How do I improve my ability to read?
July 6, 2010 12:20 PM   Subscribe

How do I improve my ability to read?

In my teens and twenties and I read a lot, and novels. I'm now a 40 year old male, and as I look back I realize the last novel or full length book I read cover to cover was in 2002. This dismays me, particularly because I do love to read (technical articles, news articles, blogs, essays, graphic novels). I thought it was vision related, but getting and using reading glasses (2004) did not change this tendency to not finish longer material.

I can skim books, and I love listening to podcasts, and I've listened to many unabridged and abridged audio fiction and nonfiction for as long as I've been adult. But the lack of the ability to start and then finish a book bothers me. I have a Kindle v.2, but I have the same problem with that interface as I do with a book, I read a chapter and never go back, or just reading short pieces. I'm not on any medication and have never been, and other than gaining some weight since then (which I'm now losing) nothing physically has changed except aging.

Suggestions for strategies to change this situation, or how to think about this are welcome. Thanks AskMe!
posted by artlung to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Find an author who writes short stories and novels, then get a book of his or her short stories. Read a story at a time. Get a sense of the author's voice. Transition to the author's novels.

I recommend Kurt Vonnegut as a starting place.
posted by Etrigan at 12:22 PM on July 6, 2010

What if you tried turning off the podcasts, Kindle, audio, blogs...basically any kind of media faster-paced than a book?

From my own reading experience, something happens--can't put my finger on what, exactly, it's not like a shortened attention span, more like shortened patience--if I'm inundated with information, even good, enjoyable information. It gets hard to downshift and do the sort of unconscious concentrating that books require. Longer, slower forms of text must require slower forms of thinking.

I had this pile of books that I'd been meaning to read forever--Victorian fiction, mostly--and never had time, never had the mental ability, it all looked too hard. The sentences too long, the phrases too complicated. But a while back, I decided I really couldn't go my whole life without ever reading them. So I cut my blog consumption by about 90%, stopped keeping track of all the minute-by-minute media things I was paying attention to, and found something interesting...for all that reading these big fat old books seemed like a (meaningful and much-wanted but depressingly impossible) chore before, once I'd actually cleared my head for it, and started reading, they were great! I can't get enough of the sentences, reading them, rereading them, putting the book down and thinking, wondering what's going to happen next.

So now I recommend it to everybody.

Of course, if it does turn out to be your vision, just ignore this!
posted by mittens at 12:31 PM on July 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't listen to audio books, don't read anything on the web, and turn off the television. If it still doesn't come to you, try physical activities that take a longer period of time but lend well to longer periods: going for long walks without headphones or other entertainment, or going on bike rides works for me.

I've had the same issue for periods of time, but it's really because my attention span is shot.
posted by mikeh at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I second the suggestion to clear out distractions. Set aside a specific time to read. Realistically, how likely are you to have pressing obligations after 9pm? How likely is it that there will be a critically time-sensitive email between 9pm and whenever it is you wake up? Unless you have small kids or an unusual job, I suspect the answers to both of those questions are "not very."

So just set aside everything else and leave yourself evenings from 9pm to bedtime for reading. The key, I find, is not to get a cup of tea, cookies, sit in a comfortable armchair, etc. Those will all just end up being distractions. You'll sit back, sigh, sip your tea, your mind will wander, and pretty soon you'll just want to go to bed.

I've found that when I really want to read, the trick is to sit in a straight-backed chair at a table or desk in a brightly lit room. Now, if you read for half an hour and find yourself totally absorbed, move to somewhere more comfortable.

Also, what are you trying to read? The Brothers Karamazov is a wonderful, wonderful book--but only if you have the patience to get into it. If the goal is to re-ignite your love of reading, start with something totally absorbing. If you want non-fiction, try something like Malcolm Gladwell. If you want fiction you have even more options. There's plenty of non-trashy literature that is totally absorbing if you only give yourself the chance to get a couple pages into it (Orwell, Chesterton, for example).
posted by resiny at 12:54 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem, and am slowly coming to the realization that it's a time management issue, not any change in my ability to read itself; as I've gotten older, the amount of short-serve media options available to me have increased exponentially.

And you know what? I mostly like what I'm doing when I'm not reading.

