Getting Back Into Reading
April 3, 2015 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I love to read and have been a quick reader in the past. However, since I've dealt with so much anxiety/depression/PTSD the past few years, my ability to finish a book has suffered greatly. I frequently pick up books and abandon them even if I like them. Now that I'm feeling better and able to function more, I want to finish some of the books that have been on my list for ages. Does anybody have suggestions for rebuilding a reading habit? Snowflake details inside.

I'm already in the habit of taking books everywhere with me to read during down time. I can't read in a moving vehicle due to motion sickness.
I also already try to keep several books going at one--usually prose fiction, poetry, and prose nonfiction.
For a while, I did think ADD was my problem and tried ADD meds (both stimulants and Strattera) but they just made things worse.
I think my biggest hindrance is my own mind; I tend to read a few pages and get distracted and then maybe read a bit more without retaining much.
I try to read where I'll be most comfortable but not be too precious about making a reading spot.
Paper books are better for me than e-books.
I like writing marginalia but not so much writing summaries, etc.
I have a really hard time with comics/graphic novels/etc.
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Start with very plot intense books, rather than, say, character driven books. Pot-boilers, books where every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. These books are designed to keep you in them with minimum effort.

Most importantly, don't feel guilty if you don't finish a book or if you don't feel that you are reading the right type of books. Guilt will lead to feelings of aversion, and you are likely to read less in the future.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:46 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have had similar issues as I get further and further away from the ravenous reading of my youth. Re-read things you loved when you were younger. Reading is a habit and a skill, you get "better" at it the more you do it, and conversely worse as you do less. Reading easier, lighter fare as suggested above is one way to get back into the habit. Another would be to revisit well-loved and familiar territory. Any really good book is deserving of a second or third go round, and if it's been longer than a few years since the previous read, you'll notice how your reactions are different as you have changed, which can be fun and revealing.
posted by skewed at 8:06 AM on April 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you're kind of making reading into a chore that you're beating yourself up for not doing? Instead you could try and make it into a really nice thing you do as a treat, like taking an hour to read on the couch with a hot drink, and that might change the emotional associations you have with it. Another idea: I personally have read before bed, even if only a few pages, pretty much every night since I was a little kid, and that ritual is really soothing and a nice thing to have.
Seconding going back to things you used to enjoy. A lot of Young Adult fiction is really excellent and fun to read- recommendations: Patrick Ness, Philip Pullman.
posted by mymbleth at 8:14 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I lost my ability to read or finish much of anything to a restless morass of browsing and brooding and doodling. I think I read one book last year, and that was a book I'd let sit half read since the previous year. Recently I've had success by setting a regular routine to sit down and read after supper. It's also a time that I sometimes nod off when reading but I don't beat myself up about it. Just turn the book over and nap for a bit, return to it when I regain some alertness. Sometimes go for a couple hours, sometimes a chapter, don't push myself if it's not grabbing me that day, but come back the next. I've been reading books I find on the shelf in the laundry downstairs, so the material has been random, risking a couple popular authors or titles that in the past I might have been snotty towards. Think I've managed about a dozen books of varying lengths and qualities so far this year. Finally read the 900 pages from start to finish that hardcover of DeLillo's Underworld that I've been carrying around from place to place for 15 years, when I've failed somewhere in the pages 300s in my earlier attempts.

Still working on being able to finish other things, but I've been happy about the return of this one little exercise of focus.
posted by TimTypeZed at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can't read in a moving vehicle due to motion sickness.
Try an audiobook if you are driving alone or riding public transit. My library lends out audiobooks using Overdrive, so I can check them out directly on my phone. If I get hooked on a series from a few audiobooks, I tend to read the newer ones in paper book form since the audio isn't always available right away.
posted by soelo at 8:20 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also read a lot as a kid and have a hard time getting into anything now. One thing that helps me is finding really good YA fiction that's not too long, especially stuff that I loved as a kid. Narnia, L'Engle, Cynthia Voigt, Harry Potter.

Audio books are another option, or the Selected Shorts and Reading Aloud podcasts.

Also: it's okay to have a phase where you don't read much. I had some health issues a few years ago and someone gave me a book to while away the time (Fingersmith, I think). I could not get through it and it seemed very dry. A few months later, when I was feeling better, I picked it up and had a completely different experience - couldn't put it down.
posted by bunderful at 8:26 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Could you listen to audiobooks? That way, you can listen while you do dishes or crafts. For me, it's a two-for-one, since otherwise I get distracted when I try to do dishes, and I don't read enough. Search my old questions to get recommendations for fast paced audiobooks. Many of those are probably also page-turners in paper format.
posted by slidell at 8:50 AM on April 3, 2015

I also already try to keep several books going at one--usually prose fiction, poetry, and prose nonfiction.

I wonder if this is getting in your way. Since you say you're easily distracted, it probably isn't helping you that even within your reading habit there are potential distractions.

