“I should read more.”
I know you think it, because almost every post-high-schooler who has not completely given up on life and joy and happiness thinks it at some point or another.
We tend to file this guilt-ridden thought somewhere between New Year’s resolutions and dental cleanings in terms of our priorities. We’ll periodically return to this secret shrine of our failures to dust off our dreams and make some kind of helpless apologies to our past selves (“No really, this time I swear I’ll do it!”), only to fall back into old habits as soon as Benedict Cumberbatch makes his 3rd season debut in Sherlock. (Worth it.)
There are many reasons people stop reading. Unfortunately, I think the decline tends to begin in high school or college, because nothing takes the fun out of reading like the mandate that we spend all our time doing it about topics we don’t like very much. Here’s looking at you, Computer Skills 101! Honorable mentions: Basic Algebra and Introduction to basically any subject.
Then the 9 to 5 sets in, and with it, the need to cram each free moment full of fun, or housework, or whatever else our priorities are, and boom. Before you know it, you’re getting home from work just in time to cook and clean up a meal, surf the Web for an hour or five, and tumble into bed.
It’s tough to find time to read. I can empathize with that. And a few months ago, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to find a way to add reading back in my life now, because if I didn’t make the effort, it would never happen. Simple as that.
So, for what little it’s worth, here are a few of my tips for people looking for more time to read: (Now if I could just develop the same motivation toward exercise. . .)
1) Start small.
This is where I’ve always stumbled in the past. Because I was always coming off a comparative reading drought, I would want to dive into the literary deep end as a sort of penance to the literary gods. “Look, I’m reading Paradise Lost! I haven’t completely lost my taste for good literature! That must count for something. . .right?”
Nope. It doesn’t. Because Paradise Lost, though admittedly lovely, isn’t for a reading lightweight. And, if you haven’t been reading much for the past several years, I’m sorry to say you have most likely lost your reading prowess. So give your poor flabby reading muscles a break and start with something a little lighter, just to get your toes wet. There’s plenty of time to work your way into the heavy stuff.
2) Keep an accessible reading list.
I’ve had “reading lists” for years, written on napkins, scraps of paper, class notes, journals. . .basically, any time I heard about a book I wanted, I would write the name down on the nearest available scrap of paper, which I would then proceed to run through the wash or blow my nose in or somehow methodically lose. It was very frustrating.
Finally, I downloaded the Goodreads app on my phone and have started slowly transitioning all the ‘lists’ to that. This has been of inestimable value, as I now have to invest zero brainpower into trying to recall titles I want as I’m wandering the library looking for my next victim.
3) Carry a book wherever you go.
I mean wherever. I try to keep at least one library book in my car and by my bed at all times. Back when I had a sizable purse (and more shoulder problems) I toted my Kindle with me wherever I went. Now I just grab whatever book is in my front seat before I leave my car.
This provides me with the chance to finish up a book while waiting to check out of the grocery store, while waiting at the doctor’s office, while waiting for my dinner to cook, etc. If I get to work or a coffee date a little early, I read. If I have an appointment, I’ll read in the waiting room. Sometimes I can finish a few chapters. Sometimes, just a few paragraphs or sentences. But each time I reflexively reach for that book is another pebble in the foundation of Self as Reader.
4) Challenge yourself.
I know I just said you should start small and read for fun, and I do mean that, but don’t stay small. Please. After you start making reading a habit, challenge yourself. Throw in a genre you don’t read often or an author you think you won’t enjoy. Otherwise you may find yourself tiring of reading; or, worse yet, come to the end of a long reading career having done nothing but read the same tired story in the same blasé prose over and over. Any semi-literate person can be “oft-read”; it takes intentionality to be well-read. Reading offers you the incredible chance to bend your brain into the world of another person; do you really just want to limit yourself to your own small (albeit undoubtedly awesome) world?
5) Stop thinking about the benefits and let yourself fall in love with it.
I think one of the saddest things about the statement “I should read more” is the guilt in which the statement tends to be saturated. Like Brussels sprouts consumption and exercise, reading is too often categorized as one of those activities that people “should” do, but don’t because they’re no fun. We tend focus on all the benefits we’re supposed to want rather than the benefits that will actually motivate us. We think things like, “Brussels sprouts and exercise will help me live longer” and “Reading will make me smarter”, while overlooking the facts that Brussels sprouts are delicious when oven roasted with some butter, that exercise can be as simple as a walk by the river with a friend, and that reading can be delightful. And by focusing on long-term benefits rather than short term payouts, we rob ourselves of the joys of engaging in something for the sheer delight of it.
So stop reading because you should.
Don’t read just because it’s likely to make you smarter and more thoughtful and give you a better understanding of the human condition.
Do it because you like it. And the more you do it, the more you’ll like it.
Need some reading suggestions? You don’t need a smartphone to sign up for Goodreads, where you can basically spy on people’s digital bookshelves for suggestions! I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns andThe Light Between Oceans, both of which I quite enjoyed (Suns was probably my favorite of the two, if I had to choose one). Jane Eyre was a recent welcome addition to my classics library, and The Book Thief, which was just released as a movie, is one of my favorites of the last few years.