How To Read More: Unlock Your Inner Bookworm
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R. R. Martin
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Books are one of the most enriching joys of life. If you’re reading this, and you’re like most people, you probably wish you read more. According to PEW Research, Americans read an average of roughly 14 books per year, with half reading fewer than five. 23 percent of US adults admit to not having read a single book in the past 12 months. Even granting these results, knowing how prone people are to fib in order to make themselves look better, this 14-book average is being carried by the 18 percent of respondents who reported reading 20 or more books a year. If you’re not in that 18 percent, but would like to be, stick around.
Growing up, I was never much of a reader. Like so many children, I was soured on the practice by uninspired teachers and an obsolete education system more interested in cramming students’ heads with what they “ought to know” than in kindling a true love of literature. I came to associate reading with excruciating, mind-numbing drudgery the way a housecat comes to associate car rides with a thermometer up the ass. It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I rediscovered the written word on my own terms. In the 14 years since, I’ve read nearly 500 books, over 400 in the past ten years. These are my tips, tricks, and secrets to developing sustained reading habits.
The Psychology of Measuring Goals
Quantifying and measuring your goals is important not just for tracking progress, but as a psychological motivator. First, create and maintain a reading list. Then set yearly reading challenges. I use GoodReads for both — it’s an enormously useful tool — but you could make it work with a spreadsheet, a notes app, even a good old-fashioned paper notebook. Once your reading target is set, publicize it on your social portals, tell your friends, and challenge them to beat you.
The very act of list-making and goal-setting has a motivating influence. Publicly announcing your goals applies additional pressure, because once you’re on record, you’ll seem like a flake if you don’t follow through. And if you’re able to make it a competition with friends and family, the whole effect is supercharged. I attribute at least a third of my reading in the past decade, perhaps even as much as half, to these tricks. There have been more than a few years where I made late-season pushes like a sports team on the playoff bubble, easily reading at three or four times my usual clip, either to prove to myself that I can meet my challenge, or to kick the ass of my competitor(s). And even when I fell short, I ended up reading far more than I would have otherwise. That’s the beauty of it: even when you “lose”, you still win. Don’t underestimate the power of bragging rights.
Momentum and Mojo
High volume reading is all about momentum. Always be reading. Always. Be. Reading. There should never be a time between books. You should always be in the middle of one, or two, or three (though generally not more than three at once). The idea is to keep the fire fueled, stoked, and blazing at all times.
But life and human nature sometimes get in the way of our plans. Maybe you go a week or two without reading much, and now you’re struggling to get back into the swing of things. In situations like this, find a few short books, the sort you could tackle in an afternoon or two, and then down them in quick succession, bang-bang. Reading short books is a cheap move, and I don’t recommend it as a permanent strategy, because you’re not actually reading more by doing it, but there is something satisfying and encouraging about finishing a book. Getting a couple easy ones in the bag will help get your mojo back, and start you rolling again. You’ll end up reading more overall than by waiting for the mood to organically rekindle itself. I’ve used this method time and again.
Diversify How You Consume Books
Everyone has their ideal reading setup. That cozy chair in a quiet room with lots of natural sunlight and a nice hardcover. But sometimes it’s not so quiet, and the lighting isn’t great at night, and besides, you’re a busy person and can only spend so much time at home. This is where consuming books in a variety of formats comes in. If you have never read a book on a tablet/e-reader or smart phone, try it. If you hate the experience, so be it. But if you enjoy it, or could get used to it, it expands your reading opportunities, since physical books aren’t always at your fingertips, but your phone is.
Audiobooks are another game-changer. We all spend hours per day engaged in solitary activities: commuting alone, eating alone, household chores, running errands, driving, working out, walking, and so forth. Most of these activities cannot be done while visually reading, but they can be done while listening to audiobooks. Many people already fill this time with music, radio, or podcasts. If you’re serious about reading more, then spoken books should elbow their way into your audio diet. Dedicating just half of this time to audiobooks can effortlessly add 10-15 books a year. Most audiobook players also allow you to increase the playback speed, and within reason, your mind adjusts to it, enabling you to listen to more books in less time.
Audiobooks “count” just as much as their text counterparts. The information is easily absorbed, so long as you’re not overly distracted — just don’t listen to books on quantum physics while trying to assemble a futon (I speak from experience). In fact, certain authors consider it the preferred method of consuming their work. I personally use Audible, but another great app is LibriVox, which is a growing catalog of completely free public domain audiobooks, mostly older work, as per copyright law. Your local library may have audiobooks available as well.
Motivation and Habit Building
Sleep. One key component to building better habits is regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Sleeping a solid eight hours isn’t just good for energy, physical health, and longevity, but mental health as well. It improves mood, focus, attention span, and discipline. This is essential for nearly everything in life, and that’s reason enough to prioritize sleep, but with specific regard to reading, being well-rested noticeably enhances your motivation, willpower, and reading stamina. If you’re one of those people who thinks books put you to sleep, then unless you have a medical condition, you’re either reading terrible books or aren’t getting enough sleep to begin with.
Reallocating time. It’s also useful to identify the habits or hobbies you feel occupy too much of your time. Making a conscious effort to cut back on them frees up additional time for reading. Back in my early 20’s, it was video games. For you, it may be binge-watching reality television, mindlessly clicking around on YouTube, or scrolling through social media.
Your Remembering Self. Now and then, you might find yourself struggling to get through a book. If it’s truly awful, abandon it early on. But if you’ve made it past the halfway point and are hitting a wall, consider Daniel Kahneman’s concept of the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. Sometimes, we remember events differently — and more favorably — than we felt at the time while experiencing them. If a book was interesting enough to reach the halfway mark, it’s interesting enough to complete, and when you do, you may look back in retrospect with a newfound sense of appreciation. When reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, I often woefully wondered what I’d gotten myself into, but having finished it, I can now recognize the richness, beauty, and value of the work. The marvels of the human mind!
Cultivating an ethos. We all have a picture of the type of person we aspire to be. If you’re still here, then that idealized version of yourself, whatever else they may be, is an avid reader. Think about this person from time to time. “This is the kind of person I want to be” has a surprisingly motivating effect. Make your reading a mark of personal pride, an act of defiance against a society that bombards you with and seeks to drag you into mediocrity. Does being a voracious reader make you “better” than the casual or non-reader? Well, if it’ll spur you to read more, then yes, yes it does. Arrogance, as with most negative emotions, can be channeled in productive ways.
Just read. The way to do something is to do it. Most of life’s answers aren’t easy, but they are simple. If you want to read more, then read more.
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