In my youth, I was intellectually lazy and therefore incredibly averse to reading. I avoided books, reading assignments, and libraries like I avoided traffic and broccoli and black coffee. I even made fun of book-loving, book-smart people who read books (just ask my brother-in-law who majored in English). But now I LOVE to read. You will rarely find me without a book. I am not writing this as an expert or a novice, but as someone who has made some progress in my consumption of books over the last decade. Like you I am daily scraping for quiet, unhurried moments in the midst of my chaotic life to finish that chapter, and eventually that book. Like you I am on a journey toward becoming a better reader. So wherever you are on your journey, I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful.
1. Read More
I know this point may seem obvious and redundant, but I promise I’m trying to be helpful. Reading is a skill. And like any other skill, it must be developed. How do you become a skilled writer? By writing more. How do you become a skilled basketball player? By playing more. And how do you become a better reader? That’s right . . . practice, practice, practice. If you want to read faster and for longer periods of time, you must train your eyes and your mind. I’m not talking about skimming or speed-reading. I took a class in high school that was most unhelpful. I am referring to a lifestyle, setting and attaining new goals, intentionally pushing yourself to unexpected amounts of reading you formerly considered unattainable. This is the first and fundamental tip—it is possible to improve your reading skills. And there’s no better way to that end than to simply read more. Hopefully some of the other tips below will help you do just that.
2. Cut Down Screen Time
Warnings about the dangers of screen time are ubiquitous and therefore easy to ignore. But whether it’s a tablet, iPhone, a television, YouTube, video games, or social media, you DO need to be careful. Study after study warns that more than simply wasting time, too much screen time can rewire you at the neurological level and affect the way your mind functions and focuses. Watching short, trivial clips over long periods of time can leave you with a shallow, distracted mind with a short attention span. It makes reading for an hour feel like an eternity. It makes linear argumentation more difficult to follow. (And if you think this post is too long, you are proving the point.) When you are constantly amused and entertained by your screens, you become passive and mindless (a-mused literally means “the absence of thought”). Reading includes more substantial content that requires active concentration for longer periods of time. Accepting these realities is the important next step on your journey to read more (and better). You must be proactive. Nothing has helped me more than avoiding TV shows. Invariably, the hook at the end grabs me and I am tempted to watch the next one and the next (even if it’s my wife’s show that I have no interest in). At least with a movie I can watch it and walk away, one-and-done. I would rather binge-read than binge-watch.
3. Carve Out Valuable Reading Times
I assume that your life is busy like mine and has a specific routine to it. You know that in order to exercise or have a hobby you need to make time for it or it simply will not happen. I’ve often said that time is like money—the more you have the more you can waste. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can’t afford to waste it, so you intentionally budget it out to make the most of it like you do with your income. The busyness and rigidity of a routine actually affords you the opportunity to realize that there are only a few moments throughout the day where you can cram in reading. If you don’t discover and/or create these times, you will never read. As you seek to carve out specific times, remember that your brain functions better at certain times of the day. My mind is sharpest in the morning and I know that in order to read, I need to wake up earlier. I also know my mind struggles to focus for extensive periods of time, so I plan to read intermittently, with hourly intervals. Know thyself.
4. Create Optimal Reading Environments
Self-awareness is the key to carving out time and for creating environments condusive to focused reading. I am very distracted by what is going on around me, so I read best in a quiet place by myself with little interruption. I can’t have the news, a TV show, or music with words on in the background. Some of my best reading has been on red eye flights and in a small guard shack when I worked the graveyard shift as a security officer. In both situations I was stuck in an environment that I accidentally discovered to be phenomenal for focused reading. Maybe you focus better with music or the news on. I prefer a ticking clock or nature sounds. I also prefer to be sitting at a desk (or a pull-down tray table). So whether it’s inside or outside, dark or light, in dead silence or with plenty of background noise, on the couch wrapped up in a blanket, at the beach, by the pool, or at your desk, only you can discover (by reading more often and in more places) the type of environment that best suits your concentration.
5. Make a Reading List
One of the things I learned early on when I began reading was that books reference other books. The more you read, the more authors and books you are exposed to. If you sit in a class or talk with other readers, you are constantly discovering other books you should be reading. So I decided to make a list on Amazon. Over the years, this list has become rather large and I have separated it into 17 different lists based on specific genres and interests (i.e., classics, counseling, marriage, foster care, self improvement, writing, history, biography). I constantly add titles to these lists as I receive recommendations and I eventually remove them when I finally obtain a copy. I also have a “Want to Read” list on my Goodreads account. These lists help me keep track of all the book recommendations I’ve accumulated through footnotes, professors, and friends. These lists help me strategize my future reading plans. They also keep my appetite insatiable.
6. Check Out Other Readers’ Lists
If you are not on Goodreads, you should be. You can view your friends’ lists of what they are currently reading, what they want to read, and what they have already read. Your friends can also make their Amazon lists available for your viewing. There are plenty of lists online put out by Goodreads, Amazon, and TED ideas. There are other popular lists such as The New York Times Best Sellers List, BBC’s Top 100 Books You Need to Read Before You Die, The Greatest Books, and there are even lists of top 100 lists on Wikipedia. A quick search on Google will render you any kind of list you are looking for, tailored toward a specific year, genre, or time period. Another thing I often do is peruse the bookshelves in my friends’ homes and offices (also known as snooping).
