Optimizing book reading
September 23, 2016 8:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for tips on how to become a better reader.

I'm a fairly quick reader when it comes to scifi/fantasy but classics and non-fiction are another story. Can you share any tips on how to keep going for when reading becomes difficult, or maybe a little less entertaining? I've slogged through some classics that were immensely satisfying, eventually. I did drag my feet and took way longer than I normally would with an equivalent sized scifi book. On an intellectual level, I know that my book diet should not consist solely of “candy”, but I can't seem to follow through. What things have made you a better reader?
posted by aeighty to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
If your head shuts down, go back two paragraphs, and read aloud to yourself. Get up and walk around the room while you do this. I am a sound oriented learner, and I learned that sometimes great poetry and great writing are easier to engage with, while reading aloud. Sitting and reading for kinesthetic types is difficult, so moving around a bit helps to stay focused.
posted by Oyéah at 8:06 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

With the more, shall we say, turgid classics, I have a few strategies. Oyéah's movement idea is one. Also just taking it slowly, in digestible chunks.

Another is to always be reading more than one book, so I'll have "Oh God When Will It End?! Vol III" together with "¡Awesome Space Awesomeness!" and go back and forth.

Skimming is a valid approach -- if a "Sudden Treatise on the Production of Charcoal in Croydon" breaks out in the middle of an otherwise gripping Gothic Romance, the author has no one to blame but themselves if I skip blithely by.

Eventually, I had to let it be okay not to finish a book. I'll give it a fair shot, but if it has turned into trench warfare (looking at you, Gormenghast), I also give myself permission to stop and throw the tome into my bag for donations.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:22 AM on September 23, 2016 [21 favorites]

What are you specifically trying to improve? Is it a reading comprehension thing? Do you just get bored and put it down, and then never pick it up again? Do you have trouble finding weightier books that actually appeal to you and are just reading Silas Marner or whatever because it's around the house? (I'm sure Silas Marner is a very good book, just using it as an example.)

One thing that helps me with "classics" is to cut out the weightiness of the book's reputation and read it as if it were just another fun beach read. These books were not written to be Cornerstones Of The Western Canon. They're just books. Give yourself permission to engage with them on that level. Also, if you're not enjoying a book, it might just be a boring sucky book that you don't like. Even if it is a "classic".

Re nonfiction, I'm wondering if the problem is that you're reading stuff that is too dry and academic? There's a lot of really well-written nonfiction out there that is every bit as gripping and as any sci fi book you'd prefer. Find that stuff! Devil In The White City kept me up nights. There's a book called Salt that is literally the history of salt and it was so good that I'm constantly recommending it to people years later. Meanwhile there's a 2000 page doorstopper of an Alexander Hamilton biography that has been sitting on my nightstand for months. You have to actually seek out the right books for you. Just because something is "educational" doesn't make it great. (FWIW the Hamilton book is good, I just don't care about the founding fathers as much as I thought.)

I'm also of the opinion that it's completely OK to just read "candy". There's no St. Paul at the pearly gates toting up all the media you consumed and finding you wanting. It's your life. Read what you want.
posted by Sara C. at 8:24 AM on September 23, 2016 [15 favorites]

That said, I've also found that like hiking, it might take a while to develop the muscles and fitness for longer climbs. In other words, slowing down the modern internetheytwitterisbeepingatme brain to the speed and depth of older literature can take some practice.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

I sometimes recap difficult stuff for myself, except in my head it sounds a bit like Better Myths. I realize that may undermine the sense that what you're reading is more serious than SF/F, but I think it makes some really dry stuff more entertaining and readable.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:27 AM on September 23, 2016

Chat with a friend about the book, preferably over drinks. Or write about your thoughts in a journal. I can read hundreds of pages but find I'm not really thinking about it or engaging with it until I try to communicate it to someone else. I usually end up finding more reasons to be enthusiastic about it by the time I'm done.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:30 AM on September 23, 2016

If I'm reading something difficult, I find it's much easier to stick with it if I get a good start - i.e., sit down for a few hours and read a good chunk of it at once to begin. With many classics, it's easier going once you get used to the style and cadence of the writing.

Honestly, though, it's okay read what you enjoy. Life is short and there are so many books you'd love that you'll never get to in your lifetime. It's not worth wasting the time on something you have to muddle through.
posted by something something at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I like to prep myself by finding out some context--eg info about the author and their circumstances and viewpoint, historical events of the book's time period, the cultural context of the characters. I also like to have an idea of what the book's about before I start--not spoilers, but a general outline.

(This is also the approach I use with my students when I teach literature--it seems effective.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's also okay to take longer to read denser material. I mean...it was written with the intention of inducing more complex intellectual operations and/or emotions in your brain than the light science fiction was. If you're just zipping your eyes over it, you're probably not taking full advantage. You're meant to stop and chew, and that takes time.

