The Art of Bookmanship

The written word has – or can have – a profound influence on the spoken word. We can only make so many Toastmasters speeches on our hobby of wine tasting, the annoyances of cell phones or a lasting memory of a bad day at the gym. A book, whether it’s the latest Stephen Covey or a new biography on Abraham Lincoln, is always a source of fresh ideas and material to further stimulate and widen our own thinking. And though writing style and speaking style are always different, through reading we pick up interesting turns of phrases, euphonious combinations of words, and pithy observations that can serve us well in both public speaking and conversation.

A familiarity with a master of words like George Bernard Shaw can lead us to express ourselves more interestingly. Which is more memorable when describing, say, the bureaucratic runaround: “I feel frustrated” or “I feel like a lion balked of its prey” (Shaw’s Arms and the Man)? Shakespeare is another gold mine. Which phrase better captures the bane of early morning meetings: “Early morning meetings are always an annoyance” or “I feel untimely ripped from my bed” (Macbeth)?

In addition to sparking ideas and improving our style, reading is the primary and most effective way of increasing our vocabulary once we leave school. As a speech coach who often works with speechwriters, I’ve observed that the best of these writers are well-read individuals – that is how they have developed the depth of thought, excellence of style and precision of vocabulary that distinguish their speeches.

There’s no gainsaying the importance of serious reading. We can travel, we can enjoy new experiences, we can attend lectures, we can watch the History Channel and documentaries on TV, and we can use the Internet; however, with the exception of intense or prolonged personal experience, the power of all of these is superficial compared to a book.

Today, with more distractions than ever before, the number of people who read regularly is dwindling. Few know the art of what I call bookmanship. How do we keep a steady stream of interesting books passing through our hands – books that don’t just provide an escape and a distraction, but rather build our minds as well as our communicative and linguistic powers? 

        “Ay, there’s the rub.” 
                – Hamlet

It all begins with curiosity. As one wit put it, education unfortunately doesn’t always scratch where it itches. Books can and do. Here are some ways to get started. 

Make it a point to ask other people, perhaps in your Toastmasters club, what they’re reading. In the social hour following a Toastmasters meeting, I once heard two club members weigh in with completely different opinions about The Secret, the book by Rhonda Byrne. After that, I had to read it. When you serve as Topicsmaster, you might even make books a topic for people to address: what is their favorite book and why, or who is their favorite character in a book and why, or what is the last book they read and what did they think of it. 

If a movie interests you, see if it was based on a book. Then get that book. If you enjoyed the movie Pursuit of Happyness, reading Chris Gardner’s memoir of the same title will provide a more in-depth and somewhat different look at the American dream. After seeing The Prince of Tides, I read Pat Conroy’s book on which it was based. While I thought the movie had improved on the book in some ways, the book provided a wealth of details and insights on relations between men and women that the movie could not. 

Read the book-review sections of newspapers and magazines. Many review current books; others cite favorite books of celebrities and well-known people – check these out, too. If something sounds interesting, make a note of it. Be constantly building lists of books that sound intriguing. 

A visit to your local library can be productive. Among the various sections, Biography is always a good bet, as old and new works can be equally fascinating. Also, look at the section called New Releases. In addition, check the reshelving carts to see what others are reading and if any of those appeal. 

Keep an eye out for used-book sales. Books come into your life in mysterious ways. I once found one of the most influential books of my life, an autobiography of the writer Marya Mannes, in a K-Mart close-out sale. Keep a special eye out for those books that come into your life serendipitously, i.e., those left behind by the previous tenant in a vacation cottage, or the ones among the magazines at the laundromat. Some people swear by this! 

        “The books that come into your life at the right time are also omens and indicators of energy directions.” 
                – Ed Buryn 

Get thee to a bookstore. Sections are labeled with rubrics like Travel, Self-Improvement, Politics, World History, Biography, True Crime and Fiction. Wander around. Browse. What sections and books interest you the most? That is a clue to check out those sections on a regular basis. If possible, you might try exploring a few different bookstores. Sometimes the way a store arranges its merchandise may make it more accessible to your interests. On one trip you may be able to find three or four promising leads. 

The Art of Browsing
Scan the titles of books. Titles tell a lot; they have to. Does the title interest you? Is the book cover intriguing? What about the blurbs on the back and the inside flaps? A lot of useful information is condensed there. 

