I just want my reading to flow again
May 27, 2010 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I used to read a lot. Those days are gone -- and the "to read" pile keeps getting higher. Help me become an efficient reader again!

It used to take me between two weeks and month to finish a book. Good fiction took less; technical/work stuff, a little longer. I wasn't exactly a fast reader, but I went through 6-10 books per year and was happy with that.

Over the past 5 years the amount of books I read has diminished greatly. I find myself dragging the same book around for months. I read maybe a couple of pages before I fall asleep, even if I am not particularly tired. On my 45-min commute by train, I'm lucky if I read a half dozen pages. Then I conclude the problem is the book itself, put it down, start another. Last year I finished one book, one that I was extremely excited about, and even then it took me over 4 months to read it.

I haven't been particularly tired. I haven't lost interest, I still find myself eager to read, and it's not like I haven't tried varying the themes. There are a lot of subjects that interest me greatly, there's stuff I need to read for work, there's fiction that I enjoy a lot.

Am I lacking discipline, or am I lacking attention, or something else? Is there a technique that will help me read more efficiently?
Speed isn't so much the issue - I just want my reading to flow again, however slow.
posted by Opal to Grab Bag (37 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Do you listen to music on the train while you read? I do and I find that the different tempo and style of music alters how much I read on my ride in. Plus I've found that I read more when I sit in a spot that makes it harder to watch what it going by outside and distances me from people watching.
posted by msbutah at 10:20 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm working on the same thing, and I've been making progress in a few ways.

First, kind of like running for a set time versus running for a set distance, set out to read a chapter at a time if they're manageable. This way, you'll always end at a natural break, but one planned to keep you going.

The second big thing is that, on a typical day, I have about a half hour or less to read - it sucks, and I read in bed. Luckily I'm not the type to fall asleep doing anything (well, kind of unluckily, but...), but being in bed makes you sleepy. Read in the morning if you're a morning person, or read during that lazy stretch of a Sunday or Saturday morning.

And at the beginning and end of books, set out to put in a few hours straight, so that you can put together a good mental frame for reading the rest of the book. You don't have to always read for such a stretch, but it really helps to start with one, for whatever reason.
posted by tmcw at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2010

Do you have glasses? Do you perhaps need glasses, if you don't have them?

My eyes became pretty misaligned almost ten years ago and my reading speed and interest level dropped through the floor as a result-- reading became an effort instead of something that just happened. Ebooks helped me a lot because I can focus on them the way I would on a conventional computer screen.

If you haven't had your eyes checked and you have other symptoms-- eyestrain, headaches, what have you-- you might consider it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

How old are you? You might try having your eyes tested to see if you need glasses for close up tasks like reading. I find that I'm less inclined to read or I can't read for as long if my prescription is too weak. It doesn't manifest as a physical tiredness, but a cognitive lack of attention. I had the same problem as you, and I also find I read a lot more since I got a Kindle, since I can make the print larger.
posted by matildaben at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2010

Try switching from reading books, to reading short-story collections and magazines. After a long career as an editor I had a hard time reading for pleasure; the New Yorker got me back into it. One short story, a few short articles, and one in-depth one. (Now I am back on books and the New Yorkers tend to pile up!) Or try books whose chapters stand up well on their own. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, or Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything are examples.
posted by headnsouth at 10:24 AM on May 27, 2010

My brother had this exact same problem, and he said he is back in the game purely because of his iPad, which just makes it easier to carry books around - so many choices in one contraption! :) :) :)
posted by 2003girl at 10:28 AM on May 27, 2010

To answer: I do wear glasses and have my eyes checked out every year, and I use both traditional books and a Kindle :-)
posted by Opal at 10:29 AM on May 27, 2010

excuse me - by choices, I meant text size choices, page width (horizontal vs vertical, etc.) that enable a customized experience for each individual reader. I am sure a Kindle or a Nook or whatever would provide similar results - maybe get a used one off Ebay or Craigslist and test the waters!
posted by 2003girl at 10:30 AM on May 27, 2010

Has the contiguous blocks of time you have available changed (shrunk) over time? Are you having to do more research and reading at work/for work? All are things that can kill your desire or ability to engage in pleasure reading.
posted by canine epigram at 10:32 AM on May 27, 2010

Falling asleep at a book can be a sign that you've been reading books mostly right before bed, and your brain is now conditioned to associate reading with falling asleep. If this is the case, stop reading in bed for a few weeks - if you want to read before you go to sleep, sit in a chair instead, but I'd suggest removing the read=sleep association entirely and do something else before bed - and see if that works at all.

