And the worst part is, I never learned to read! *sobs*
August 4, 2008 1:36 PM   Subscribe

I can't read. More specifically, I have difficulty reading anything longer than 1,000 words. Please help.

I'm not illiterate by any means (I have my B.A. in English), but I've never been a "reader," and I feel somewhat ashamed of that fact. I'm envious of my wife, and others like her, who consume books at a pace of one or two per week. Hell, I'd be happy to read one book per month, but I can't, and here's why:

1. I didn't read fiction as a child, so as my peers graduated from children's books, to young adult novellas, and finally full-length novels, I was left behind in the proverbial dust reading reference books and all the entries in the encyclopedia that caught my fancy. Even still, I find myself longingly reading all the ask.MeFi questions regarding book recommendations, wishing I could participate as well.

2. I imagine I read well over 20,000 words per day, but they come in the form of news articles, short essays, blurbs, and whatever catches my eye on the blue. I rarely read anything longer than 1,000 words.

3. I've conditioned myself to fall asleep whenever I read a book, which is why my reading material consists of all the books you see in the reference aisle at the bookstore: "Do Fish Sleep?," "An Incomplete Education," "The Intellectual Devotional," "Uncle John's Ultimate Bathroom Reader," etc.. I enjoy reading these because a) I love trivial facts, and b) when I fall asleep, it's easy to pick up the next night and not have to remember what I read the night before.

4. Fictional narratives simply don't grab me, nor do lengthy non-fictional ones. I've read a few full-length books before, but I can count them on two hands, and the majority of them were books that were turned into movies. I'd see the movie, then read the book. Lame, I know.

5. I have an incredibly busy schedule that simply does not provide enough time in the day to set aside for casual reading.

So, am I a lost cause? Does anyone else have this problem? I'd love to be able to read so my wife and I could share books and discuss them, but I don't know how, or where, to begin. If anyone has any advice on how I could start to learn to read again, I'd be in your debt FOREVER.
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You sound a lot like my husband, bb. Here's what helped him - he started riding an exercise bike every morning for half an hour, and he needed something occupy his brain while his body did its thing. Now he reads 30 pages of a novel a day - he can't fall asleep, because his body is occupied, and he can't get distracted and do anything else because he's got a timer on him.

I suggest doing something similar - set a daily or weekly activity that pretty much forces you to read, then surround yourself with engaging, interesting books. The library is great for that second point. Don't bother with classics at first - just focus on things that you might be interested in. You might also start with short-stories - there are many anthologies with stories that can be read in one half-hour sitting.

Of course, I don't think there's anything wrong with not reading novels, but I certainly admit that I enjoy being able to finally discuss books with MuddDude!
posted by muddgirl at 1:47 PM on August 4, 2008

posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 1:48 PM on August 4, 2008

Two possibilities
1. You, like me, are so "wired" that your attention span is conditioned for short bytes of info. I fight this by reading short novellas and/or non-fiction while traveling or on vacation. I usually finish one book per flight. I'm sure a book exists that fits your interest. You might try short story collections and or non-fiction anthologies. For example, the last book I read on a flight was Jeff Steingarten's The Man Who Ate EVerything, which was short essays about food. It managed to keep my attention because the essays, while connected, were self-contained and included a lot of interesting anecdotes and trivia.

2. Adult ADD? You'll have to see a doctor for that one.
posted by melissam at 1:48 PM on August 4, 2008

A buddy of mine is like this and was diagnosed as having ADD, but y'know take that for what it's worth.

You might give dailylit a try.
posted by ND¢ at 1:49 PM on August 4, 2008

I should nip the Adult ADD suggestion in the bud ASAP, as I figured it would come up sooner or later. I doubt that's the root of my problem, since I'm only affected in this sense when it comes to reading. Otherwise, I'm able to focus and concentrate on multi-layered projects for long periods of time, or until their completion.
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) at 1:52 PM on August 4, 2008

Work up to longer works by reading progressively longer essays. They're non-fiction and informative, so they'll hold your attention. Over-generalizing here, the earlier the publication date, the longer the essay, so start off with recent stuff, the maybe Orwell.
posted by orthogonality at 1:55 PM on August 4, 2008

Don't think about "books", just think about how many words are strung together. Now, if those were miles instead of words, and you had to run them, you wouldn't think you could start by running a marathon at first.

Start by reading short stories. Most of these are between 5-30 pages long.

What kind? What genres of movies do you like? Start there. Don't succumb to pressure to believe that only "great literature" is worth reading. There's a lot of enjoyable pulp out there.

After you've done a bit scattershot reading of short stories, you might find an author you like. Read more of his stories. Then, pick up one of her books.