The Page Test
OK, now for the acid test. Just open the book at random. Is the writing style boring to you, difficult or too scholarly for your taste, full of footnotes that don’t interest you? Put it back. Is it full of lengthy descriptions that don’t grab you, either? Put it back. Are the characters talking about something that doesn’t engage you, or in a way that annoys you? Back it goes...Or has this page drawn you in, making you want to read further? Do the ideas, information, plot or characters intrigue you? Do you wonder how the events of the story came about? Can you relate somehow? You will soon know if this book is a keeper. 

Myths About Reading
Many people believe you must start at the beginning of a book and continue to the end. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Start anywhere you like. That book isn’t going anywhere, and you aren’t going to miss anything. Your acid test may get you so interested, you have to continue reading from that point, then go back to find out how this plot point came about. If you get bogged down in a boring patch, just skip it and move to something more interesting. No bolt of lightning is going to target you if you jump ahead and read the end, either. If the book is any good, it will be satisfying to go back and see how the author got there.

In nonfiction, especially, there may be chapters that don’t interest you. Skip them, and get on to the ones that do. In contrast to people, books are easy: Superficial, limited relationships are OK. You can use them and lose them. Love them and leave them. Dump them for a more attractive book. Throw them over and come back to them later. 

        “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested;
        that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some
        few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” 

                – Sir Francis Bacon

Getting the Book
If a book is on your list, you might want to first log on to the Web site of your local public library to see if the library has it. If so, you can place a hold on the book and the library will notify you as soon as it is ready to be picked up. If your local library doesn’t own it, request it on interlibrary loan.

If bookstores are a convenient choice for you, keep in mind that many have special membership plans with sizable discounts. A large number also have a generous return policy.

Sometimes books are even cheaper online, at Web sites like, or If it’s not a brand new release or a huge bestseller, you will probably be able to find a used edition of your chosen book – one still in great condition – at an excellent price through the same online bookstores. You can also resell books of your own there, too.

There’s even a site called (and it’s not just for paperbacks), where visitors can acquire books for free (excluding the price of postage) by trading tomes with other readers.

Deeper and More Productive Reading
As you read, consider keeping what used to be called a “commonplace book” (which is anything but commonplace). Here you write down quotations or passages that strike you for whatever reason, and you can comment on them. You’d be surprised at how useful this can be in working up a speech of substance, as well as in preparing to speak off the cuff. The quotes that you collect and assimilate should not only be thought-provoking – they should also be accurate, correctly attributed, in their natural context and available when you need them. 

                    "Education unfortunately doesn't always scratch where it itches. Books can and do."

Keep in mind that a book is not just a conversation between author and reader; it is even more richly enjoyed and profited from when it serves to elicit discussion among more people. Whenever people discuss books, whether it’s students and teachers, parents and children, friends and family, a book club, or even readers sharing online book reviews, a literary community is created. Such communities make lives richer, and they can consist of as few as two people – say, you and your spouse, or you and your child. A man I know has an arrangement with his teenage son – his son chooses a book and his father pledges to read it and discuss it with him. Then it’s the father’s turn to choose. 

Finding Your Next Book
No one likes to be between relationships, and book lovers don’t like to be between books. As you consume a particular work, keep on the lookout for other books the author may refer to, and see what other books the author has written. Also have a look at the authors who have written the blurbs for that book you’re reading: They are in the same field or write in the same genre, so their works may interest you as well.

If you’re reading a work of nonfiction, look at the bibliography, if there is one. Mark any interesting titles you see there. If you go to an online bookstore to check out a title, other suggested book titles will often appear onscreen on the same topic or a related one. Often these sites offer not only book reviews, but also a chance to see “inside” the book, i.e., the table of contents, the cover and perhaps a few pages. 

Time to Read
How much of your time is spent waiting for something? Have a book with you at all times. When you’re at the doctor’s office, waiting for a haircut, on public transportation, waiting for delivery people to show up, standing in line at the DMV or at the supermarket checkout line – all these experiences can be improved if you’re engrossed in a good book. Right before going to sleep is a good time, too, as long as you don’t get too engrossed and stay up half the night!

I certainly don’t recommend reading while driving, but audio books work great, especially if you have a long trip or commute.

No time to hang out in bookstores? OK, then how about at airports? You’ve typically got at least an hour to kill before your flight – get into the airport bookstore and check it out. If a book grabs you, buy it and read it on the flight. When flights are delayed (as they often are), you can look at it as a great opportunity, and if you have picked well, you may barely notice the extra time you are stuck.

Getting into the reading habit, and into an ongoing relationship with books, will improve the level of your speeches and enhance your enjoyment of your Toastmasters club. Go for it! It could be one of the best relationships of your life. 

Katherine Meeks, M.A., is a speech consultant and language coach based in New York City who works with diplomats and executives. She can be reached at