Learning to Read Books Again: A How-To

I began to read at a very early age. Spurred on by spite (thanks, cousins who mocked me for being a baby who couldn’t read when I was a literal baby!), I became an incredibly strong reader by kindergarten, eagerly devouring the chapter books designated for the older kids. Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney movie I saw in a theater, and what a lovely coincidence it was that Belle and I shared the same primary hobby.

Part of why I was such a devout follower of Islam was that I fed my very literal young mind with extensive religious reading. After I’d exhausted the theological options available at my parents home (not to mention finishing the children’s dictionary a few times), the school library as well as the community one became my true home. After spending most of my childhood, adolescence, and college years reading extensively, that I was a bookworm was one of the few stable aspects of my identity. In a way, you could blame the books themselves for the majority of the tumult in terms of who I was (i.e. strong Muslim then progressive Muslim then secular deist then avowed atheist).

At some point in my early 20’s, I got caught up in the whirlwind that was social media and blogs and think-y journalistic outlets (Slate, Salon, and so on). I also began catching up the TV shows and movies that I’d missed as a super-bookish, overly-pious Muslim kid. I didn’t realize that I’d shifted so hard in the focus of my media consumption until it was too late. When I realized I hadn’t read a book in a while, I picked one up — an exciting and fun one, no less, one I’d been looking forward to reading for years — and tried to finish it. I found that I…. couldn’t?

It was as simple as that. I had lost the ability. And it was shocking. I no longer was who I was, a notorious and voracious bookworm. I couldn’t sustain the required attention on extended works after not reading anything with a higher word-count than a moderate-length long-read. I felt disappointed and ashamed and took steps to rectify the situation.

Handle the Logistics

Don’t get too ambitious with your goals unless you are the type to aim too high so as to land where you would like to be. For someone like me, creating a plan I could stick to and strategies that blended into my everyday life was key.

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Oh, and get your eyes checked if you can, as you will need them. Personally, in addition to new glasses, I required sinus medications (and eventually sinus surgery) before I could read a lot again, since it’s hard to focus when you are constantly having migraine/sinus headaches.

Let Go of the Guilt

Overall, this is a good step. Forgetting to read books happens to the best of us. Feeling bad won’t help. Actions will.

Specifically, for me, the guilt most holding me back was about unfinished books. For years, I’d prided myself in powering through books I couldn’t stand, in finishing what I’d started with very few exceptions. Post-college, this approach was hindering me by miring me in books that I would never ever finish, some on topics I already knew quite well. I started allowing myself to get rid of books that, for whatever reason, didn’t manage to grab me within the first two dozen or so pages.

I mitigated the guilt somewhat by submitting the books eligible for it to the Amazon Trade-In Program. Anything else went into Bookmooch.

Try a Different Type or Format

Many popular authors of the past originally published their books in serial format. Some authors today are doing the same with formats like the Kindle Serial, including Seanan McGuire with her awesome Indexing series. Installations in a serial can motivate with their short, often cliffhanger format; the fact that the pieces come together to an extended work can mean an easing back into that longer format.

Audiobooks are an excellent option for multitasking. I listen to audiobooks on the occasions when I drive and the more frequent times when I commute by transit. In the latter case, I can play a puzzle game on my phone as I listen, which I find to be deeply satisfying. Most libraries these days offer digital audiobooks as well as ebooks.

Graphic novels and comics are another transition-easer. They tend to be in serialized format, even when published in an anthology or compilation. The dialogue-heavy format can be a more natural way to read longer works again than subjecting yourself to long exposition-filled passages.

Make Like a Tree: Return to Your Roots or Branch Out

I used to read books that shocked adults with their thousand-plus page counts. Some of them were much-beloved favorites, like The Mists of Avalon (problematic fave) and A Suitable Boy. Returning to them brought me back to the particular joys of extended narratives. You don’t have to have had favorites with quadruple-digit word counts to return to them, though. Revisiting an old favorite you always found readable and compelling can help.

roots branches photo

Another way to go back can be by reading the book version of movies you know and love well, or checking out retellings of classic stories you like. For example, retold fairy tales are a favorite subject of YA novels, making those books a win-win in that they are both readable and familiar.

Branching out might be helpful, too. Maybe you’re tired of the same stories being told by and about the same sorts of people in the same ways. Diversifying is an excellent option here. More specifically, you might be feeling fatigue after reading the millionth jarring line in an otherwise innocuous book, so you want to focus on authors who are less likely to pen such phrases. Hint hint, I have done this thing and it was good.