I agonized for years about the amount of books I wasn't reading; I'm now married to a voracious reader, and she works through a couple of books a week. I complain to her from time to time, and she rightly points out that while she's reading, I'm on MeFi, or playing a game, or working on a comics or other project. Would I rather make mustard or get through another 50 pages of 2666? Some days A, some days B. Would I rather read a chunk of Palahniuk or work on my utterly terrible derivative Palahniuk rip-off novel? Honestly, I think I'm enjoying the latter more these days. Michael Ondaatje or Civ IV? Depends on how hard a day I've had at work and how much brainspace I have to absorb fine-wine literature.

So I have to ask myself if "reading" is really something that will give me more satisfaction, in the long term, than participating on MetaFilter, playing video games, learning PHP, working on a comic script, etc. etc. etc.

Some of my media choices really are junk food -- or not, see this thread on the main page. But I'm pretty happy with my state as a "lesser reader" now that I've realized that I'm using my "reading time" for things that satisfy me in other ways.

I still like reading when I like reading, but I feel a lot less like I'm somehow missing out by not doing it. There's a lot of shit I'm not doing right now. There's also a lot of stuff I am doing. I'm just trying to be conscious of my choices and be sure that I like what I do.

So let me just throw this out there: maybe you don't have a problem at all. Maybe you just have other stuff to do than read.
posted by Shepherd at 1:02 PM on July 6, 2010

I hate to say it, but.... read more.

Really, that's basically it. I currently moonlight for a major test prep company, and the dirty little secret is that though we can certainly help you boost your Reading SAT score a bit, the real trick to acing the thing is to read about an hour a day starting at age six. Practice makes perfect, and absent practice, there really isn't much of a better way to go about it. Even a lot of the speed-reading tricks--most of which are neither as good as they claim nor completely useless--are ultimately dependent upon how much you read.

The more you read, the better you'll get at it. It almost doesn't matter what either: start with things you like, things that interest you, things you can read for an hour or two at a time. Just start doing it and keep doing it. Like exercise, you'll find that you improve with time.
posted by valkyryn at 1:05 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had similar issues because I read on the laptop all day long. I went back to reading in bed. I give myself about a half hour before I want to turn off the light. It's qualitatively different from my surfing and skimming, and keeps my attention focused. The more I did it, the more I ended up reading and enjoying.
posted by mmf at 1:14 PM on July 6, 2010

Response by poster: I think thinking of it as a time management issue is useful.

Likewise, practice is a great suggestion.

Sounds like some are in a somewhat similar boat, and making time and space to read, away from other influences, seems to be a common theme in the answers.

The suggestion to simply drop ALL non-book sources of information sounds a bit draconian. The reading I do of short-form stuff is useful and positive for me, but I could manage and limit it, perhaps cut down 25 or 50%, leaving the best stuff. That would give me more space to try longer reading.

Reading short fiction/short stories is not a problem, but "warming up" for an author by reading shorter works (say, William Gibson short stories or Malcolm Gladwell essays) before tackling a longer work is something I'll try.

I do periodically declare "blog and article bankruptcy" and mark unread blog posts as read, which is good to make sure reading is not a chore.

Thanks for all the suggestions thus far!
posted by artlung at 1:51 PM on July 6, 2010

Best answer: I had replaced books with internet and newspaper reading several years ago and found myself in the same place as you — I couldn't remember the last time I'd read a novel, and I'd always *loved* books.

So I made it a priority to schedule both reading times and reading goals, with a goal of a book a week. (Or, really, 52 books a year).

Now I take a book, divide the number of pages by seven, and gave myself a daily reading goal to finish. I also carry my book with me everywhere I go so I can read in lines, in drs offices, etc. (This helps if you have an eReader or eReader book app on your smart phone). Usually I finished a book every Saturday and start a new book every Sunday, though not always. But the goal helps.

Also, I only read one book at a time. I am not allowed to start another book until I have either finished or given up on the current one. I have to be very disciplined about this or otherwise I'd never finish anything.

Regarding giving up on a book, for a long time I had, and sometimes still do have, a hard time giving up on a book I've already invested several hours/pages on. In addition, I am a fast but deliberate reader and I have never really been able to power through a book in a single day or setting, though I usually like to read more challenging stuff (i.e. not fluff). I have had to accept that a book a week is pretty much my limit.

I also recommend you read The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. I'm not *crazy* about it but it's a quick read with some good tips about a) knowing when to abandon a book that isn't working for you and is only wasting your time and b) cultivating a list of books and finding ones you will actually enjoy and not want to put down.

Plus, when you're done with it you'll already have one book to add to your completed list.