It goes from there.
posted by Netzapper at 2:01 PM on August 4, 2008

Life is short. Why read spend precious time reading something you don't enjoy? You really want to spend days reading a book you're bored with just so you can talk to you wife about it for, what?, an evening or a couple of hours? People who read many articles and essays from a variety of sources or disciplines are just as engaging conversationalists--if not more so--than book readers. If you really want to talk books with her but you can't stick with an entire book, start reading reviews in periodicals (NY Review of Books, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Booklist, Boston Review, newspapers, academic journals,, et cetera).
posted by HotPatatta at 2:02 PM on August 4, 2008

Maybe your wife could develop a taste for shorter pieces, and you could read them together?
posted by PatoPata at 2:03 PM on August 4, 2008

Well, first of all, you used an awesome quote from "Wayne's World" as your title, so there is definitely hard for you.

I don't know the answer, but I think there are only a few reasons people read:
1) They are forced to, by school, work or parents.
2) They enjoy it.

Maybe you just need to find something you enjoy. Maybe something that combines anecdotes and trivia with a larger narrative? Bill Bryson is great at this. "A Walk in the Woods" in particular is fantastic.

I agree with getting tested for ADD, if only to rule it out.

And there's nothing wrong with reading a few pages a day, if that's all you have time for. It's not a race.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:07 PM on August 4, 2008

"hard for you"??

Hope for you.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:08 PM on August 4, 2008

I'm with orthogonality --> start with short works and build up to longer ones. If you read a piece you like, find longer works by the same author or in the same style. Maybe part of the problem is that you're not honing in on styles or genres that will hold your interest. When I read something I really like, the first thing I do is get another book by the same author. And then another. And then another. It'll be hit and miss at first. But that strategy has helped me (a) read a lot of books and (b) become really aware of what types of literature engage me, so I (almost) never end up with a boring (to me) book.
posted by ailouros08 at 2:14 PM on August 4, 2008

damn. should preview.
posted by ailouros08 at 2:15 PM on August 4, 2008

When I read something I really like, the first thing I do is get another book by the same author. And then another. And then another. It'll be hit and miss at first. But that strategy has helped me (a) read a lot of books and (b) become really aware of what types of literature engage me, so I (almost) never end up with a boring (to me) book.

I second this idea.
posted by muddgirl at 2:20 PM on August 4, 2008

I think there's something to the idea that the internet could be to blame (that is a good article, but I couldn't get to the end ..).

... what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

posted by wilko at 2:45 PM on August 4, 2008

My capacity for reading longer books returned when I went camping or was in spaces without wifi access. I am an English professor, btw, and have done my share of reading.
posted by mecran01 at 3:25 PM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've found recently that the ease of publishing (internet!) has really cut into the quality of what's out there. Just page after page of garbage to make a simple point.
posted by gjc at 3:39 PM on August 4, 2008

Do you take public transit regularly? Do you take lunch breaks on your own? Those are pretty much the only times (aside from waiting for doctor's appointments, etc.) when I read. I get through a fair number of books that way, though. I find reading at home frustrating and boring because I'd really rather watch TV or surf the internet than read, which is not exactly how the "smart kid" is supposed to be. I just can't focus in a quiet room with no set end to my reading time--I think that's the key for me, background noise and a set time when I put the book down and do something else (i.e., my train stop is coming up next, or my lunch break ends at a certain time, etc.). Maybe instead of thinking "I need to read a book a week" you could try to spend one lunch break a week reading, or another set time during the week: there must be *some* span of time where you're waiting for someone or something or otherwise have time to kill.

Also, seconding Bill Bryson for trivia + narrative. Or, what about one of the countless "history of [something]" nonfiction books out there? I'm currently reading The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg, which is a goldmine for gross-out trivia on human bathing habits throughout history.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:31 PM on August 4, 2008

This may not help. I am not like you. I read all the time and sort of panic if I don't have two or three books around "just in case" and would - I am not kidding and have come dangerously close - perform degrading sexual favors on anyone in exchange for books or magazines (even about golf or sigma six) if stuck on an airplane with nothing to read.

But when I am not motivated to get the the gym, I keep a book in my locker so I have to do time on the stair-stepper to find out what happens next. The stationary bike or bus idea is a good one.

Maybe you could ease in with non-fiction about stuff you like.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:23 PM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read what you like. There's no law that says you have to read books - if news articles and short stories are what interest you, then by all means read those! With that said, try thinking about the times you want to read instead of the things you want to read. Keep a book in your pocket / manbag / briefcase. You may be surprised.

The other suggestion is to simply accept it. I've taught students who could only read some of O. Henry's short stories - perhaps that's a good starting point.
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:09 AM on August 5, 2008

ND¢'s suggestion if dailylit is a nice one. I'd never seen that site before but I have just signed up to get a couple of short stories by RSS. The service is really ingenious, actually. It will take you approximately 103 days to read Cory Doctorow's short stories (which are free), but you can pull the next instalment by pushing a link in your feed, or in your email, so that's really good.

I dread to think how long it would take to read War and Peace this way, but since it's the only way I'm going to read War and Peace, I might just try it.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:33 AM on August 27, 2008

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