Help me love literature.
November 1, 2010 10:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for any advice that will get me excited about literature.

Lately I feel educated stupid, especially when it comes to literature. I'd like to fix this, and I'm thinking it is mostly a mindset issue. I got out of the habit of reading for pleasure and when I pick up a novel at this point, I inevitably fizzle out after a couple chapters. I get distracted and find my eyes passing over paragraphs at a time without actually absorbing any of the content. I put the book down and inevitably forget to pick it up again. This holds true for all forms of fiction, from classic literature to trashy novels. The non-fiction books I have tried to read in recent years have also failed to hold my attention.

What makes this worse is that I will spend hours every day reading articles on the internet and the occasional magazine. This just makes me feel like I lack the discipline to commit to an extended storyline or any story that requires extended time commitments. How can I retrain my brain to enjoy or even crave recreational reading in book form?
posted by piratebowling to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, please be gentle. I found this question so embarrassing that I seriously considered posting this anonymously.
posted by piratebowling at 10:14 AM on November 1, 2010

Do you think it's the format that is keeping you from enjoying reading, since the topic doesn't seem to matter? Maybe you could borrow a Kindle or similar from a friend to see if a digital format isn't more up your alley. Or audiobooks? And/or short stories so you can avoid the time commitment issue until you are more comfortable?

Separate from the format, maybe you can start with books by authors of the articles you read online?
posted by dayintoday at 10:20 AM on November 1, 2010

You might want to make peace with not being the novel-reading kind, at least for now. I've been through phases when I felt my attention span was broken, and I could only read things for work and magazine-type stuff.

You could also try setting up an environment, a time and place, where you're comfortable, not distracted, and rewarded by physicals surroundings--the cup of tea in front of the fire kind of thing. If all you have to do is sit there and relax, and there's a good book there with you, maybe that cocoon will do the trick.
posted by Mngo at 10:21 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're like me, it's not the novel form/ extended storyline that's the problem. It's simply that my mind is thinking in web format.

I find myself doing this when I spend too much time online and following its scattered hyperlinked mode of reading. The solution for me is to turn off the computer at a certain fixed time every day and do other things. Listening to music is a good one because it clears the right part of the brain. Then I can read properly. This is a matter of discipline, though. It takes days. But I realised this is one reason I read a lot when I'm on holiday, and away from computers.

Also -- what about graphic novels? I ask out of curiosity, because when I'm in that uncomfortable brain frazzled phase, I read those just fine.

Of course you may not be like me. In which case -- do you have the same problem reading short stories?
posted by tavegyl at 10:23 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read some garbage!

When I get burned out and find my eyes glazing over and the unread books piling up, I turn to old pulps to give me the impetus to enjoy fiction again. Robert Howard's "Conan" books, Lester Dent's "Doc Savage", EE Smith's "Lensman" books, and (especially near and dear to my heart), Fritz Leiber's Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser fantasies. Lightweight fluff that rockets along, requires minimal brain activity, and effortlessly entertains. Something that is nothing but pure escapist fun. Reading this reminds me that reading should be entertaining! And after a few slim pulp novels I find my appetite whetted for more substantial fare.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:26 AM on November 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Have you considered short stories? Borges, Orwell, Maugham, heck, even P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:27 AM on November 1, 2010

I, too, would recommend short story collections, either to gauge your threshold for length of narrative (or whathaveyou) or to perhaps re-train yourself to engage in that sort of thing. You might try Lydia Davis or Donald Barthelme collections, as they each write in a wide variety of styles and lengths.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:28 AM on November 1, 2010

I got back into reading for pleasure by reading short-story collections, and novels whose chapters really stand alone, like The Things They Carried.
posted by headnsouth at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are 2 things that you coudl do to get into literature that may initially pull you in with less time commitment, yet be enjoyable.

1) Try reading books for young people (teenagers). As an an example, when I went through a time similar to you, I read The Giver, and although it was written for younger people, I think people of all ages can get benefit from it. By starting with books for a younger audience, though, it requires a little less attention, is shorter, and may just get you to enjoy books again.

