ll leave that to other people. It’s mostly pictures to me anyway. All I know is…there’s stuff that I did and do and it works pretty awesome, and you can try it out and mix it up. I do want you to suspend your disbelief for a while trying the stuff out, but I don’t want you to “believe in” the stuff. The stuff doesn’t need to be believed in. The one and only thing that must be believed in is you.

You’re illiterate. Not in English but in some other language. Presumably in Japanese.
You can’t read Japanese. I can. Like a bau5.
I know a way out for you.
Give it a try. It’s not like you’re going to get any worse at reading than you are now.

Engagement is the name of the game. The primary objective is not to get yourself reading “the” right things in “the” right way but to get yourself reading at all. We’re not trying to hit home runs. Just to get you with your cleats on and a bat in hand. On the ice with skates on and stick in hand. Anything — everything — that happens beyond that is gravy on the cake. Icing on the turkey.

Boredom roosterblocks the primary objective.
So boredom must go.

Read books like you listen to music. Skip pages like you skip tracks. A page, like a song, must earn the right to keep being “played”. Life’s too short to go all the way through every song to figure out whether or not you like it. If you like dubstep, you’re not doing yourself any favors listening to country music and hoping that Skrillex will magically appear out of nowhere to save the day. Go straight to the Skrillex.

I love music. I love Japanese hiphop. But only because I, like, buy, rent or download 10 albums at a time and throw away all but 1~2 songs per album (and sometimes, all songs). Don’t die of thirst waiting for Evian when there’s Volvic. Don’t wait until you know every word in the language to start turning pages.

Apparently, the best readers come from homes where their parents showed (and read them) books before they could even speak, let alone read. Learn from these parents. Do you want to live in the metaphorical illiteracy ghetto forever, or do you want to pwn? Don’t wait until all your ducks are in a row to touch them books. Read now. Skip now. Skim now. Because reading is skipping and skimming.


  1. Mixtapes? Please. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.
  2. (what? I like Wal-Mart)
  3. You know I love you, Eric. I’m just winding you up. You’re from AJATT Plus. We’re like family.
  4. Brazen nostalgia…I don’t even use Winamp any more, but…she deserves a mention because we grew up with her.
  5. Fact: The Cliffs Notes work. I was in a reading club and we discussed Hamlet one time. I’d read all of the Cliffs Notes and only some of the play. I was able to discuss that shit more intelligently than anyone there. I once pooh-poohed the Cliffs Notes. I was wrong.

  25 comments for “If You Played Songs The Way You Read Books, You Would Hate Music

  1. フレヂィー
    March 1, 2013 at 02:07

    Damn. That was knowledge, kicked right!

    When I read my first manga volume (no, not the whole series, literally Volume 1 of ‘some’ manga) I did the ‘read every character-page-sentence-method. That f###ing sucked. I did feel very good about myself finishing the volume but I didn’t feel like it was fun. Second time around… just breezed through that s#it! Why, because I skimmed and skipped. Did the manga make sense when I finished said volume, of course it did. It was about ‘person’ doing ‘things’ while ‘stuff was going on…’

    What basically happened was this:

    The second time around I skimmed through pages but I kept track of the kanji/words/expressions etc. that kept coming up, THOSE, I put in my SRS because those I felt were worthy of putting in. You can put whatever you want, but I chose what appealed to me. What I realized is that those more-than-frequent words/kanji/expressions etc. actually gave flavor to the whole book. Those [said things] are what the whole manga/(applies also to books/movies) was about. Knowing those characters glued the whole book together better than knowing everything on every page.

    When I am at work, I barely pay attention at tea meetings. Yet I always manage to get the work done and done right. Why, because I kept an ear open to only the things that struck me and those were the things I needed to do. F##k the rest of the meeting, I just cared to listen to the important bits, and trust me, they come in small quantities. Same with manga and books and movies.

    Point is:

    Without reading every single page, I still learned words, practiced Japanese and most importantly reading L2 became fun.

  2. Rou
    March 1, 2013 at 03:04

    I actually like to download a whole album and listen to all the songs in order. But then I’ll keep listening to the ones I like most and delete those that didn’t appeal to me that much c:

  3. Drewskie
    March 1, 2013 at 03:46

    I feel like this post was deliberately written in a way that encourages you to start skimming it halfway through. It totally worked. And by that I don’t mean to be a smartass; I mean I picked out what I wanted from the latter half and didn’t feel like I missed anything. How about that!

