let your readers breathe

Normally, I curate my morning reading stack based on "readability." In the morning, I'm fresh, for all of an hour or two anyway. Why not make the most of it? Toughest reads first.

It's all downhill from there. By the afternoon, my capacity for mental labor is significantly curtailed. Mostly, it's magazine articles and memoirs. Before bed, I can barely focus my eyes. A good time for light fiction.

The Dawn of Everything, an ambitious work of history, anthropology, economics, and more, seemed like a clear a.m. pick when I placed it on the stack, but despite its 700+ pages, it's proving to be the breeziest of reads. Why?

The conversational tone helps. Clearly, the authors intended to reach a mass audience (relative to the tiny percentage of people who actually read nonfiction books in the first place). What makes reading this book feel so completely feasible, however, is the way each chapter is divided into very manageable sections of three or four pages. It really makes a difference.

I spend twenty minutes reading over breakfast each morning, giving ten minutes each to two different titles. With Dawn, ten minutes is long enough to comfortably conquer one of those sections. Isn't it more satisfying to reach a clear milestone before putting a book down? It helps feel like you're getting somewhere. In most books as weighty as this one, I need Post-it flags to mark the paragraph where my attention began to waver. Slogging through this way, you start to empathize with Joyce's bird moving grains of sand for all eternity. After a certain point, I tend to lose interest. That hasn't been the case at all with Dawn.

My son plays clarinet in his middle school jazz band and orchestra. One of the first tactics I shared with him from my own licorice-stick days was using breath marks. With wind instruments, you plan your inhalations in advance. As you work your way through a new piece of music, you use a pencil to identify ideal moments to breathe throughout—usually, a little earlier than you'd otherwise need to—tagging each with an apostrophe.

Books need breath marks, too. The Dawn of Everything relies on comically verbose section headers for this purpose. The last one I got to ran as follows: "In which we explain the demiurgic powers of A.R.J. Turgot, and how he turned the Indigenous critique of European civilization on its head, laying the basis for most modern views of social evolution (or: how an argument about 'freedom' became one about 'equality')". Cute, but you don't need anything more dramatic than a space break to mark a breath for the reader. Or three asterisks, if you're feeling fancy.

Use breath marks. Give the reader a moment to regroup, to experience that little dopamine-rush of satisfaction at having gotten somewhere before putting your book down. Every 500 words or so is plenty. Just as punctuation and paragraphs help us navigate even the most complex cognitive terrain, section breaks pause the flow of your overall argument just long enough for the reader to step away and reflect. Speaking of which...

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