If you're not using library books, read with a pencil in hand. Underline passages that seem important to you. If a passage sparks a reaction in you, write it right there in the margin. (My Proust has marginal comments like "OMG WHAT A CREEEEEEPER" in it.) You can also carry with you a little notebook where you can jot down more complicated thoughts as they occur to you. Don't do a forced march. Engage.
posted by praemunire at 8:48 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I tend to like to lounge around and read "light" stuff (especially lying on my stomach, anywhere), and sit up to read "heavy" stuff (preferably in a good chair with an ottoman, but even a desk chair/desk will do)

I have a very high tolerance for "boring" or long classics. When I do get stuck in a rough patch (which would happen when reading TONS for comprehensive exams), I had two strategies:

1. Reading in my head with an accent - I used to use Jean Simmons' voice (having internalized it from A&E's series, Mysteries of the Bible)

2. Populating what I'm reading with actors/people/friends I like. I still recall Amphitryon (Kleist) fondly as being a hilarious play featuring the actors from The Young Ones that I never saw (except for in my imagination)
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:56 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

For those "one good idea spun out to 150 pages" books? (I'm looking at you, business books). Book summaries. Pay someone else to read the damn thing, then buy their precis.
posted by Leon at 9:02 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and go to a place with no interruptions. And that includes your phone.
posted by Leon at 9:04 AM on September 23, 2016

If you can read several books on the same topic, the topic itself will have a fuller context. I am working my way through Kevin Starr's books on the history of California. My familiarity with both northern and southern California's geography and living through the last couple of decades in California makes his writing fuller, and also, not sure I agree with his take of every topic but still learning quite of bit of interesting information.
posted by effluvia at 9:06 AM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Some classics don't engage me. Maybe they're older, or the language is quite unfamiliar. Look it up on the web, find some notes. If you learn more about the author, the inspiration, characters, context, it can give you the context that will help you engage.
posted by theora55 at 9:14 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's normal for non-fiction to take longer than lighter stuff, that's not a sign you're going too slowly. They are crammed full of facts. It is okay to skim a little if the facts are too much or there's a topic you're less interested in.

2nding context. I don't really learn and retain history much unless it's related to a novel I'm reading and I need to know about entails or trench warfare or whatever to fully enjoy it.

Start with "fun" nonfiction that is lauded for being accessible. Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire or one of his others, maybe? Some less-confessional memoirs or biography also might be worth a shot.
posted by momus_window at 9:21 AM on September 23, 2016

I know that my book diet should not consist solely of “candy”

You might want to unpack that a little. I do just fine reading what I want, because it's fun. Sometimes that's Fine Literature, sometimes it's the bazillionth adventure of swords and dragons. Sometimes I feel like it's too much "candy", but sometimes that sentiment itself strikes me as intensely snobbish and classist and uncouth. You've gotten lots of good direct suggestions, so I thought I'd provide a little alternative food for thought :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:59 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Audiobooks? I particularly love The Master and Margarita on Youtube. Usually I'm doing some other low-RAM task while listening, so even if the audiobook is kind of boring, my brain treats it more like a welcome entertainment than a slog.

When I used to read daily (1-2 hours per day at least), I liked to do it either right after waking up or immediately before going to sleep. As a bonus, taking a chapter with a nightcap (or coffee) built up good associations with reading.

I also used to read with a friend -- literally, sitting next to a friend outside for a few hours each week, each silently reading our own thing. Somehow it made stomaching text walls much easier. As long as you are both somewhat attentive to what you're reading, your dedication will multiply.
posted by miniraptor at 10:03 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not all SF/fantasy novels are "candy" quality reading. What's your reading-speed with "literary" SF, e.g., Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed? Or, among contemporary releases, there are many themes to chew on in Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is considered high fantasy but way different from sword-and-sorcery adventures that are classified in the same genre.
posted by serelliya at 10:04 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also: just because it's a classic, doesn't mean it's an objectively good book. It's fine to read a classic novel and criticize major aspects of it like characterization, prose, plot; a book's particular weaknesses may ruin it for you while others barely notice.
posted by serelliya at 10:06 AM on September 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

I like the ideas here "How To Read 50 Books A Year".
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 10:52 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you think gamification might help, Goodreads has a cool "Reading Challenge" feature. There are also various MeFites over there, including yours truly.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:28 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

*How* do you read? Do you subvocalize? Do you read each word in turn, and parse the sentence as you go? Do you read keywords and skip over smaller ones? Do you read a whole word groupings in one go? Do you skip around on the page to find passages that engage you? The way one reads fiction is SO different from the way one needs to read complex works, such as classic literature, philosophy, or technical writing.

Light fiction is far less dependent on the reader carefully parsing each sentence -- whole paragraphs can often be skipped without a loss of understanding of the plot or character development. This is rarely the case for other types of writing.

On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the level of detail and description often found in the classics, it may actually be beneficial for you to adopt a lighter, skimming mode to coast through the tedious parts and get to the bits that you enjoy.

I see you have 'slogged' through classics and enjoyed them, and I wonder if you simply eventually adapted your reading style to fit the material, to get what you wanted out of it. Your issue may be solved by consciously acknowledging that 'heavier' works require a modification of your current lighter reading style, and working towards that with attention and the understanding that it may take you a few chapters to transition to the required mode.
posted by ananci at 8:54 PM on September 23, 2016

Also, how tired are you when you sit down to read? I found that I cannot absorb new to me material at the end of a working day. So I reread things in the evening. If I read something new I find time during the weekend. But my brain is simply fried at the end of the working day. I want simple fare, ideally nothing new, when I am tired.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:53 AM on September 24, 2016

When I am reading a book that I really want to finish, but am struggling to get through/stick with, I give myself goals - like, I'm going to read 20 pages a day until I finish it in X days, or, every time I sit down to read I will read an entire chapter. I often find that these goals get me in the flow of the book and I actually end up exceeding the goal.
posted by raspberrE at 12:44 PM on September 24, 2016

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