How can I become a better and more prolific reader?
January 31, 2008 11:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I become a better and more prolific reader? I don't have a problem with the idea of reading. I love it, as a matter of fact. I'm crazy about books, I collect them, and I enjoy them. However, I don't read nearly as much as I want to, or need to. Ideally, I'd love to read a book every week or two. It doesn't come close to that these days. I think about reading and how I enjoy the idea of reading more than I actually read.

I know that part of my problem is discipline, but also focus while I read. It becomes tiring for me for some reason to continue on, and to remain attentive, even though I'm interested in the material. My mind wanders too much.

What have you done that has made you a better reader? I know there are myriads of sites and programs and such, but I'm really interested to hear anecdotally what you have have done to become more efficient and more attentive in your reading. Skill sets developed through practice would be great; but also, what sort of mental things have you done to stay focused, prioritize the time, that kind of thing?

I know this is a broad sort of question, but I think any experiences of going from having a hard time reading to be a regular reader would be very helpful.
posted by SpacemanStix to Education (31 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Don't go anywhere without a book - there are any number of little moments during the day when 10 minutes of reading passes the time very pleasantly.

Read during your lunch hour and commute.

Read in bed, before going to sleep; go to bed half an hour earlier, and don't worry if you get so engrossed that you don't want to sleep at the normal time - an hour of sleep lost to reading in bed does not make you as tired as an hour lost to watching TV or surfing the net out of bed.

Pop out for coffee (or the beverage of your choice) for an hour on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and read.

Read books instead of the paper.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by WPW at 11:42 AM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

Audio books are fantastic. It might not be the solution to focusing on reading, though I've found that the more you listen to audiobooks the more you naturally pay attention. But it's a great way to get "reading" time in when you're doing things like driving, cooking, working out, etc.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2008

The easiest suggestion would be to experiment with different seating positions. For me, at least, how I am situated has a huge effect on how easily I can concentrate/stay awake. Try laying down, try sitting in a comfy chair with your feet up, try sitting in a computer chair, try sitting on the floor, try sitting in coffee shops, try taking a blanket and sitting in the park...

There are so many different factors to how and where you sit that can affect your ability to read that you should really experiment with as many as you can think of.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:47 AM on January 31, 2008

The main crux of my answer is: if you don't feel compelled to continue reading a book, don't force it. Any time reading becomes something that you need discipline to do, it's just not a fun activity any more. I tend to keep a book with me at all times and pull it out whenever I'm in need of some activity to fill up a little time. Try to avoid taking an ipod or other music device with you and take a book instead. Keep a book in your bathroom that you can pick up and continue where you left off. Keep a couple of books on your bedside table. Feel free to stop reading whenever you want and feel free to switch books whenever you want. Maybe today you don't feel like finishing Midnight's Children and want to read the latest Stephen King instead. That's fine. It took me five tries to actually finish reading Pride and Prejudice, but I loved it when I got to the end of it.
Well all that's fine, but what if you really love the book you're reading and want to get to the end of it, but find your mind wandering all the time. Try not to focus too much on each individual word you're reading. The times when I get the greatest reading pleasure are when I'm so absorbed in the book that it becomes a living breathing entity and the actual words used to conjure this up become unimportant. This could be a problem if I were reading this for a literature class and had to quote some lines from it tomorrow, but it's just great for my purposes.
posted by peacheater at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2008

I started to read much, much more when I began
(a) making lists of books to read
(b) logging the books i read.

These were things that gave me a sense of accomplishment separate from the "Well, that was nice" of finishing a book (which is so often a minor letdown).

I'd also pay attention to what is distracting you. Is it a location thing, a noise thing, a time thing? With some dense books, I need to take a break after as little as twenty or thirty minutes of reading.
posted by Jeanne at 11:53 AM on January 31, 2008

1. Throw out your television. More plausibly, cancel cable/satellite. Making yourself choose between popping in a DVD and getting a book evens the playing field.

2. Start a blog featuring your appraisals of the books you read, and fool yourself into thinking it has a massive audience. Do not, however, substitute blogging for reading.

3. Notwithstanding #2, adopt strict limits on the internet, including this site.

4. Appreciate me as a complete and utter hypocrite, or decide instead that I am capable of providing unbiased advice.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:01 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get rid of your television. Get dial-up at home and don't use it.
posted by OmieWise at 12:05 PM on January 31, 2008

I'm a graduate student in English, and have spent the last eight months or so preparing for my comprehensive exams. These (in my program there are two of them) basically entail getting a huge list of books and a few months to read them before you have to do a lengthy written exam.

