teach me how to read again!
November 10, 2020 3:08 PM   Subscribe

i used to devour books, to the exclusion of everything else. (hx: i am bipolar with adhd) lately i can't even sit still to read even a few pages and there is SO much i want to read! how do i re-train my brain to do this?
posted by megan_magnolia to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Select a couple you read some time ago, long enough that you don't remember in detail, that were real page turners and see if you can drop in to them again.
posted by sammyo at 3:12 PM on November 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

A few quick tips that have helped me when I've fallen off the reading train (and that I've given friends who admire my reading habit and want to get better):
- Start with a commitment to read at least 15 minutes a day (maybe you don't even make 15 minutes total! but aiming for that helps!). You can build up from there as you start to build the habit.
- Put your phone away. Somewhere where you can't get it, even if you have questions about what you're reading (see next point).
- If you get stuck on any words, have a question about content, etc., keep a little notepad next to you and write down a reminder to yourself. See if you can figure out any questions by context in the writing, and keep going. When you stop reading, THEN follow up and check all your questions. This makes you less distracted as you go.
- Music or noise blocking might help. Sometimes I can read with lots of ambient sound, sometimes I put on some tunes, sometimes I literally put a white-noise machine on.
- Joining a (virtual) book club can help with bigger questions and motivate you to finish reading, although double-edged sword is that you may not care about the book.
- Final point: if you don't care about the book, give yourself permission to give up or pause to read something different. I read a silly thing once that you should try to give a book (100 - your age) pages before giving up, and it's a decent benchmark if you can't tell whether the book is boring or if it's more of a focusing problem on your part. My personal limit is a bit shorter than that (~50 pages). Life is too short to read bad books, but also sometimes it's nice to challenge yourself with something different.

NB: I am not bipolar nor do I have ADHD, but I am a very distractible person. I read anywhere between 20 - 50 books a year.
posted by Paper rabies at 3:25 PM on November 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

Does it make a difference if you have a physical book, a tablet, or a phone-sized device?

I find that with a pocket device, I can read for a few minutes between hands-on time while cooking/ standing in line/ etc. With a physical book, I find it much harder to do the same (I want to plant myself and plow through the book).

Can you read while other stimuli is going on (ie., music, an old familiar movie, in the background) or does it make it worse?
posted by porpoise at 3:28 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Follow-up comment: I'd also recommend, after trying out some new reading habits, to assess if you... like reading. Not everyone does! That's okay! There's lots of ways to learn and consume media that's not reading. There's also lots of different types of things to read, and that can impact whether you like to do so or not.

But I've found a lot of my friends have a weird valuation of reading as being the pinnacle of past-time achievement or a thing smart people do or something, and I think that holds them back from either a) enjoying reading for reading's sake, or b) realizing that they might enjoy something else more than reading that may be just as life-enriching (like music, art, gardening, physical activity, etc.).
posted by Paper rabies at 3:30 PM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I definitely agree with paper rabies on "if you don't care about the book, give yourself permission to give up or pause to read something different." Recently, I had been having real difficulties getting into books. I thought the problem was me and my decreasing attention span / life worries / other commitments. Turns out the problem was the books themselves. Nothing really wrong with them, but they weren't interesting enough to suck me in. Once I hit a book I loved, I read the whole thing in a day. Keep looking for the right book and don't assume the problem is you, as opposed to the fit.
posted by sonofsnark at 3:35 PM on November 10, 2020 [9 favorites]

Ignore this if it's not relevant, but when's the last time you checked your eyesight? I too was a voracious reader in the past (with terrible vision to boot) and probably around age 40 or so my reading habits tailed off very gradually.

I attributed it to some of the same things you did: busy lifestyle, attentional issues. I didn't consider vision as a cause because I could still focus on my laptop and phone screens just fine, but books don't have the benefit of that artificial contrast and it turns out I needed to get progressive lenses.

Since then, my ability to read books has increased significantly, so maybe worth an eye exam?
posted by jeremias at 3:38 PM on November 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

I got back into books by starting with audiobooks. Pre-pandemic, I was working from home without anyone else in the house. I get audiobooks from the library on my phone, and anytime I got up from my desk, I turned on my book. I'd listen to the book while cooking, while getting ready in the morning, while taking the dog out, etc. And it was great. I 'read' so many books! In the midst of that I joined a friend's book club for even further reading encouragement. The audio books branched to some e-books, and some hard copy books. Sometimes this was dependent solely on the format the book I wanted to read was available in.

Now in the pandemic, with my husband home, I do not listen to books because it's disruptive to him, and I don't want to carry around headphones. I miss it, but I'm trying to read more paper and e-books.