Oh, and FYI, I still have plenty of time to read all the news and stuff on the internet I want to read too. For me it's a matter of passive consumption vs. active consumption, and I prefer to be active about it.
posted by Brittanie at 1:53 PM on July 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is a tough one, I think, because reading is a habit, a habit of love. It isn't something one does because one's supposed to. My GF is like you, maybe: She enjoys having read, but as for reading itself, she tries but gets distracted or thinks of something she'd rather do or "ought to" do instead. I read because I love it and I make a definite place for it in my life. Nowadays, I read for an hour or two before falling asleep--I mean, read a book, usually fiction. I read non-fiction on the computer a few hours a day. I'm older and don't work much or socialize as much as I once did, but I remember being out in the Key West or New York bars till two, three in the morning and then going home and . . . reading for a few hours. And then getting up to work. Sometimes in pain--not from the reading, from the bars. All I can say is, try to make time for it, don't let the shallow temptations off today's world lure you away. Push stuff away, make time and space for a book. Nothing that plugs into the wall or runs off a battery will give you the deep satisfaction of book.
Or maybe you know all that, and that's why you asked the question.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:58 PM on July 6, 2010

Damn, hope that didn't sound too preachy.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:01 PM on July 6, 2010

Response by poster: "Don't listen to audio books, don't read anything on the web, and turn off the television" didn't sound preachy to me (just draconian and unrealistic). :-)

Your extolling the "deep satisfaction of a book" certainly didn't strike me as preachy, just passionate. And indeed, I *do* know about the deep satisfaction of a book. Which is why having failed to finish the last Bruce Sterling novel, and the last Neal Stephenson novels (to be sure, they were behemoths, so I don't feel too bad about those), but I couldn't finish a few histories (comics, California) and biographies of Zappa and Richard Feynman that 15 years ago I'd have devoured like popcorn. Maybe I've not given myself permission to be disconnected and read for pleasure. Everything has been utilitarian, but I've forgotten that sometimes fiction illuminates the mind at an angle to the utilitarian.

Thanks all for the great suggestions thus far. I really truly appreciate it.
posted by artlung at 2:20 PM on July 6, 2010

I have trouble reading unless I remove myself from the distractions these days. I used to read all of the time, but there is something about television and the internet and music that digs hooks into my brain and won't let go, making it hard for me to focus on a book.

If I go out to a coffeeshop intending to read, I don't take my netbook unless I actually need it for something. If I go to the library, likewise.

However, I do most of my reading in the bath. I spent about half an hour soaking every morning, usually with a book. It's a normal part of my day now; I've been doing it since I was a preteen. There are very few distractions in a bathtub. And now my day just doesn't feel like it started right unless I've had that bath+book.

Creating some sort of space and time for yourself--it doesn't have to be a bath--where there are no distractions, and then getting into the habit of reading during that time, might help you read a little bit more than you do now. Start with something engaging to get you back into the habit, and then switch to more challenging fare once you've stretched a little.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:56 PM on July 6, 2010

Please, don't force yourself.
posted by ovvl at 7:42 PM on July 6, 2010

Do you have an iPhone? If so, I'd heartily recommend ReadMore. It's an app that allows you to enter and track your progress through the books you're reading. Sounds super-goofy and nerdy, but it has really helped me to prioritise reading in my life.

I entered a bunch of books that I'd read part-way through and now add new books as I buy them or take them out of the library. The app creates a virtual 'stack' that you can reorder and futz around with. All you do after that is tap 'Start reading' when you sit down to read and then enter your finishing page number when you finish.

You can see at a glance how far you are through a book, your average reading rate, when you'll be finished at the speed you're going and all of your previous reading sessions. It's helped me to go back to some really long books that I was enjoying but found a bit laborious to read, and the numbers nerd in me gets serious joy from seeing things like 'You just read 22 pages in 19 minutes. At this reading rate you will finish this book in five days, reading the same amount each day.'
posted by Happy Dave at 3:47 AM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: I used to love reading in the bath, sadly, I'm at cross-purposes. Typically in the tub I'm tired or sore and looking to relax, so what happens if I take reading in there is I fall asleep.

As to forcing myself, I have not and will not force myself. That piece of advice, absent other details, I don't understand at all.

As far as iPhone app, I don't have an iPhone, but a quantitative tracker for my reading is a cool idea. I don't think I ever made "read book X" a goal like the other goals in my life. That sounds worthwhile.
posted by artlung at 7:00 AM on July 7, 2010

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