(It occurs to me that you could start reading a few pages in the morning, to associate reading with waking up, but I have no idea if that would work.)
posted by telophase at 10:42 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's OK not to read a pile of books. If your interests have changed, that's completely fine. Maybe you're out there in the world living, building, dancing, whatever. Even if that's not the case, a huge stack of books that's been sitting there for months becomes more of a chore than a pleasure.

Maybe you should get rid of most, if not all, of these books -- totally eliminate the backlog -- and take a break from reading for a year.
posted by amtho at 10:45 AM on May 27, 2010

I don't read well on trains, either.. I read well when I can have 20 minutes at the beginning to get into the mode of the book and then a few uninterrupted hours where I don't feel like I have time pressure to read fast. So if I have an afternoon free, go to a coffee shop at 1pm, read until 4pm and know that I could, if I wanted, read for another 3 hours before I had to do anything else, I can really enjoy reading. Otherwise I read quickly and feel like I'm reading only for content and not for fun, which is... not fun.
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:50 AM on May 27, 2010

Do you spend a lot of time online (for work or pleasure)? We're mostly reading online but it's very different from reading a book - it's a lot of scanning, being directed/distracted by formatting, switching back and forth between windows etc. Books on the other hand require much more focus (the best books occupy the mind not just while reading but between reading sessions and afterwards as well) and a generally lighter mind than digital living allows.

I used to read a lot (a book a week sometimes) but it tapered off a great deal after college, where I used to do most of my reading in the library where I worked (and discovered so many incredible books rather randomly). I figured that it was mostly because of working and other real-life stuff, but it was also because I'd just come home and get online - which didn't change when I stopped working full-time, and neither did my reading habits.

Then I went to live on the beach for a couple of months and slowly but steadily got back into reading novels again. It wasn't a plan or anything - there was a shack which had a great collection of books for swapping, and people from all over the world just dropped off books there. So it was really about curiosity (all these random books I'd never heard of) and convenience, but most of all it was about time. It took a while, and it felt like I was re-learning the very act of reading. I discovered some incredible books too, which was exciting.

I couldn't keep up the levels of reading after I returned, but basically I now know that when I really want to read something I have to make time for it - which means, in my case, going to a place with no 'connectivity' in terms of phone or internet.

Coffee shops, where I live, are still great for this. YMMV, but basically I think you have to make time for it and give it time to feel good/natural again.

I'd also recommend just being around books - in libraries or book stores - and picking things up without knowing what they are and the pressure to finish them or anything. Don't focus so much on completion or counting.
posted by mondaygreens at 10:51 AM on May 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

Try going for one day a week without Internet access: when I can manage this, it does wonders for my ability to concentrate.
posted by Prospero at 10:51 AM on May 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

I have this exact same anxiety and, while I hate to say it, I think it has to do with the internet. And, Opal, because you are savvy enough at the internet to know about Ask.Metafilter, this might be your problem, too!

I used to read every fucking chance I got as a kid. I'd get up early and read before school, read in the car while my parents ran errands, found lawn chairs at Lowe's and read there until my Dad found me, read all night under my covers.

The advent of the internet, especially its increasing prevalence in my life after I graduated college and got a computer-based office job, really killed my ability to read long term. I'm very ADD, which created a two-pronged problem: the internet feeds my "ooh look over here! new tab new tab! now click this link! better Wikipedia that to make you know and wait why am I on a TMNT slash fiction page?" train of thought; and the same damn ADD meds that help me focus are also much, much better at sending me down these euphoric rabbit holes of inquiry than actually making me sit down and focus on a single entity, like a book.