I'd definitely start with some easy books - stuff to get you used to reading again. There are plenty of page-turners out there. Even try young adult if you're so inclined. As others have mentioned, if you have a beloved book (one that you've already re-read) from your past, that may also be a good way to whet your literary appetite.
posted by hydra77 at 3:54 PM on November 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Me, too. How to Break a Reading Slump is helpful-ish. I have plenty of books, so I keep picking stuff up until I find one that grabs me. I think Twitter and Fb, with their very short bits of content, are really problematic. During the election (not entirely over), I was hooked, now trying to close the laptop. I read paper books, and on tablet/ phone. My library has an okay selection of ebooks, so I can keep a book on my phone. Handy for when I'm stuck somewhere, waiting.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on November 10, 2020

Reread your favorite books from when you were little. Not baby little/picture books, but stuff you loved when you were 9. They're written for people with short attention spans, you'll churn through them, have some nice nostalgia, and it will get you back into the habit of reading.
posted by phunniemee at 4:05 PM on November 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf might be worth reading.

From the blurb: Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

Wolf talks about skim reading and the need for a “new literacy for the digital age” here.
posted by mkdirusername at 4:08 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had the same problem. I went from reading 5 books (all for school) in 2015 and years prior, to 42 in 2016 and 50+ in the following years. I did it by:

- Reading a BUNCH of children's books. Books I loved as child, as well as ones I had wanted to read and never got around to. My old favorites included Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Princess and the Goblin, A Wrinkle in Time, The Enchanted Castle, Howl's Moving Castle, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Gifts (Ursula K. Le Guin). Some "new to me" children's books included the Skulduggery Pleasant series, Ella Minnow Pea, the Harry Potter series, the Tiffany Aching (Discworld) series. Most of these were deeply enjoyable reads, but simple enough that my scattered brain wouldn't give up every time I tried. I really feel like this was critical to building my "reading muscles" back up. When I'm feeling burned out or struggling to read, I'll fall back on this, read some kid's books for a while to get pumped back up.

- Dropping a book if I'm not thoroughly enjoying it. I give a book 50 pages (+ to the end of the chapter). If I'm not hooked and excited to keep reading, I stop. I don't care if it "gets better." If I find myself going several days putting off reading the book, if I'm not revved to keep reading, then I abandon it. There's so many good books out there. I would rather spend my time reading a bunch of books I enjoy 100%, than spending three months trying to get through a book that I may only enjoy 50% of.

- Dedicating an hour before bed to reading time. You're supposed to wind-down and be off screens for 2 hours before bed. Well, I can only stretch getting ready for bed routines to about an hour, so what else am I going to do without a screen during that time? I don't always manage this, but I at least have it as a goal. I may end up getting distracted by my phone or other things, but at least that time is blocked off for reading already.

- Using my Kindle more. I like paper books, but it is infinitely easier to pick up a Kindle and read here and there than it is with a paper book. I can't read on my phone but a lot of people do that too.

It really is something you have to practice and build up, but it can be done! I'm neurodivergent and have atrocious attention issues, but these things have helped me. That said, even with this, I do still sometimes have trouble with "how do I sit still and read for more than a few minutes". Two things: one, listening to audiobooks while pacing helps if it's a literal "gotta burn off energy" thing. But if it's more I feel like I have to pick up my phone or do something else every few minutes, I like to do a little meditation sort of thing. I typically hate meditation, but I will basically... try and slow my breathing and focus on the feel of the pages (if it's a physical book) or the texture of my Kindle cover or something like that for a few seconds, and think about the feeling of really enjoying and getting into a book. Try and get my head in that space, basically? Idk, it helps when I get the urge to put the book down and do something else.

Also, I do just want to say, the books I have devoured have largely been romances. I never would have considered myself a "romance" reader, but the books I just could not put down included Red, White, and Royal Blue, Carry On, An Enchantment of Ravens, Sorcery of Thorns, and Witchmark. I think a large part of this is these books are specifically designed to make you feel good. They're full of giddy dopamine hits. So like, maybe try romance out?
posted by brook horse at 4:57 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm a novel-a-dayer and long ago I learned that if you're not vibing with something you should just put it down and move on to something else. It isn't the book's fault nor your own. Just like with music you need to be in right mood for whatever you are trying to read. Different books take different moods and levels of concentration. I usually have two or three books on the go as well as some serialized fiction or a book of shorts. If I'm not able to get into a groove with something within the first few pages (I find my mind wandering or I'm starting to skim) then I just close that book and move on to a different one. I'll try it again another time.