    • Mikw
      May 8, 2015 at 17:23

      Hahaha, the same happened to me 🙂

  4. March 1, 2013 at 04:18

    The reason why people need concrete advice is that as a whole humans are a bunch of ignorant followers and so if you just tell someone”hey learn Japanese!” they won’t think “hey let me just play around and see what works” no that would thinking for yourself, which most people are afraid to do for fear of making a mistake. So they need a clearly laid out set of instructions. Then they feel like they’re “doing it right”.The problem there is that there may be a better way. And if you just go follow this person or that person you may never find that way.

  5. Anonymous
    March 1, 2013 at 14:15

    But what if the reason I’m not engaged isn’t because the material itself is boring, but because I can’t understand the material to judge whether it’s boring or not in the first place? I realize the typical response is to go for something easier, but without any idea of how to read in the first place outside sloppily translating into my native language (and I don’t see how skipping parts I don’t like will help that), the advice falls flat. I don’t know, there’s just something that doesn’t seem right, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    • Octonion
      March 2, 2013 at 11:27

      I’m pretty much still flopping around on the ground myself, but I think it might help to expand the notion of “engaged” to include anything that strikes your interest even for a moment or two, and expand “reading” to encompass any gleaning of meaning and pronunciation from printed material.

      Here’s a live on-the-spot example. I’m interested in gravitational waves, which tells me is “重力波” in Japanese. I do a google search for that (oops, getting a lot of Chinese, better search for “重力波が”) and get a list of pages, and for whatever reason
      this one catches my eye. Click. Bunch of text that’s not calling to me… oh, pictures. And below that some text “重力波の検出実験はウェーバー…” Oh, hey, I know 実験, and now 重力波, but not the word in the middle. I should take this to, but I’m feeling lazy so back to Jisho. Oh, of course! I should have been able to guess that from context. And ウェーバー must mean Joseph Weber. I now have the material for a few new MCDs. I can kind of guess at the meaning of the rest of the sentence from a few key bits I already know (1960, 現在 and レーザー) but this is starting to feel like work. I’ll bookmark this page in case I want to come back to it. But for now I’m gonna go do an image search for 猫が一杯…

      So, I had a little moment of engagement, read the phrase “gravitational-wave detection experiment,” got a sense of the context it was in and moved on before it got boring.

      The same general process can work for books. Start with things you already know you’re interested in, stories you already know and love either because you read them in English or because you’ve seen the anime, drama, movie, etc that was the basis for or was based on the book. This stacks the odds in favor of it being interesting, it gives you context to help understand, and it avoids the risk of spoilers (the last point, by the way, being my only real objection to skimming/scanning. I would hate to ruin the author’s carefully-constructed drama over whether character A is going to die on page 287 by having already seen her enjoying a cup of tea on page 310). Oh, and of course having pictures helps too, both in terms of providing context and generating interest, making manga a natural choice if you happen to like any.

      • Anonymous
        March 2, 2013 at 12:28

        Wow, that sounds absolutely insane. (Colloquially.) It sounds like if I were to do that, I’d just skip around so much that I wouldn’t be able to get anything out of anything. Then again, I don’t understand the concept of skimming before being able to read in general, much less skimming in something for the purposes of entertainment. I can understand skipping large portions of, say, Moby Dick if I’m writing an essay about it and only vaguely remember where the quote I need is, but not if I’m reading out of a sense of entertainment.

      • Anonymous
        March 2, 2013 at 12:33

        (I wanted to add this to my previous post, but forgot it until just now.)

        Also, having read something before does not guarantee that I will have much of an idea of what’s going on, at least based on the text itself and not memories from before. For instance, I’m reading the script to FF7 as practice (courtesy of AJATT), but even for moments I remember kinda well, I still have to pull up the dictionary because I can’t make heads or tails of the situation. I’m aware that I could just bump down to a lower difficulty text, but the problem is less in the difficulty in the text and more in that I don’t know how to approach the text in general, making them all of about the same very hard difficulty.