Otherwise, my absolute, 100% serious suggestion is to bring the book you're reading in the bathroom with you, and to leave your phone behind when you do so.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:54 AM on April 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Short stories, poetry. I picked up this for precisely that reason - it's an anthology of either super-short stories or complete-unto-themselves chunks from larger things; they're all only a couple pages, and sometimes they're only a couple paragraphs.

Or try something that is a-novel-told-as-a-bunch-of-stories, like The Decameron or Canterbury Tales - those aren't "novels" so much as "here's a bunch of people who are all hanging out and telling each other stories, and here are the stories". The Decameron may be especially fun because it's light and frothy and fun-loving; the premise is that it's a bunch of young single Italian people who have escaped to the countryside after the Plague has gone through Florence and they want to chill out and have a break, and they tell stories every day while they're on vacation - and because they're trying to cheer themselves up and because they're all gorgeous single 20-somethings who are hot for each other, 60% of the stories are about sex.

Actually, the more I think about it, try The Decameron if you've never read it. You can find a translation that isn't all arcane flowery language, so that won't be a stumbling point, and most of the stories are pretty short, so you can easily read only one story at a time, and since a lot of them are fun and funny you'll be all happy. (Look especially for the stories that the character "Dineo" tells, because he's the wise-ass of the group.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:02 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Vincent Piazza, aka Lucky Luciano from Boardwalk Empire, says he makes it [his] business, no matter what, to read 30 pages of a book a day.

I think starting at 30 pages per day would be a great start - and with the right books, it should fly by even faster.
posted by invisible ink at 9:08 AM on April 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think my biggest hindrance is my own mind; I tend to read a few pages and get distracted and then maybe read a bit more without retaining much.

This is probably why I stopped reading, when I was losing concentration so that I found myself reading the same sentence over and over or passing over pages without any sense of engaging any of it. Now when I sense myself struggling I try to view reading as similar to meditation. Like they might concentrate on their breath, I try to concentrate on the word or the phrase, on the act of absorbing it and comprehending its meaning. And like someone meditating, if I do briefly stray in my focus I try to return to the reading gently without judgement, because judgement only takes us further away from the reading.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:13 AM on April 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've had the same problem RE: abandoning books over the last few years. One thing that jump-started my reading habit was my acquisition of a no-frills e-ink Kindle; it will spoil you for convenience and portability, especially if you load it up with free classic short stories from Project Gutenberg... Conan Doyle, Poe, Lovecraft, etc. I'm also lucky in that my regional library network has a pretty good e-book catalog, so I can borrow a lot of contemporary titles for free.
posted by usonian at 9:24 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

(Sigh, I apologize for completely missing your note about e-books on my first read-through of your question. For what it's worth - I will say that if you've never tried an e-ink device, it's a very different e-book experience than an LCD screen is.)
posted by usonian at 9:33 AM on April 3, 2015

Seconding the recommendation for audiobooks, particularly audiobooks with a strong narrative drive. Some audiobooks don't work for me: if the prose is really dense or the plot really complicated, it needs a fantastic reader to work. But some stuff makes for great audiobook, and won't penalize you if your attention drifts a little bit.

I would recommend The Hunger Games on audio, and basically everything Stephen Pratchett has written. Also Harry Potter, which works remarkably well--a good reader can get you through some pretty awkward prose.
posted by suelac at 9:44 AM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Switch from showers to baths, and keep a book in the bathroom. This has helped me more than anything else - plus, it's really rather nice to have a point in every day where you can look forward to something that feels like a relaxing indulgence, even thought it has a very functional side, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:21 AM on April 3, 2015

Best answer: I've been struck by reading problems during depressive spells. The two things that seem to work for me then are a) re-reading books I know I enjoy and b) reading good young adult or children's fiction. Occasionally these converge.

I know you say you want to get to some books on your list, and you can do that eventually--you may just do better during "spells" with strategies like these, and that'll keep you in the reading habit until you can get to heavier or newer stuff.

I don't know if you're female but I found out a few years ago that losing reading ability--even for really dedicated readers--as a result of depression is apparently common. Not only did all the women in my book group say they'd had that happen, they remembered the books that brought them back. (Short fiction seemed to be the order of the day there, so possibly that's something to consider too.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:32 AM on April 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Length is a big factor for me but also number of characters. There is something about the constant introduction of new characters when I am anxious or manic that is just ... not on. I keep meaning to do an AskMe about books with very few characters, then I look at my to read pile in shame and forget about it.

Baroque sentences are OK when there's nothing else to keep track of; I can enjoy the language without stressing out over the moving parts of a complex story. Beckett's Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable trilogy is a favourite. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is another comfort because every page is a self-contained piece of writing. There's always an exit point so I don't feel like I've failed at reading. Donald Barthelme's conversation stories, nothing could be simpler, just two people talking. Jorge Luis Borges gets more done in a few pages than most writers in a few hundred. Ditto Lydia Davis, although reading about someone else's anxieties can sometimes exacerbate my own. I wish all these suggestions weren't so same-y but, hey, I likes what I like.
posted by Lorin at 8:29 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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