Serial fiction is actually a really good way to kickstart a reading habit. It is published in short, easily digestible pieces and the narrative usually has a lot of momentum in order to keep people coming back to it week after week. You get these stories with a really strong, "just one more chapter" element to them which might be all you need. It's kind of like how people say they never feel like they have the time to watch a movie, but then sit down and binge watch a television show. They could have watched two or three movies in that time, but they couldn't get over that mental hump. All of which is to saythat maybe you should give some serials a try. Pick something on SerialBox that looks interesting and try it out. There are also plenty of serial fiction writers on Patreon, but it's hard to recommend anyone without knowing your likes.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 5:00 PM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Get off the internet.
posted by aniola at 5:11 PM on November 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

These things helped me start reading again in a big way (many have been mentioned already):

1) Getting an e-reader: my eyesight is not great, and I was very frustrated by what seemed like small print in every darn book I picked up. After getting an e-reader (Kobo Glo, now the Clara) I downloaded lots of books from my library's Overdrive e-book collection and I could adjust the font to any size I wanted. The best readers are no-glare; you can turn off the backlight and just use the room light like you would a paper book.

2) Giving myself permission to abandon a book if I don't like it after a chapter or so. Sometimes I'll give it 50 pages; sometimes even before that 50 page mark, I'm just like NOPE not for me, or even "meh" and I stop reading it and look for something that catches my attention better. Reading is so much more pleasant if I'm not slogging dejectedly through a book just for the sake of finishing it.

3) Joining the Goodreads Reading Challenge every year. I set a number that seems attainable and every time I finish a book I log it on Goodreads and write a review. This year because of the pandemic I blew right past my goal long before the year was over. I really enjoy writing reviews of things so I find this whole process very satisfying.

4) Being part of a book club. I like discussing books with my friends, and there's a certain amount of motivation to finish the book before we have our discussion. See 2) above though; if I'm not enjoying it I just ditch it and listen to the discussion. I actually learned to do 2) from one of my book club friends.

Good luck! I hope you are able to regain your enjoyment of reading to your satisfaction!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:54 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Haha I laugh at the "get off the internet" line because, for me, it's so true. Lockdown took me from being a 2 book per month reader to... nothing. I was endlessly doomscrolling, as the kids say.

At the suggestion of a management consultant that my org paid for, I started trying to address some of my (similar) issues at work with the pomodoro technique. That involves having a timer that you use to structure sustained work. I dislike ticking clocks and jarring alarms, so someone (on here, I think) mentioned a visual timer. Oh my goodness I love this thing. It took some getting used to, but it was so helpful with work that I tried it with other things that I was having trouble working into my day.

So, now, at least 5-6 days each week, I sit down with a book and see how many 20 minute increments I can get through. I add little breaks in between those sessions, but it's been genuinely helpful to institute a sort of building blocks approach to the time I'd like to spend reading. Works great for things I *don't* want to do, too, like washing dishes, folding laundry, going through old boxes of stuff to get rid of stuff, etc..
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:23 PM on November 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

I bought a Kitchen Safe and use it to lock up my phone for long stretches (hours to days). Almost immediately started reading novels again.
posted by sixswitch at 7:05 PM on November 10, 2020

Another vote for "make sure you're reading something really compelling". I'm an intermittently voracious reader, used to consume books by the ton as a kid, lost my way a few times as an adult (often for reasons of significant depression or other mental health issues), including this year.

Having just stumbled on a book this weekend that I can't put down, in retrospect the problem this year has been everything I was trying to read up until now. Earlier in the pandemic I decided that 2020 would be a great year to finally read Ulysses and The Golden Notebook, but it was a slog and I wasn't enjoying it and I gave up on both. Then I picked up a book by a writer whose previous book I enjoyed a lot when I was younger, and it was better than Joyce or Lessing, but I was still only reading 10-15mins at a time, usually over breakfast. Then I started reading My Own Country after I finished the Broks and I spent most of the weekend reading it and keep thinking about it and wanting to read it during time when I ought to be working, which is the strongest positive signal for me that I'm completely hooked.