I was a pretty dedicated reader before (English grad student and all) but I found that going through this process improved my comprehension, speed, and focus a great deal. I think it was equal parts sitting down and making myself do it, coupled with the "reward" of crossing items off of that big huge list-- seeing it shrink day by day was a good feeling.

I'm not saying you should force yourself to read-- you have the luxury of taking time with your reading and you should enjoy that. But, setting goals (perhaps by making a list of books you've always wanted to read but never did, and then writing up a list and working through it), responding to what you read (in the form of a blog, a journal, or just notes, as others have suggested), and recording what you read might help. Try to see how the books you read connect to one another, or take part in some conversation, even if it is unexpected or ridiculous or relevant only to your own subjective response to it. Be an active reader; don't just consume and read for the sake of finishing the book. Try to read for different things--sometimes for a great character, sometimes for a great plot, sometimes for humour, sometimes for beautiful prose. Whatever you like. Think about why you liked so and so's way of doing something versus somebody else's. Or don't.

The other thing that really helped me was having a good place to read where I could focus. Lying in bed and reading sometimes worked, but other times not so much; working in my office at school almost always worked, and that's where I was most productive. Find yourself a quiet spot, or find a coffee shop you like, or a comfy chair. Turn off the television. Read passages you especially like aloud. Enjoy.
posted by synecdoche at 12:10 PM on January 31, 2008 [6 favorites]

We just discussed the same problem on MetaChat. For me, the answer comes down to taking back the time from internet activities and, I'm increasingly ashamed to say, TV. There are only 24 hours in the day and we can't make any more - every hour I spend online is one chapter fewer, and it adds up.

The World Famous: I love reading while walking - people have always marvelled at how I managed it. But I did it just about every day on my way to high school!
posted by Miko at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2008

3rding getting rid of the TV.

I've also found that chewing gum while reading helps keep me attentive.
posted by cog_nate at 12:35 PM on January 31, 2008

Could you possibly join a book group or maybe find a "book buddy" (not my term, thankfully) who'd read the same thing as you at the same time? That way not only would you get more out of the book by having somebody to talk to about it, the guilt of not finishing it in time to talk about it with other people would be a major incentive to actually read.
posted by Bromius at 12:36 PM on January 31, 2008

Do you take notes in the margins? Don't force yourself to do it compulsively, but if something in the book triggers something in your head, right it down in the book and then get right back to reading. Don't let your mind wander off too long.

Don't buy new books until you've read the ones you have. This saves money. It also adds incentive to get yourself reading more. If you're worried about forgetting a book you want to buy, write it in a list.

Also, make short project lists of books, then buy them all at once. "I will read all five or whatever Jane Austen books by summer's end." "I will read four Booker or Pulitzer winners before I buy anything else." Lists help in fixing goals, but they offer enough variation that if one particular item doesn't strike you at the moment you can change your mind. When you're done, you can feel accomplished. Even your friends who will think you're a prat when you brag about it afterwards will secretly be slightly impressed and envious that you've actually accomplished something.

Also, I second the book buddy idea. Book clubs are great (at least theoretically) at keeping people to deadlines, but there's a great chance you'll get stuck with a book you hate. With fewer people involved in the decision on what to read, it's more likely you'll find something you're all excited about.

A book a week is a great goal, but there will be times when you just can't manage it. So make sure you bank a lot more reading when you do have time. Take a Saturday and just spend the whole time reading, getting up only for lunch. Use a three-day weekend to finish one book and get a big chunk of another done. A lot of good reading time is lost when people break after finishing one book. It makes sense, because you want to absorb and rest. But it's also the only time the book is dictating to you when you'll stop reading. Don't let it beat you. Have something else ready and get right into it.
posted by aswego at 12:48 PM on January 31, 2008

I don't mean to piggyback on this question (and I'll happy make a new one if people think I am) but how do you retain more of what you're reading? I can read pretty quickly, but sometimes I have a lot of problem recovering specifics of a book after I've read it, unless I've done something like write up a response or reaction (which, due to time, I don't often have the chance to do.)

How do you keep more of it in your head?
posted by canine epigram at 12:52 PM on January 31, 2008

if you don't feel compelled to continue reading a book, don't force it

That's really good advice. I've accepted that there are more books than I ever could read so if something isn't grabbing me I quit and move on.

The no-TV advice is helpful. I went through a period of something like 9 months where I watched no TV, though still some movies, mostly classics from the library. Now I do watch a bit more but I don't think it will ever again be a significant part of my entertainment. I read a lot during that time. But you've got to be careful because you can spend just as much time on the net as you ever did watching TV.