Honestly, knowing the internet's negative impact on my life has really compelled me to be a better and more conscientious reader because now I know that my brain is used to new flashy pages of information. When I get a little restless when reading a book (sometimes my eyes even flick up to the top of the page where the toolbar is on Firefox), I count to five, remind myself that I'm reading a book and not surfing the web, and keep going. The weekends that I'm most successful at reading are not coincidentally the weekends when I resolve to put my laptop under the bed. Spending even a few hours away from the mesmerizing computer screen can retrain my brain to follow longer reams of text than just the front page of Metafilter.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:56 AM on May 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

On re-read, I sound like every book I pick up just turns out to be "incredible" - which is obviously not the case. I guess I should clarify that when I had fewer options and discovered things on my own (without Amazon and what not) it meant more - at the very least it was more memorable - to find a great book by accident. Also it felt much more organic, and sometimes downright serendipitous, which added a lot to the 'flow.'

Also, if it wasn't clear: didn't have internet access or even a computer on the beach. Good times. :)
posted by mondaygreens at 10:57 AM on May 27, 2010

I've found that tracking the books I read using Shelfari has helped to increase my reading time - It's gives me a sense of accomplishment each time I add a book, and I also like the opportunity to write down some notes and thoughts on the book when I add it.
posted by bonsai forest at 10:57 AM on May 27, 2010

Maybe you should try listening to books on your commute. Listening to a book being read aloud still counts as reading. I'm enjoying the free audiobooks at Libravox. I believe you can use your Kindle for listening to audiobooks. (I've listened to regular books converted to machine speech on my Kindle. It works, but it's not as good as having a real person read the book.)
posted by Ery at 11:04 AM on May 27, 2010

Books in the bathroom. I know it's sort of silly and cliche, but reading while sitting on the pot is reading, and you're in there with nothing better to do, right? Mostly, though, be kind and patient with yourself. Set small goals - a chapter a week, something like that - and don't beat yourself up over not reading as much as you used to. The more you stress about it, the more reading will seem like a chore and another thing on the to-do list to check off and another thing you're not as good at as you used to be. Make reading as convenient as possible, find digestible reads, and maybe join a book club or discussion group. I find that a little external pressure does wonders for my reading speed.
posted by lriG rorriM at 11:08 AM on May 27, 2010

This happens to be on and off. When I get into a rut like this I start reading stuff purely for fun. I'm usually reading heavy philosophy, biology, or zen books. But if I get in a rut I'll read political books or light non-fiction. That usually whets my appetite and gets me back on track.
posted by tboz at 11:13 AM on May 27, 2010

Seconding mondaygreens and zoomorphic: spending so much time on the internet degrades our attention spans and so a book doesn't hold our interest.

I say "our" because I could have written this post. A couple of years ago I split with my husband and then immediately broke my leg--just after I'd moved into a 3rd floor walkup--leaving me very isolated. Being online was suddenly my biggest connection to the outside world. I was online every waking minute that I wasn't in the bathroom. I haven't completed a book since then, September 2008.

Except! Graphic novels have become fascinating to me, and I finish them easily. Not just novels, but also other formats, like Logicomix (a biography of Bertrand Russell, highly recommended) and some serials that have no or few words.

I'm also going to try an e-reader (waiting for my Sony to arrive) and turn away from the internet for one day every weekend. Maybe. I wish both you and me good luck!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:14 AM on May 27, 2010

This is a constant struggle for me. I try not to beat myself up about it too much. Yes, I used to read between 4 and 10 books a month. But that's when I was younger, and had fewer responsibilities. Life was different in a lot of ways back then.

Three strategies that have worked for me are:

1. Audiobooks

Audiobooks let you fidget as much as you like. Fidgeting is one of the big barriers to my reading. I'll read half a page and think "Oh I should trim my fingernails!" Audiobooks let me trim my fingernails while reading. They're fidget-compatible.

You can even be reading while you bustle about tidying up the house on a Sunday afternoon, or while fixing dinner during the workweek. Also I'm a knitter, so audiobooks let me knit as I read, which is a feat I've never managed with a physical book.

Audiobooks are great for travel, because otherwise my eyes get tired.

2. A Timer

Another barrier to reading is the pressure of everything I have to do in a day. Several times a week I'll carve out a chunk of time - even just 15 minutes - and set the kitchen timer.

Setting aside that chunk of time creates a sort of "walled garden," if you follow me. And using a timer keeps me from constantly interrupting my reading to check the clock.

3. Reading Nights

About once a month I'll declare a Reading Night. No internet, no movies, no gaming - just reading. I can usually get in several hours of reading in one go.