Create Reading Time

Years ago, I got a cheap used Kindle and a lightweight case, then made a habit of always carrying it. This means that no matter where I go, if I have spare time, I have the ability to read. Others I know do the same with their smartphones. I can’t do much reading on an LCD screen, but when that is on the docket, I turn on airplane mode to make it harder for me to toggle away from the book and onto social media or other distractions.

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Don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t a “real” book.

In addition to giving myself the ability to turn any idle time into reading time, I started carving out times of day dedicated to books. It’s part of why I commute by train and spend at least one of my two such daily trips reading. Before I took transit, I would spend half of my daily lunch break reading in my car.

Incentivize with Activities & Rewards

While the spoilers study isn’t quite what people think it is, it does suggest potential for classic works of literature. Reading a book whose plot and/or twist is long-spoiled for you could add an extra level of enjoyment via anticipation.

Sprints or marathons can incentivize reading. Deciding that the next free weekend is the one where you read most of the day or that you are going to finish a certain book within a certain span of time can lead to a level of satisfaction beyond just having read something.

Reading socially can be fun and compelling. Starting up a digital book club with a monthly chat works for some people. I did a mini weekly book club with just my spouse for a while where we sat and discussed what we read on Wednesday nights. I have also read a book with Benny, the date set for our conversation serving as a motivation to finish the work. Book Riot started doing Read Harder challenges starting last year, with GoodReads and Facebook groups to match; for me, challenges tend to motivate even when not done with a group.

By doing combinations of the above over a few months, I did manage to retrain myself, but it was hard. Much much harder than I had expected given my history and personality, and much harder than the maintenance I could have performed on my ability if I had managed to pick up a book even just occasionally.

Based on conversations with friends, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Technology seems to have made it easier for us bookworms to forget to read actual books, though it seems common for people to stop reading as much as they grow older. That it is a widespread problem doesn’t make me feel any better about my slide into inattention. Lately, I’ve been on a comics kick. Works that don’t involve lots of dialogue/internal monologue and pictures feel longer than they used to.

Time to retrain again. I don’t want to end up more Gaston than Belle.

Learning to Read Books Again: A How-To

6 thoughts on “Learning to Read Books Again: A How-To

  1. 1

    Another good source of challenges is internet-based re-reads (0r read-alongs) (e.g. the rather large variety to be found at tor.com). I’ve found that, even with books that I was having a lot of trouble getting into, committing to reading 1-2 chapters a week so that I can read (and occasionally join) the comments is a good way to keep myself going (and to find interesting thoughts about the book, including often things that I didn’t notice the first time through, but which have deepened my enjoyment). Note that this method does (potentially) require some ability to be partway through multiple books at the same time.

  2. 2

    I’ve had a similar experience with reading, and maybe less erudite, deep strategy games. On the plus side pretty much no one is going to give you any guilt around not spending enough time on video games. On the down side I really do miss being able to submerge myself into learning a complicated system and live there for a while.
    In addition to what you suggest above, I also found that broadening what I was reading made a big difference. I also (? I think I remember you doing this ?) decided to explicitly try to read non-white non-guy books for a while and found a bunch of stuff that was really different from what I’d been reading before.

  3. 3

    I found this interesting because for me the big issue has been writing, not reading. In my work I haven’t really written anything longer than a couple of thousand words in many years; when I tried to engage my more creative impulses I find it really hard to do.

    That said, I always wondered about the multitasking thing. I can’t really do audiobooks that well; I can’t engage attention for anything really complicated stuff. Maybe I am just old, but if I try to listen to anything important while playing a video game I just get sensory overload and it’s just tiring.

    I have found that when I got a full time job and had to commute, that the time on the train was absolutely great for reading. In the morning I had to read the paper, but on the way home I’d always be able to get through a few pages of whatever book, and 4-5 pages a day adds up.

    (honestly, from a use-case perspective there’s nothing like an old fashioned newspaper on a subway because if you lose it it doesn’t matter, and no Wi-Fi is necessary, nor batteries, and I don’t have to worry about my thumb hitting the wrong spot on the screen and turning pages I don’t want, but I’m a damned Luddite I guess, with a love-hate relationship with most technology).

  4. 4

    Your suggestion about audiobooks is a good one. Besides the library, another free source is librivox.org. Volunteer readers create free, downloadable public-domain recordings of works in the public domain. Because of copyright laws, this mostly means things written before 1923, but there are some more recent works, where the copyright for some reason wasn’t renewed or where the material was never copyrighted in the first place (such as U.S. federal government creations, including the 9/11 commission report).

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