Have multiple books going at once. Obviously it doesn't work for everyone's reading style but I often have a lighter fiction book or two (sci-fi/fantasy, etc), serious fiction (Literature!), and then non-fic and/or technical. So I can read whatever I'm in the mood to read.

Don't be afraid of your library. Admittedly, I recently moved and haven't got back in the library groove, but I typically get 80% or so of what I read from the library.
posted by 6550 at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2008

Perhaps you're not reading truly good books? It's rare, but when I find a book I like, I fly through the sucker, reading for hours at a time (and I have the attention span of a gnat).
posted by at 1:47 PM on January 31, 2008

I'm not questioning your taste in books btw, only referencing my own personal experiences.
posted by at 1:49 PM on January 31, 2008

My advice, based on my experience as an English major:

Go back to the books you loved as a child and as a high school student. Think of the books you couldn’t put down. Did you ever miss an appointment because you had to get to the end of the chapter? Re-read that book.

The idea behind this is that, if you’re like me, you read a lot of books because you think you should, and you force yourself to finish them whether or not they hold your interest. This is toxic and counterproductive. If you are indeed this kind of reader, then, like me, you may have forgotten what it feels like to really enjoy reading a book. That’s when you start to think that you’re the problem (rather than the book at hand).

Once you re-experience being captivated by a book, start reading new books again. If they don’t make you want to turn the page, STOP READING THEM. There will not be a pop quiz. The only test is how happy you are.

Of course, this may be off base. Whatever the source of your problem, I still advise you to re-read your old favorites.
posted by prefpara at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two things that worked for me:

1) Taking the bus to work every day.
2) Being in the same room while someone is watching something far less interesting than your book on TV.

And yes, books that are actually captivating help.
posted by herbaliser at 2:12 PM on January 31, 2008

I agree. I started reading a lot more when I stopped reading books that people tell me I should read and started reading books that I wanted to read. Usually, I'll find one author that I really love and then just buy everything they've written.

Here's when I read, and I read about 3 books every two weeks or so.

1) Being in chicago, I take the CTA everywhere. I read on the way to work, from work, to the bar, sometimes home from the bar depending on my state of intoxication.

2) I read when I go to lunch. Every day. I used to laugh at my friend for doing this, but screw it. You've got to have something to do when you're waiting for your food to arrive.
posted by kpmcguire at 2:30 PM on January 31, 2008

I read almost all my books as ebooks now. That way I carry a decent library in my pocket wherever I go. Another advantage of a PDA reader is that I can read all night in bed without disturbing my wife. Being able to have my books with me means I get through a lot of books now, where before I rarely found time. And having a good selection to hand means I can choose a book to suit how I feel: e.g. I'm concurrently reading A Tale of Two Cities and His Dark Materials, plus Conrad, Fremont's diary of his exploration of the western US, and various technical books.

My present reader device is a Sony Clie PDA, which unfortunately is no longer made (but available on eBay). The Sony Reader is quite nice (I've only tried it in the store) but I prefer the size of the Clie because it fits the pocket so easily. I haven't seen an Amazon Kindle.
posted by anadem at 2:40 PM on January 31, 2008

I usually have two books with me - my main book, and my emergency back-up book. Nthing reading while waiting in line anywhere. And read while you watch TV - I thought everyone did that.
posted by rtha at 2:52 PM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the quality suggestions. I think the idea of picking out books ahead of time and keeping track of what's been read could work for me.

Regarding reading what I enjoy, I definitely agree with that. I find though, that there are things that I need to be well read on for my academic discipline. I enjoy the discipline, and thus need to use reading as a way to keep up in the field I enjoy. So at some point, I do need to read things that don't always thrill me at the moment, but as an investment in longer term happiness. I'm trying to figure out how to tap into that, and have been somewhat distressed at my lack of motivation in keeping up, simply because I have an inability to stay focused at times.

Also, I think there's a lot of truth in getting rid of outside distraction like TV and internet. I'm going to be giving this some serious thought.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:04 PM on January 31, 2008

Lots of good advice here, the public transit certainly keeps me reading when I'm too busy at other times. The Simple Dollar had a long post with some solutions to your question a few days ago.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:23 PM on January 31, 2008

Take the bus to work. Suddenly, every day there is an enforced period of reading time. I actually really missed it when I changed jobs and no-longer used the bus.

Having someone else drive you to your destination while you enjoy a book beats the hell out of driving yourself - a formerly annoying time of day is transformed into rest and relaxation time instead, and adding to the stack of advantages, you gain disposable income by not blowing as much money on gas and mileage depreciation.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:59 PM on January 31, 2008

I get distracted easily when I read so I know what you mean. Recently a friend suggested for me to make tick marks on a paper for every 5 minutes that I read to help improve concentration.