Trying to get back into reading, as someone who's had to do that a few times already as an adult, is the time to put aside any feelings about what you "should" be reading and just read something that's going to grab you. Maybe a re-read of a book you know you found compelling in the past, or something that you might otherwise be a little embarrassed to be reading but know you're going to enjoy. For me that's often been gentle YA-adjacent fantasy like Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle or Sharon Shinn's Elemental Blessings series. Hopefully you know what your own version of that category is - start there!
posted by terretu at 4:17 AM on November 11, 2020

i LOVE reading. i had a couple year slump where i only read like 10 books, when usually i was at 60 or 70. i am out of that slump now.

kindle. it is much easier for me to read on a kindle than a paper book these days. i like being able to make the print big so it's not so hard to focus on, and i like the integrated dictionary/wikipedia features for quick phone-free definitions/background.
library card with overdrive access. because the books are "free" i find myself reading a lot more books i normally wouldn't pay for, and many of them have turned out to be pretty great!
permission to give up. for YEARS i trudged through every book i picked up. i don't know why but i felt i had to finish all books started. nope. no more. sometimes i can tell in 2 pages that i will hate it and i put it down. sometimes it's a few chapters. but it's okay to put aside something that you're not enjoying, as "hobby reading" should be a pleasure not a slog.
fluff. for some reason i also thought i had to read Serious Books/Literature. probably because i was an english major. but it turns out those james patterson and lee child books are pretty devourable, even if they're not the greatest writing and certainly not literature.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:52 AM on November 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have ADHD and recently re-trained myself for books. I noticed that whenever I was bored--and with ADHD you are constantly bored, as you probably know!--I would fill the time with Twitter and Reddit. I'd get sucked into them and keep scrolling, even when I didn't want to and was actively trying to put the phone down, because of the constant small dopamine hits that reading new things gives the brain.

So I deleted the apps I was using to access them from my phone, and gave myself strict rules on when I could access the sites, mostly when I have defined times for waiting for something, like five minutes when I'm brewing tea, or when I'm waiting for a callback for something. Banning things completely never works for me, because I eventually go "Fuck da man!" even though I am the Man and go back to them.

That meant when I was bored I had to do something else, because doing nothing isn't an option for my ADHD, and the easiest thing was to pop open my Kindle or the Kindle app and read.

I didn't need to give myself permission not to finish books, because I've never had that problem. I subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, so there's always new books waiting to try when I bounce off one. I still buy some books, but I also read a ton of samples, download free books from various self-published author giveaways (I've found only a handful of self-pubbed authors that I've continued to buy books from that way, but I am ever an optimist), and have access to three libraries that circulate ebooks (I work for one) so I'm not spending as much money on books as I did back in the pre-ebook days, when I'd spend a couple of hundred every month for books, only half of which I'd read. I'm back to reading at least a few books a week depending on their length, and I don't have that nasty, nagging feeling in my brain that says MUST FINISH YOUR TWITTER LIST.

ANYWAY, babbling aside, I'd suggest looking at what you normally fill your time with instead of books right now, and see what you can do about limiting your access to those activities, and see if it spurs an increase in book-reading.
posted by telophase at 8:01 AM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been in your position recently, and what snapped me back to reading was reading books on the same big dumb glowing computer screen I use for all my other internet addictions.

I'd downloaded a few authors' works as PDFs at the beginning of the pandemic, thinking pessimistically that they'd go the way of my Kindle which sat without a charge for months at a time, or my stack of hardcopy books gathering dust.

But it turns out that once I started reading I *kept reading*, and that sticking to my comfy on the couch with a laptop routine just kinda scratched the same itch as wasting a whole evening on the medium- to long-form internet writing I'd been wallowing in. Just the comfort factor (with juuust the right brightness and just the right text size, and propped up conveniently in front of me) seemed to make a big difference.
posted by fountainofdoubt at 2:42 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have ADHD and my Kindle is great for reading despite that challenge. It's a dedicated device, so I'm not going to flip to Metafilter or a game. I can make the type large for when my eyes are tired. It's backlit, so at night when I'm in bed it's the only thing I can see and I don't get distracted. And I think the smoothness of page-turning might be helpful, as there isn't a visual distraction of a paper page.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:18 PM on November 11, 2020

I often need to get over a hump by reading a certain amount before I feel invested in a book (especially with novels.) Sometimes I listen to an audiobook for a few chapters and then once I’m into the story, I switch to reading on my kindle (reading is faster for me, but an audiobook feels like less work.)

Another thing that has helped me (with novels) is writing down the characters as they appear and making brief notes/sketching out how they’re connected until I get familiar with them. I was really resistant to doing this at first because it feels like interrupting my flow, but it ends up helping me a lot, especially since I tend not to read in long stretches and this way I can pick up a book again for the second or third chapter and jog my memory about who’s who. I usually stop making notes after not too long, and don’t refer back to them much, but even just the process of writing stuff out helps.

Also nthing everyone who has been helped by an e-ink kindle. Having the text perfectly flat and whatever size I want is much easier on my eyes.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:55 AM on November 15, 2020

« Older the most fun PAPER mail-order catalogs for...   |   Shringrix vaccination question Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.