2) Audiobooks. Anything from books on tape, CDS, and I used podcasts for material that I enjoy. Go look around the itune type podcasts, and I found librivox within a few seconds. It doesn't need to be that in particular, but there are many, many free books that are read aloud. It may help you to fall asleep and listen to it -- and after a while pick up the book.

3) What abuot integrating reading fiction as a social component of your life? Is there a friend you could read to or discuss a book with? If not that, join a book club? A deadline and discussion may help you enjoy it. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 10:31 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I feel this way, I re-read my childhood favorites. Bellairs, Dahl, even the Anne of Green Gables stuff. It just eases you back into the reading mode without making demands on your intellect.
posted by prefpara at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Short stories!!!!

Short stories short stories short stories! Short stories will solve all of your problems!

I had a major poop-out on reading a few years ago (I was drained from years of reading for school, and every time I cracked a book I had a feeling of "this will never be fun again" and put it down), until I decided to start reading short stories.

TC Boyle has great short stories. Vonnegut has great short stories. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series are great short stories.

You absolutely can force yourself to sit through 20 pages. 20 pages is nothing. But when you're though, you'll feel so accomplished ("hey, I just read something, look at me being all literate!"), and if you enjoyed the story you'll want to do it again.

Short stories increase your reading tolerance and attention little by little. They require almost no investment (20 pages!) and the reward is huge. Start with short stories.

Short stories! Yay!
posted by phunniemee at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess I can offer a few points...

1.) Don't turn reading into homework. Feeling obligated to read something is a pretty good way to get about 2 chapters in, and then drop it. Try to find literature that connects to your life and that you can become invested in. This is a hard thing to do. It might involve getting recommendations from someone you trust, or reading through various online review sites to find the right book for you. Your local public library (probably) has dedicated reference staff who would be happy to do reader's advisory for you.

2.) If you can't concentrate in your house because you read 3 pages and then turn to Metafilter for an hour, then go somewhere to read. Make reading for pleasure into an activity. Go to a quiet, comfortable spot (once again, a local library can help here), and dedicate yourself to reading. If possible, don't take your phone with you. It's a lot easier to let your mind slip into a novel when you're free of distraction.

3.) Don't feel embarrassed about what you read. There's nothing wrong with fantasy, or sci fi, or horror fiction, or graphic novels. Getting into the habit of reading with genre fiction will often lead to reading literary fiction. Forcing yourself to read something "serious" because you don't want to be seen as having childish tastes is a good way to never read at all.
posted by codacorolla at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a huge reader, but over time, as my reading on metafilter and random blogs and my google RSS reader increased, I found myself fizzling out on more and more books--I can't tell you how many half-finished novels I have sitting around.

For me, the solution was to get an eReader (specifically a nook). I realized that part of what I liked about reading online was the ease of sitting there and scrolling. As much as I love some of the romantic, visceral elements of reading books, it's just not as comfortable to sit propped up in bed, constantly shifting to get more comfortable, with a book in both hands. What an eReader does--besides making it much, much easier to impulse read books (someone recommended something? Why not just jump online and buy a copy!)--is improve on the physical act of reading by enabling you to do it with one hand. It seems like it's a really small, slight change, but I read anywhere and everywhere now (I bring my nook with me everywhere I go . . .), much more comfortably, and already my reading has increased from about one book a week to about 3. It doesn't hurt that I can do things like increase text size when my eyes get tired.

It might be worth a shot, at least.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:46 AM on November 1, 2010

I was also going to suggest novels that have read-alone sort of chapters. The things they carried is a good example; I also think that Olive Kitteridge might work.

I also sometimes read young adult fiction when I find myself in this sort of habit - it goes fast and is often plot based, which helps.

Sometimes, it just takes a really gripping read to get back in the habit. For that, I recommend "The Room", whose author escapes me at the moment. (Will try to remember to look it up when I'm back at an actual computer).