7. Build a Library
Your reading lists can also assist you in finding good deals. You don’t need to go broke building a library. Rarely do I pay full price for a new copy of a book. If possible, I always opt for the used copy in “good” condition from Amazon or EBay. I like to scan the shelves of used bookstores and libraries. Some of my best finds have been at Goodwill. You can’t beat $1 for a paperback and $2 for a hardcover! Because I remain familiar with my reading lists, titles just pop out at me when I come across them. So a little bit of patience, frugality, and a photographic memory can go a long way in helping you build your library. Also, don’t worry about when you will read the book you purchased. I have often found with a book purchased or received, that when I eventually get to it (even years later) it was just what I needed at that time. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with lists of un-purchased books and shelves of unread ones. It keeps your humility in check and your appetite aroused.
8. Read What You Love
I despised reading in my youth because I had yet to discover what I loved to read. The books at the library and those assigned for homework in high school just couldn’t hold my interest. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I finally discovered that I enjoyed reading theology. This led me to study the Bible in my undergrad and then eventually at the seminary level. So for years I read exclusively the assigned books on theology and Bible background (funny how you read more when you’re paying for the degree). I did and still do enjoy biblical, systematic, and practical theology most. But just as your actual diet shouldn’t consist of your favorite food only (no matter how healthy it is), and you need to supplement your favorite food with others that are necessary to your overall health, you should read what you love most, but not exclusively. What you love could be an unexpected on-ramp to other interests.
9. Expand Your Palate
When I first did the Keto diet, it took me three weeks to learn to drink my coffee black. Being a New Englander who loves his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee regulah (cream and sugar), this was no small feat, but afterwards I couldn’t go back. I had acquired a taste for something I disliked. So, as we are thinking about diet, it is important to expand your appetite and develop a taste for things outside of your zone of comfort and familiarity. The shift happened to me in seminary as I began to study the Bible as literature. The Bible is a compilation of books written by many various authors and in various styles. I began to learn about the different genres (i.e., historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, etc.) and the literary features unique to each genre. As I began to see that each genre had its own content and form, I developed a greater appreciation (or taste) for various genres. I now enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction, realism and sci-if, biography and self-help, Christian apologetics and atheism. Each author and each genre has something unique to offer—a captivating style, an intriguing plot, a new line of argumentation, a particular literary device, a new perspective.
10. Read Mutliple Books at a Time
Once you’ve expanded your palate, you will surely want to read more than one genre at a time. You may need to break up that dense history book with a more lighthearted novel while at the same time continue to improve the skills necessary for your vocation with that self-improvement book. On top of my regular Bible reading, I am currently reading In Defense of The Faith by Van Til (Christian Apologetics), Madame Bovary by Flaubert (classic French Realism), Grit by Duckworth (personal development), Dominion and Dynasty by Dempster (a biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible), and The Vanishing American Adult by Sasse (sociology). I sometimes prefer to read a book straight through to grasp the entire plot or argument, but I have found that reading multiple books at a time can bring uncanny connections and blend different areas of thinking in a way I could never have planned.
11. Bring A Book with You Everywhere
I try to bring a book with me wherever I go. Whether I am meeting a friend for a meal, picking my children up from school, going to a doctor’s appointment, or going to the airport, I bring a book. I don’t know for sure that I will have downtime to read, but if my friend is late, if the carpool lane is long, if I am in the waiting room longer than anticipated, I will have a companion that will make that time enjoyable rather than stressful and wasteful. Sometimes it is those unexpected 10-20 minute stretches that get you through a book faster. Reading in a variety of contexts provides you with some unique opportunities. You will stretch yourself in your ability to focus in different environments. It’s important to know your optimal environment, but it’s also important to move beyond it. It will also provide you with memorable moments. I often remember exactly where I was when I read that perfect turn of phrase, that fascinating twist, or that helpful insight into myself. You will never regret bringing a book with you, but you will definitely regret not having one at certain times.
12. Interact with Your Books
Once you’ve begun to build a library, hopefully you realize that the books are yours and that you have the freedom to write in them. Also, if you followed my tips on buying used then you bought them so cheap in the first place, you don’t have to worry about resale value. I am a very tactile person who prefers to gather and process information through multi-sensory input. They say that the more senses you use to study, the better you will focus and retain the material. I have a personal system of interacting with my books. I use a blue pen, a highlighter and a red pen . . . in that order too. I like to come back to my book years later and be able to quickly find my favorite quotes, see the main arguments, and reexperience the most memorbale moments. The books in my library are my lifelong resources, the authors my lifelong companions and advisors. The more I see my books this way, the more of them I want to read.
13. Set a Challenging Goal
Reading is a lifestyle. Therefore you must be patient and have a longterm view. You should not expect to become a more efficient reader in a short period of time. Proficiency in any field takes time to refine with much practice and trial and error. You should not go out and buy 100 books tonight. You should not become a speed reader or skim through books just for bragging rights or to keep up with anyone. A novice runner who truly wants to improve will not cheat in a 5k just to be recognized. It’s about your own personal best performance. You are competing against yourself and pushing yourself to new levels of achievement. This is definitely the motivator for me. I feel like I wasted most of my life not reading and I am still playing catch up (with myself). I am finally reading books I was supposed to read in high school. So set a challenging goal for yourself. Push yourself every day, every week, every year. I highly recommend using the Goodreads Reading Challenge. You can set a goal and update your progress. I find it to be a very motivating and rewarding system.