Going Public - Private Rules of Reading

Posted by Madelaine Smith, 5th October 2011

“I can’t stop. I’ve started now.”

“How complicated your life must be. All these rules you make for yourself. Couldn’t you break just this one just this once and not spoil Persuasion for yourself?”


It was this conversation in the book The Ready Made Family by my favourite author Antonia Forest that set me wondering if I, like the character Nicola, had private rules of reading. I decided that I didn’t, but then thought again.


I certainly don’t think ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ as I am a firm believer in reading a book at the right time. Reading a book at the wrong time can taint it forever, while catching a book at just the right moment can make it feel as if this book was written for you and for you alone. In The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing states a book that is right for you at the age of thirty may not have been the right book at twenty, or the book that hits the spot at forty may have nothing to say to you when aged fifty. I have to confess that I missed my ‘moment’ for The Golden Notebook. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t get on with it at all.


I do have rules when it comes to recording what I have read. At the age of 13 I started to keep a list in a red covered exercise book. I don’t write comments or reviews of the books, just titles, authors, date commenced and date finished (and sometimes I don’t remember the latter two). The trouble is that only books read in total can go on the list. This isn’t a full reading record, but rather a record of the books I have read from cover to cover. I sometimes wonder where does this leave my other reading - poetry, short stories, articles, essays, blogs? Nowhere is the answer. I don’t record what I have read if it isn’t a book.


The only books I don’t record, and this isn’t really a problem these days, are picture books and Reading Series titles read to children. (My daughter advanced quite quickly with reading and I was a bit miffed when we missed the whole of Level 4 of the Oxford Reading tree.) If I did record books read to others my Reading Record would be full of numerous repeats of Owl Babies and The Big Big Sea. 


Recently I asked via the newbooks Twitter and Facebook pages if anyone else had private rules of reading and received a mass of replies. Some of the ‘rules’ were things I did already so my list of rules is longer than I thought. Some rules I had never thought of before so these have now been incorporated into my own rules, or at least versions of them. Below are some of the responses:

  • If you start a chapter, you must finish the chapter.
  • Always have at least one book on the go.
  • Always read for at least 10 minutes at bedtime, when mind and body need break from turmoils of the day. (I can’t do this. I either fall asleep or stay up all night reading)
  • Alternate fiction and non as ‘main’ book, but also allow anything as a ‘breakfast’ book. ‘Breakfast’ books are mainly picture/caption heavy rather than proper reading. (Ah, I was taught never to read at the table)
  • When reading biographies never go straight to the pictures; wait until they turn up.
  • Avoid books that have the word 'fine' in the review.
  • Don’t listen to music when reading.
  • Listen to music when reading.
  • If reading a series of books listen to same album throughout.
  • Read the first page, then the last page.
  • Never read the last page before you reach it.
  • Always read the book before watching a TV or film adaptation.
  • If reading a series, read them one after another.
  • If reading a series, don’t read them back to back.
  • Never read academic type introductions or author's forewords until the end
  • Always keep the bookmark in the book while reading.
  • If reading a series, use the same bookmark for it all.
  • Never stop reading.


I love the way in which some people’s rules contradict others. It shows that we all do things differently and just as there are many different types of books there are many ways to enjoy them. I would hate to think that ‘Reading Rules’ in anyway stood in the path of people enjoying books and reading. The fact that we all have our own ceremonies and rituals surrounding books and reading shows the importance they hold in our lives. Reading and books are central to who I am, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the record my final list of Reading Rules is:

  1. Just because I’ve started a book doesn’t mean I have to finish. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with the book; this may just be the wrong time to read it.
  2. There are some bad books and life is too short (and too full of good books) to read bad ones.
  3. Don’t read books I don’t want to read. (Can be tricky as a Reading Group member!)
  4. No skipping. No skimming. (But I can peek at the last page if I must!)
  5. Leave a space of seven books between two books by the same author.
  6. Don’t record a book as read until it is all read (can exclude extensive notes and bibliographies but forewords and the afterword must be read).
  7. Tick off short stories in a collection. Only record the collection as read when every story has been read. Short story collections don’t have to be read in order, but remember someone placed them in this order for a reason.
  8. I can read as many books at the same time as I wish – not literally at the same time obviously. Two or three is normal, seven has been managed.
  9. Always use a bookmark – never turn down pages or break a book’s spine by leaving it face down. The bookmark should feel ‘right’ for the book.
  10. Enjoy reading and don’t worry about other people reading more books than I read. As Lizzie Bennet said I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.

Thanks to all the contributors from Twitter and Facebook.

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