  6. Arthaey
    March 1, 2013 at 17:07

    Wow, I’m so the opposite of you! I loved buying a new CD, bringing it home, and listening to it straight through while reading the liner notes. Then I’d listen to it a second time through. 🙂

    And for (fiction) books, I’m aghast that people skim! If a novel isn’t interesting enough for me to want to read every word, then I put the entire book down and find one I like better.

    My point is — if you hate listening to an entire CD and you skim books, then do that. But not everyone is that way. In language-learning (as in life in genera), the important thing is to know yourself and do what works for you. 🙂

  7. Andy77
    March 1, 2013 at 22:49

    actually, you’re right; this was a really great article; and I STILL SKIPPED some of it… it felt liberating…

  8. Erik
    March 2, 2013 at 02:33

    Wow I feel like this is directed at me. Got Naruto volume 1 the other day and I got bored of it about 10 pages in….I guess I should skip the exposition and go straight to the ninja battles already.

  9. kai
    March 2, 2013 at 03:57

    “Great story about the kids who come to play under the window of the writer. He pays them to go play elsewhere. Eventually, he stops paying them. They stop playing. ”

  10. The Real CZ
    March 3, 2013 at 00:30

    “I love music. I love Japanese hiphop. But only because I, like, buy, rent or download 10 albums at a time and throw away all but 1~2 songs per album (and sometimes, all songs).”

    I bet you listen to all of the songs in m-flo’s Planet Shining album. That album is gold and I can never skip a song while listening to Planet Shining.

  11. ペスト
    March 3, 2013 at 06:04

    As a Jew who skims, I feel simultaneously vindicated and blamed.

  12. Livonor
    March 3, 2013 at 06:05

    I had a great idea to boost immersion: a program that automatically downloads random movies, mangas and anime episodes to your PC so you don’t need no search for them, you just keeps the program downloading suff while you work and when you go back to your home there’ll be lots of material waiting for you to explore

  13. Carl
    March 3, 2013 at 16:05

    There are so many things I want to say, but maybe everyone has already said it. (I’ll say them anyway)

    1) Another freeing article. It again frees me to do whatever I want towards the language until I get locked in the box of my own doubts again.
    2) “Just do it. Just do something.”
    3) The irony of it all, I read the whole article. Actually I skimmed through it then read it all. So maybe, not irony. Just using the advice you have given.
    3) Who is the Syrian you’re referring to?
    4) You’re so correct about music. I skip music all the time, and the songs that I loved a long time ago, I don’t even listen to anymore.
    5) Principles trump commands. The way one thinks affects how they will do something or how they live their life.
    6) Maybe I can do this (skimming) with anything: books, movies, anki, friends (?), etc.
    7) I always appreciate your humor. It maybe a little coarse but it always brings a smile to my face.

    And for all that, thank you for writing this article.

  14. さんたく
    March 4, 2013 at 00:30

    Dear Khatzumoto, the earlier post about all the books ever written actually being just one big book was pretty good, but didn’t quite get the point. But I think this post did the trick.

    I also really enjoy your humor.

    Thanks for another great post!


  15. jim
    March 7, 2013 at 06:50

    Personally I disagree. Some of my favourite bands were found through listening after not initially liking them. I see how this method can work for people who don’t usually read, but being able to read a book to the end without skipping a large chunk, or listening to an album from beginning to finish. Well that’s an awesome feeling, and if that’s not possible then you just gotta find authors/artists that you can enjoy that much!

    I mean if you’re bored during a movie do you just fast forward and watch the 20 mins you like, or do you go find another movie to watch?

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      March 7, 2013 at 23:25

      My experience is that when I read through something I don’t like, I end up not remembering most of it anyway. Why waste time on such a useless experience?

  16. Ana-chan S2
    March 17, 2013 at 07:05

    Keep this website forever! Not only for me, but for the generations to come , they must have access to all this. Thank you so much. Arigato gozaimastu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! =^-^=

    I came here to improve my japanese…I’m improving my life.

  17. Erik
    September 26, 2013 at 11:08

    I think this was kind of the slap of reality I needed. Lately I’ve come to hate reading anything Japanese because it seems all so boring. I would download a manga or light novel of a show I liked or something that looked cool but then they would just go on and on with exposition and things like that and I got bored quickly. I’m gonna make an attempt to skip a lot more than before (which was pretty much none. Ironic since I skim when I read English.).

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