I do it by sitting in front of the computer monitor with Minuteur running and set it for five minute increments. I suppose a kitchen timer or something similar would work as well.

I noticed improved concentration even when I don't use the timer, so it appears to be working.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 9:08 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in the exact same boat as you, and here's what I'm discovering: Setting reasonable goals is the best way to accomplish this. In view of this, a friend and I decided to make a reading list for 2008: Two books a month - one chosen by each of us, and covering a variety of genres (Jan - Sci Fi; Feb - Non Fic; Mar - New Fic, etc...), with a focus on classic literature overall throughout the year.

Sure, 24 books in one year doesn't sound like a lot. But if you think back to previous years, you'll probably have a hard time thinking of 24 books that you read. And most of these are pretty heavy, significant books, so it's still a good accomplishment - and a great start on the road to reading more!

We've both done well so far and met our January goal. Sure, it's only been a month, but getting two pretty heavy books already under our belt feels good! And I'm already forming better reading habits.

I made my own website for our reading goal project, where we can view the schedule and discuss/comment on the books and our progress. If you're interested, you're welcome to join us - though our schedule for 2008 is already decided so you won't be able to choose what books we read. Obviously any "extra credit" you want to read is fine!

Check it out if you want, and let me know if you want to join up and read/comment alongside us. It helps to have a "reading buddy" to keep you on track and give you an incentive to keep up with:
My email is on the "About" page if you want to contact me directly.

Even if you don't want to read with us, I'm still confident that setting a reasonable goal is the best way to approach this problem.
posted by sprocket87 at 6:09 AM on February 1, 2008

ha, my goal for this year is to read one book per week. so far i am on course. i think the tricks are as follows:

1) read only the books you enjoy - if after 50 pages you can't get into the book, you don't enjoy the style, you feel it doesn't bring anything to you - let that book go

2) read only one book at a time in order to be able to focus on it

3) read for 30 minutes every day - on the bus, in the line, while walking, waiting, being bored (it helps to have the book with you)

4) try to alternate between genres/styles, reading similar stuff all the time may get a little bit tedious

5) make a commitment - e.g. 2 books/month and stick to it
posted by barrakuda at 10:03 AM on February 1, 2008

Oh, and I use Allconsuming to keep track of my books.
posted by herbaliser at 1:24 PM on February 1, 2008

I'm a habitual reader, have been since I was a kid. I actually feel anxiety if I don't have a book handy. I do, however, still watch TV more than I should and do the Internet thing as well.

I used to commute to work by bus, but now I have a short drive to work, so there's an hour of nearly guaranteed reading time lost, but I still manage to squeeze lots in. I read in the bathroom. I read at lunch. I'm a fairly fast reader, so that helps.

I do have a reading list, but it's not written down. I don't read one book at a time, though I do have a "main" book. I tend to like really big books, but I often take a break from them to read shorter books. For example, I'm currently reading through Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, but I'm interspersing Honor Harrington novels every now and then...and throwing in an occasional Carl Hiassen into the mix.

I do re-read favorites as well. That's usually how I keep two books going at new book, one familiar book.

Nancy Pearl has a rule of thumb for trying out a book... if you're under 50, give the book 50 pages before giving up. If you're over 50, subtract your age from 100 and give the book that many pages to interest you (on the theory that you don't have as much time to waste on bad books anymore).

My sister, who is even more mad about reading than me (because she has a job that allows her to read at work at times) actively blogs about book and belongs to several online book clubs.
posted by lhauser at 4:27 PM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps our concern is not so terribly modern. This morning I was reading (yes!) Amusing Ourselves to Death, and came across this:
In 1786, Benjamin Franklin observed that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books....The proliferation of newspapers in all the Colonies was accompanied by the rapid diffusion of pamphlets and broadsides. Alexis de Tocqueville took note of this fact in his _Democracy in America_, published in 1835: "In America," he wrote, "parties do not write books to combat each other's opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredibly rapidity and then expire.
Sounds familiar.

Wish I could find a citation for that Franklin quote - no luck so far.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try reading "How to Read a Book" by M. Adler and C. Van Doren. It will help you develop different approaches to reading for pleasure, academic study, criticism, and something they call syntopical reading. Originally written in 1940, it is a serious book written with a lot of meat and not much fluff.

I have given more copies of this book to friends, teachers and of course, my kids, than any other book. I just wish I had been aware of it before I went to college. In fact, I think I'm due for a reread myself.

Happy reading.
posted by Boflyer at 9:18 AM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

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