But there's also nothing wrong with reading articles and magazines!
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2010

Response by poster: Also -- what about graphic novels?

A little while ago when I was similarly burned out, I read the complete Persepolis and it acted as a really good bridge to reading actual novels again (I think I read The Russian Debutante's Handbook shortly thereafter and just plowed through it). So, I think that may be a good step.

Have you considered short stories?

That may also be a good transition. I should comb through the home library to see if there are any short story collections I haven't gotten to yet.

Thanks for the thoughts so far.
posted by piratebowling at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2010

I only recently discovered the amazing, clear-eyed, witty, perceptive and rollicking novels of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Try "The Wee Free Men," which may be marketed as YA lit but which is satisfying light reading for grown-ups, too. Armed only with a frying pan, a kick-butt 9-year-old girl stands up for herself, her brother and her land against the forces of evil. Also: little blue men who like to drink, swear, steal and fight! Unfairly short and silly summary, but it is a delightful book and has some of the best closing paragraphs I've read in a long time.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:02 AM on November 1, 2010

Something that may help get you excited is to not just look through your home library. I was very lucky in that I grew up in a house full of books (add to that that I come from a long line of elementary school teachers, so had every children's book available to me)--I read everything I could get my hands on as a child. But sometimes, to get excited about reading, you need to just go wander through a big, not-your-own library. Or a bookstore, if you're into paying for things.

You'll be much more excited to read a book you've never seen before than a book you've had on your shelf for years and have just never gotten around to. Trust me.
posted by phunniemee at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2010

Agreed that reading at great length may not be the best path in. Is there any poetry you enjoy? A few good lines of poetry can be very potent. A college Latin teacher of mine used to give extra credit for memorizing poems; I would carry a printout of the poem I was working on and look at it at odd moments. Now I have books of poetry downloaded to my ipod touch to look at when I get stuck in a line or something. I find it really picks up my day.
posted by BibiRose at 11:23 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know this is going to sound weird, but have you had your eyes checked? For me, when I started needing reading glasses (or currently, if my reading glasses prescription is out of date), I perceive a lack of attention span and spotty comprehension while reading, rather than any obvious vision-related flaw. Reading on a screen may feel different to you than reading out of a book because the visual demands are different. How are newspapers and magazines for you? Especially if you are in your mid-30s to 50s and have never needed reading glasses before, it's worth getting checked out. You can start by trying those off-the-shelf magnifying reading glasses from the drugstore and see how it feels for you.
posted by matildaben at 12:19 PM on November 1, 2010

Two things:

1. Remember that, even when you hit your full reading stride, some books won't be worth it for you. Classics included. I started reading Gravity's Rainbow three times before deciding I was never going to finish it. I'm sure it's a great book and I can tell that it has a lot similarities to Catch-22 (one of my favourites), but it's just not a book I'm going to read. I just didn't care. And, though it may be a cliche, life IS too short to read books you don't care about. So what I'm saying here is this: Don't get stuck looking at every novel you put down halfway through as a failure. Often it's the best decision you could make.

2. Read short books. Short stories are great too, but I understand the desire to read an actual book. Fortunately, many of the best modern books are barely longer than short stories. Franny and Zooey. The Old Man and the Sea. Dandelion Wine. Heart of Darkness. All of them well-respected books that you can read in a sitting.
posted by 256 at 1:08 PM on November 1, 2010

Since I know you're from Philly, I'm going to recommend the One Book, One Philadelphia 2011 book selection War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. It's a wonderful collection of short stories AND poetry, and there will be tons of events happening at the beginning of the year. Sherman Alexie is an amazing and inspirational person, too. I know the feeling of not being able to get into longer books. I read a LOT of poetry and poetry journals. It's so much more work to crack into a novel. I think the format of War Dances is easy to get into, and I hope that the events provide good motivation to keep reading. Good luck!
posted by two lights above the sea at 1:10 PM on November 1, 2010

