Rebuilding the reading habit.

I’ve always thought of myself as a reader, but truth be told, I fell out of the habit for a couple years. Back when I had all the time in the world, it wasn’t hard to devote entire afternoons—days even—to burrowing through whatever latest fantasy series I’d gotten my hands on. I’ve always been surrounded by book lovers, so reading was something of a shared culture—and therefore easier to maintain. After a while, reading books became part of my identity.

As in: Hi, I’m Laura—a reader.

Only, once life got a little busier, some combination of work, and school, and Netflix ate into my reading time. That, and a couple weighty books dragged down my reading list.

As it turns out, some types of books are harder to read than others, and, because I read War and Peace in high school, I forgot to respect that. I thought once I’d made it through one legendarily difficult book I could conquer anything. I didn’t fully appreciate how some books challenge your brain more than others. Sometimes it’s the style (stream of consciousness), others the content (depressing or intellectually dense), still others the language (complex or obscure). Furthermore, fiction and nonfiction require different skill sets of authors: it’s not hard to find an incredibly intelligent person with a fascinating idea deliver ground-braking research in nearly incomprehensible writing.

I usually have at least two books going at once: one fiction, one nonfiction. At one point, for both these titles, it would take me an hour to read ten pages. At such an excruciatingly slow pace, it wasn’t hard to be tempted toward other pastimes. I didn’t want to start anything else, because I felt guilty leaving my other books unread. But the thought of picking them up only to make poor progress felt too disheartening to contemplate.

The hardest part was that I loved both these books. One was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’ve never seen someone use adverbs so effectively. I used to read excerpts to anyone who would listen. I spoke about it in awestruck, glowing terms. And yet, it took me over two years to finish. How could I barely stand to read a novel I enjoyed so much?

The other was Thinking Fast and Slow. I believe I spent somewhere between a year and a year and a half reading it. I still think about (and reference) many of the concepts I learned from that book. But at the same time, I often struggled to follow the author’s point. It made me feel stupid, slow, dense, obtuse. I remember feeling particularly frustrated one day, and trying to draw an illustration of what I thought the author was saying, and becoming so upset that I nearly cried because I felt sure that, as a Nobel-prize-winning economist, he certainly had to be right, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how. (I maintain that this particular part of the book would have benefitted from a well-placed diagram.)

My difficulty was that, with so much of my identity grounded in the idea that I am a reader, I was simply not equipped to handle the thought that I couldn’t finish a book.

One of my brothers had a similar experience after I gave him a particularly dense tome of history for Christmas. He enjoyed the book, but only made about five pages of progress a night before falling asleep. After a time, this slow progress began to feel like a defeat. Finally, on vacation one year, he picked up a science fiction title for some light reading. Talking with him about it afterwards, I was struck by how excited he was to have finally finished reading something.

Most of us need a certain level of turnover in a reading list to keep our motivation up. Otherwise, reading becomes a chore: something we force ourselves to do in order to maintain our self-perception of being readers. When we struggle to finish a book, it feels like our identity is at stake.

I spent two years feeling like I somehow couldn’t read anymore. That I lacked the discipline, or the endurance, or the intelligence to finish a book. Of course, I still read during this time period: probably seven or eight novels a year, not counting audiobooks. But each book felt like a cheat. Like they didn’t count because they weren’t what I was supposed to read.

Then one day I sat down with a piece of children’s literature and finished it in an evening. I check out several other titles from the library and read six books in a week. It felt like I had regained part of my identity. I allowed my interests to guide my reading choices, and stopped feeling guilty about it. And the funny thing is, once my overall reading picked up, I felt more willing to devote some of that time toward those big, heavy reads that almost defeated me. Finishing those books felt like a giant stone rolled off my chest. I regained my confidence.

Every now and then I talk to people who say things like “I wish I read more,” or “I used to read but I don’t have the time anymore,” or other words that remind me of myself when I thought I had lost that part of my identity. So if you feel that way, here’s what I have to say:

  1. Finish something. Anything. Enjoy the thrill. You need that.
  2. Don’t be afraid to not finish a book. Sometimes they’re not for you. That’s OK. There’s no shame in that, despite what you may have learned in school.
  3. If you have something you absolutely must finish but feel discouraged, go ahead and let yourself read other things in between. Pull through that big heavy book a little bit at a time. But don’t let it turn reading into a chore.

I’m excited to be reading again. And I’m trying to keep up a good pace so that I don’t become discouraged. Sometimes I worry that the pace itself will present a new problem, that I’ll become so dominated by the need to maintain enough churn in my reading list that I’ll forget to enjoy whatever I’m reading in the moment.

But for now, I’m not letting that be my concern.

I’ve started making reading a priority in my life. It’s what I do when I first wake up in the morning, usually for about half an hour. At that rate, I find that I can finish a 300-page book in about two weeks (or about 10–14 hours). I’m trying to put more time in on weekends, or even as a break from work.

It feels good. With the higher turnover, I feel more free to add a book to my reading list. Whereas I used to worry that it would take me three or four months to finish a book, now I know I can get through three or four in a month. And I no longer feel committed to books I don’t enjoy.

And if you’ve fallen out of the reading habit, I hope this is the year you turn it around.

One thought on “Rebuilding the reading habit.

  1. Snap! I agree with lots of what you say, and would add that social media, mobile phones mean that I am not able to concentrate as long any more. And when you don’t fully put your attention on the book, you don’t enjoy the experience any more. I’ve started reading in breaks, too, and its surprising/not surprising how much faster progress becomes. Another idea I’ve had is to have location-appropriate books. At work, non-fiction philosophy/theology is a welcome break from getting mired in code and before sleeping, enjoyable fiction is the only way to relax.


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