I usually do this when I want to finish off a book, or if I'm in the mood for something a little different than the usual routine. If I've had enough forethought, I'll put together a special roster of snacks and super-easy dinner for the night. (Even if it's just ordering a pizza.)

The interesting thing about reading nights is, the longer I read, the less fidgety and distracted I get. It's almost easier to read for four hours than it is to read for ten minutes.
posted by ErikaB at 11:24 AM on May 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

This is a really great little book that always seems to kick my reading back into gear. The author is Steve Leveen, the semi-eponymous founder of book-lover catalog company Levenger.
posted by jbickers at 11:27 AM on May 27, 2010

Do you have time to get yourself to a park or a beach? Somewhere quiet where you can read to the sounds of birds chirping? This will keep you away from your house, which is full of distractions. Read away from TV, computer, phone, housework, and you'll be reading a lot more. Set aside an hour or two a few days a week to go to the park and read. Maybe spend longer on weekends.

The key is to not get distracted, and reading away from home is an excellent way to do that.
posted by alligatorman at 11:40 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try switching to Audio and "reading" whilst walking or some other activity.
posted by Artw at 11:43 AM on May 27, 2010

I read voraciously as a kid and through college, but once I discovered the internet, I found less and less time to dig into books. It got to the point where I might have been reading only a handful of books a year. Eventually I took a job that necessitated me taking a full hour lunch, most of which I spent watching TV or talking with co-workers.

That got boring, so I started reading again, and eventually it became part of my discipline. One hour, every day, I'm reading. After a year or so, it just became hardwired, and I can't not do it now. (I listen to music while I read to help block out the sounds in the lunchroom, but I've come to discover that some people can't do both as they find the music distracts them, so you may want to experiment with that as well.)

Also, seconding the Audiobooks suggestions. I only just really got into it a few months ago, and it's really changed my driving/ yard-work dynamics. You just kind of want to keep going and going, and for this reason, I understand that a lot of people listen to audiobooks while they exercise as well.
posted by quin at 11:46 AM on May 27, 2010

- Read interactively. Keep a journal, even if all you do is create word balloons to help you retain/remember what you've read. Write out a couple of the most pithy sentences from each book you read, so you have a kind of record you can look back on. A record of this kind can also spur you on to further reading and help you track whatever goals you have.

- Do some research about the books you want to read in the near future. Read reviews, make lists, that sort of thing. That way, if you're reading a book that's just not floating your boat, quit it! And pick up the next one on your list.

- Reading is weird, in that it requires a calm body relaxed about sitting still, but an active mind that can focus on ideas and stories. Find ways to calm yourself, whether it's exploring meditation or daydreaming, improving your exercise & sleep routine, or whatever works for you.

- Always have something to read on you.

- Find a quiet place and eliminate access to the tv or Internet or phone.

- I like listening to music while I read, too, but I find that it has to be instrumental only, since I'll pay attention to any words I hear. I like listening to classical guitar recordings. They help keep me focused, because when my mind begins to wander away from what I read, I hear the music instead of daydreaming for 15 minutes about the job I should have taken back in aught-three (or whatever - I'm a daydreamer by temperment). I'm not all that interested in the music, so I'll return to my book a lot more quickly than I otherwise would.

- Try to set a time every day for reading, whether it's 20 minutes, or 40, or an hour.
posted by Philemon at 12:18 PM on May 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

I try to read 25 books every year. This averages out to two a month (duh) plus one, and i keep a moleskine journal to track my progress, keep notes and quotes, statistics and the like.
I will often get frustrated when i'm in a slump...sometimes i can't find a book that catches my interest, sometimes i'm in the middle of a book that I desperately want to finish but can't, sometimes i let the internet and tv take up too much of my time.
When this happens i feel the way you do...I question my focus, my ability to persevere, my lifestyle, my sanity.
This is when I do one of two things: Grab some light genre fiction (sci-fi or fantasy, or noir work for me) to get back to easy, read-for-the-pure-joy-of-reading feeling; Or allow myself the one 're-read' for the year, an old favorite that I know will make me turn pages. Sometimes I have to forget my giant 'to-read' pile of Booker nominees or NBA finalists for a month until I find the groove again, but once i'm in the zone I can usually tackle something daunting and not regret that it takes me a month to get through it because i've just read 4 books the previous month.
I've made my way through most of Joyce, all of Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, A. S. Byatt, Nicholas Mosley, and the like over the past few years and even managed a year of 36 books by using this technique.
And, one more tip...don't fear or regret putting a book aside for a while or forever, there are plenty of books waiting.
Happy reading!
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:50 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have read over 100 books a year for the past five years. I work in publishing so many of those are for work, but a good percentage are for pleasure. Here are a few tips I have:

-Put down anything that's not working for you. I no longer force myself to finish something I'm really not enjoying, unless I have to for work. (I also don't count those books in my count for the year.) Maybe I come back to it, maybe I don't. But I don't punish myself about it because then I find ways to avoid reading entirely.

-Library books. I find that I read books reliably if I have to return them to the library.

-Alternately, e-books. I have a Sony reader and I always have it full of books I haven't read but want or need to. I never go anywhere without reading material and I read at every opportunity--on the train, waiting in line, during my lunch break.

-Book clubs. I'm in several book clubs. There's a lot of accountability in terms of finishing the books, but I also look forward to discussing the content. My clubs are pretty varied (science fiction to classics) so I get a lot of variety.

I have found that the internet is a big distraction to reading but I still make time for it. My to-read pile is many hundreds of books long (I keep it mostly in an Amazon wishlist but I also have a LOT of books at home to get to). I don't let it intimidate me--I'll get around to them sometime!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:10 PM on May 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

This sounds so unsavory, however it's honest. Sony Reader prs-300 and a bathroom break have become my best friends.
posted by Draccy at 4:17 PM on May 27, 2010

I also wanted to add that you should be honest about yourself regarding what kinds of books you want to read. In hindsight a lot of my episodes of reading doldrums have been self-caused.

Sometimes I try to force myself to read books that I think I ought to have read (Classics and Other Great Works of Literature). And I constantly keep buying books in genres that I used to like, but no longer enjoy.

In both cases, surprise! I kind of stop reading for a while, until I finally admit that I just don't want to read that.

The same goes for books that I really thought I would like. And then I get half a chapter in, and realize that I do not like it. I used to try and force myself to finish, like a kid being forced to eat all their broccoli.

These are all excellent ways to kill the joy of reading. If you're not enjoying a book, drop it. If what you really want to read is TRASHY_GENRE_X novels, then by all means, read TRASHY_GENRE_X novels!
posted by ErikaB at 7:14 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

try this link for a way to tackle reading materials.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:24 PM on May 27, 2010

I felt as you beautifully describe for about two years and am reading again with my husband's iPad. I find public domain titles in PDF format and easily move those from my desktop. Newer titles are available for a little less than the print version. If this doesn't work for your commute you may consider audiobooks.
posted by Pamelayne at 8:21 AM on May 28, 2010

I learned about the concept of a reading "palate cleanser" in this thread and I think the same concept can apply to jump start you. (Which I guess would be an "appetite stimulant" if you want to milk the metaphor.) Try children's or young teen literature or, as ErikaB suggests above, trashy_genre_x can work like this too. In the recent past I've re-read A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little. They're all pretty awesome, easy reads, easy to carry around, and may get you back into the swing of things.
posted by gubenuj at 10:12 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with gubenuj and ErikaB above - I was in a similar rut to yours for a long time, and I think a combination of being realistic about the types of books I actually like to read, and plowing through some light reading every now and again to rebuild confidence in my ability to actually finish a whole book helped a lot...

Other things that I think helped me are that I started living in a house with no internet connection, the weather got colder so I'm more inclined to want to get into bed at any available chance during the day and read, and I have taken up regular exercise which I think helps my concentration.

Now I'm back to my old routine of getting through at least one book every fortnight...

I hope you find something that works for you, reading is a much more fulfilling past time than clicking around on the internet or watching television...for me at least. It just takes a lot more effort these days to maintain a reading habit, with all of the other stuff constantly vying for our attention.
posted by sartre08 at 6:16 PM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sorry I'm late to the conversation, but a great book, The Shallows, is coming out soon about this very topic. I remember wishing that the original article in The Atlantic had more science and less "whoa is me," and the book more than makes up for that.
posted by blazingunicorn at 2:10 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

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