Perhaps you are suffering from the same malaise as me. It is a malaise brought on by reading too many contemporary novels, far too many of which, I have realised, are contrived, unoriginal, uninspiring, vacuous and dull. My solution has been to go back to older novels - mainly pre-90's. I don't know why it is - perhaps because that was a pre-internet, pre-easy-WP, pre-everybody-having-a-computer age - but novels were just... better, then. More thoughtful, denser, richer, broader... of course these are generalisations. All I can say, as a person who has been a voracious reader for most of his life, is that after having spent a period of around five years reading almost nothing beyond the first fifty pages of thin, bloodless, flavour-of-the-week novels, I have rediscovered reading by going back to older books.
posted by Decani at 1:49 PM on November 1, 2010

Maybe what you're missing is a context to put these books in.

Over the summer I had a lot of free time and went on a reading kick, mostly non-fiction, but I also read On The Road with the MeFi book club. Once I got to the middle of the book I started hating its repetitiousness, but plowed on because it's an "important" book. When I was done, I read two Yale University lectures about the book that were provided by the book club, and read a bunch of Wikipedia articles about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy and others in the book, and found that once I'd put the story in context, it was a lot more enjoyable; and more importantly I felt like reading the novel had been a lot more useful, and that I'd be more likely to repeat the experience in the future.

I also read Siddhartha, and Steppenwolf, both by Hermann Hesse, and in a fluke just happened to see a Cliff's Notes for the two books at the dollar store. Reading that gave me much more appreciation of the books.

I used to think this was almost like cheating, as if I was supposed to read great literature without context, and that I should simply be able to glean its importance from the text itself and nothing else. But people study this stuff in school; these books have been the subject of a lot of smart people's analysis, and seeing what other people think of great literature can be useful in enjoying and learning from it yourself.
posted by malapropist at 3:40 PM on November 1, 2010

Classics for Pleasure, by the inimitable Michael Dirda. Dirda focusses on less well-known classic that are pleasurably to read, and his 800-1500 word essays on the authors and the works really help make the texts come alive. A great book, it could rekindle anyone's desire for literature.
posted by smoke at 4:05 PM on November 1, 2010

Seconding 256's comments. Finding a book that clicks with your mood may well involve dropping 10x as many books that don't. I suspect that's the norm and a major reason why even most well-educated people don't pick up the habit of prodigious personal reading: the initial hit rate is too low, there's no source besides your own mind that can tell you exactly what's right, and the cost of trying can be significant in terms of time. So just drop books sooner and stick with shorter material to increase the likelihood of getting through it.

Since you used to read for pleasure, I'm sure it will come back. If Persepolis and The Russian Debutante's Handbook were your kind of thing, maybe Maus or the Melville House Contemporary Novella series would be on point, although I really agree with the person who recommended Wodehouse.

Oh, incidentally, I was at a low point in reading about two years ago (low enough that I really sympathize with your situation), and so I found a ton of book blogs to put into my RSS reader. Just reading about others reading made me kind of jealous, so I read more and more and more, eventually getting back up to speed. Writing little snippets about them on Goodreads also helped me mark each one as an accomplishment, which is sort of addictive in itself.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:15 PM on November 1, 2010

Well, don't force yourself to read. Ask yourself: why do you feel compelled to do it?

I've been reading much less than usual lately. I blame MetaFilter.
posted by ovvl at 4:54 PM on November 1, 2010

A good way to eventually get back to novels, if short stories do appeal to you, might be to choose an author who writes both. Reading one good thing (ie a book of short stories) by a good author might make you want more of same.
posted by equivocator at 5:13 PM on November 1, 2010

One trick I have for increasing my ability to focus on long or boring or difficult material is reading complicated poetry out loud. One flawless turn through "The Bells" is enough to get me prepped for several hours of math homework. If I can't manage Poe, I use Shel Silverstein instead.

Also: consider working on other kinds of concentration-related tasks. Trace photographs, fill out multiplication tables by hand, recite pi to a hundred digits, memorize the maiden names of all the First Ladies in the US. Your brain is a muscle.
posted by SMPA at 7:26 PM on November 1, 2010

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