Reading time: About 5 mins.
Many people tell me they want to read more. But I know it’s not always easy. So, here’s my advice on how to be a better reader…
I received a provocative question from one of my clients this week.
He asked, “Do you really read for pleasure or is it always part of your 52-books-a-year challenge?”
The question gave me a good laugh and I was quick to reassure him on both counts. Because, to me, they are one and the same thing. Yes, I really read for pleasure, and yes, it is also part of my 52-books-a-year challenge.
I have read like a zealot since I was nine years old. As a child, I used to cart home 10 books (the maximum allowed) from the library every week, and I’d finish most of them by the end of the weekend.
At university, I chafed when essay-writing and required reading in my chosen field — political science — got in the way of my pleasure reading (novels). Even after I gave birth to triplets, I still maintained my nose-in-a-book way. It just became a nose-in-their-book way. (Hello Harry Potter.)
The only time I ever stopped reading was following a stroke when I was in my mid-40s. (Doctors still haven’t figured out why that happened because I have no risk factors and chronically low blood pressure.) It took me most of a year to recover, but when I resumed regular life, books were still in my blood.
But if you want to be a better reader, you first need to find really good books to read. If you don’t have a good book on hand right now, let’s talk about how to find one for you.
The important thing is to figure out your WHY. Why do you want to read? Do you want to learn? Or do you simply want the enjoyment of reading?
If it’s about the learning, you likely have some specific subjects already in mind. Perhaps business, maybe psychology, possibly current events. Figure out the subject that most interests you and start looking for books in that area. Speak with friends. Get ideas from the internet. Go talk to a librarian at your local library (they are people who really love to help!)
If it’s about the enjoyment of reading, then identify your specific tastes. Me, I like literary fiction and memoir, but if you prefer thrillers and chick lit, that’s A-OK too. There is no such thing as an unsuitable genre. Read what pleases you most.
Pick books that delight you. If you do that, you will be motivated to read more.
But you do need to have a good way of recording the titles of your want-to-read list. I find book shopping to be very much like grocery shopping — I never go without a list. (Otherwise, I’ll buy too many avocados or too much expensive dipping sauce.) I’ve kept a want-to-read list on my cellphone for the last 10 years, but lately, when I hear a book recommendation, I have a new practice:
- I download the free sample version to my Kindle.
- I read the sample.
- If it’s not a “Hell yes! Let me read this right away,” I throw it out.
- If I love the sample, I either buy it or get it from my public library immediately.
Once you have a book in hand, you need to decide how much time you’d like to spend reading every day. Start small — even five minutes is way better than zero — and build from there. If your Netflix addiction gets in the way, require yourself to read for five minutes before watching anything. Also think about other places you can carve out some time: what about your commute? Your lunch break? Just before falling asleep?
Give yourself permission to quit any book. There’s nothing worse than a boring book! Feel no guilt about discarding any book that doesn’t hold your interest. In fact, throw it across the room if that makes you feel better. You could commit to reading 50 pages of a book before you decide. Or just walk away. There are more books than you will ever have time to read anyway.
Consider finding a reading buddy. I say “consider” because this kind of approach doesn’t work for me. I find book clubs stressful because I hate being told what to read. But some people find it easier to commit to a reading challenge when they have a friend doing the same thing.
Give yourself some goals. Read a certain number of books — per week, per month or per year. And commit to mixing it up a little bit. I try to vary fiction with non-fiction, but it’s also possible to seek variety within each of these genres. After an adventure story, maybe you’d like to try some historical fiction for example?
Create an attractive reading environment. Do you have a favourite chair? I often prefer reading in bed, where I can lie down and ease my aching back. I’m not usually easily distracted by my phone, but if ever I am, I place it in another room. And if you’re reading in a room with other people nearby, consider wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
Don’t try to speed-read. I took a speed-reading course about 40 years ago, and it only made me recognize the value of reading more slowly and deeply. If you find yourself starting to skim or skip sections, then backtrack. Use your finger on the page to help you go more slowly.
Actively reread. If something is confusing you, reread it. If it’s a challenging passage, read it aloud or paraphrase it in your own words.
Mark passages with a highlighter. If I own a book, I never hesitate to mark it up. It’s not a museum piece; it’s something that belongs to me! If it’s a library book or a friend’s book, I mark sections I like with removable stickies and then I photograph the page.
Develop a way to take your reading on the road. I have a Kindle, which I love for reading fiction. (For non-fiction I prefer hard copies, which I find easier to flip through.) I throw it in my purse or backpack whenever I’m heading out. That way I always have something to read while waiting for a client, sitting in a doctor’s waiting-room or standing in a tedious bank lineup. It’s also a very handy luggage-lightener when you’re going on vacation. Or, you can always consider installing a reading app on your phone. And remember, you can download many public-domain books at no charge.
Try an audiobook. Readers often ask me if reading an audiobook “counts.” Of course it does! I listened to a lot of audiobooks when my kids were small. It was the only way to make road trips less painful. Audiobooks are also useful when you’re doing housework or walking. And it’s great to hear talented writers read their own work. My all-time favourite audiobook is Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah. (He does terrific voices and accents.) Oh, and remember there’s nothing wrong with listening to a book for a few chapters and then going back to reading a hard copy.
Keep a reading diary. I’ve kept a reading diary for more than 30 years, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. Former New York Times books editor Pamela Paul calls this list a Bob — a book of books. (Her own book on the subject is quite wonderful: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.) My memory is tragically bad now, but my Bob always comes to the rescue.
Summarize and consider whether you agree with the book. At the end of your reading session, sum up, in your own words, what you’ve just read. This is the very best way to remember and internalize what you’ve been reading.
Occasionally, read outside your comfort zone. I’ve read only a handful of graphic novels, but when Canada Reads 2023 announced that Kate Beaton’s graphic novel Ducks was the winner, I bought it and read it. And loved it. It sat on my coffee table for several weeks with various people turning it down, but it’s a great book! I finally persuaded my recently retired brother-in-law to try it this week.
Follow books in other media. I started my working life as books editor for a metropolitan daily newspaper. And while newspapers no longer have the same prominence in society as they once did, I still depend on some of them for my book ideas: the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post often have really great suggestions. And there are book-specific websites as well: Kirkus Reviews, BookRiot, and Bookforum. Some good radio shows/podcasts include NPR’s Fresh Air, So Many Damn Books, The Guardian Books Podcast, Writers & Company (host Eleanor Wachtel has retired but it’s still in reruns) and the Book Review Podcast from the New York Times.
In a week or so, you’ll receive the list of books I’ve read this year since June. I’m already up to 51. Just one more title to go! (And, if you’re interested, you can see all the books I’ve read in the last 13 years here.)
Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
Have you learned how to be a better reader? What tricks can you share? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/23 I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!