I love to read. Whether it’s high literature or illiterate garble, I gobble up words like they’re candy.
I love to read dense 19th-century novels at a leisurely pace, political magazines while I make food, the inflight magazine on the plane, a great online article on my phone, or even just the ingredients on my bag of chips (not recommended).
The first time I found myself in a university literature department, I was overwhelmed with joy to be surrounded by like-minded souls who shared my total love of words. “Yes, I used to read my dad’s newspaper and the shampoo bottle in the shower as a kid, too,” said one of my newfound friends. I had found my tribe!
But just because I love to read doesn’t mean I’ve always found it easy to make the time to follow this passion. I’ve found that different kinds of reading take different levels of concentration and therefore need different moods and environments. Like any relationship, I’ve had to make time and space and learn skills to nurture my love affair with reading.
I’m happy to tell you we’re now going steady, and spending a lot of quality time together!
If you’re struggling to make time for your significant other (words!), never fear, there is a reading scenario to fit into every nook and cranny of your life. All it needs is a bit of creativity and commitment, and you’ll be surprised just how many words you can devour.
Reading shouldn’t feel like hard work — if it does, you may need to take another look to see if your reading choice really fits the situation.
We’ve all been there — trying to read Tolstoy at 1 a.m. in a fluoro-lit, busy airport, or while surrounded by squabbling family members. Have you ever given up on a classic novel, thinking “It’s too dense,” or “I’m too dumb,” or “It’s no longer relevant — pass me that bestselling rock star biography” (nothing against the latter, by the way)?
Well, it might be time to give some of those classics another go by fitting the book to your reading situation.
For me, reading Anna Karenina or Middlemarch — both totally awesome, fresh, insightful, highly relevant works of literary art — needed a peaceful, quiet, solitary reading situation where I could focus on the depth of language and complexities of form. Two-minute snatches of time on public transportation just wasn’t going to cut it. To read Middlemarch, I needed a week at my family’s beach house, committed to nothing but reading, strolling on the beach, and snoozing in front of the fire. It’s a serious affair, but so generous if you commit to it.
One technique I enjoy for keeping my reading relevant and focused is to read a book by an author from a country I am travelling to or interested in. Relevance is key, and will keep your brain interested and engaged as you gear up into the book.
If you’re in a rush, read something short and sweet and easily digestible. Consider longer works for longer trips, non-fiction when you’re feeling focused and purposeful, and tried-and-true authors when you’re down. Make sure the words fit the environment of your mind at any given moment, and reading will flourish.
This section could be subtitled “You don’t have to finish that novel next to your bed,” or “Don’t waste your life reading stuff you don’t actively enjoy.”
In my reading life, I’ve often gotten “blocked up” by feeling like I need to finish whatever it is I’m reading before I’m “allowed” to move on to the next thing. Must be some hangover from school.
And there are always books that I’m “supposed” to read, whether they’re the latest bestseller, or a recommendation from a friend, or a super important classic novel.
The thing is, some writing is just crap. And you don’t have to read it.
And furthermore, some good writing just won’t speak to you as an individual, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s a terrible book, just that it doesn’t resonate with you. You don’t have to read those things either.
As soon as I accepted that I didn’t have to push on through and finish reading whatever I’d started, or whatever close friends had recommended, my reading became much more enjoyable, frequent, and easy.
Oh, the relief of admitting that I just don’t like short stories!
So stop filling your suitcase with those award-winning novels you “should” read, or that worthy biography of that oh-so-impressive person, and read what you like, what turns you on, and what makes you reach for your book/e-reader with pleasure and anticipation.
The things you want to read might be Twitter posts, or websites about hairstyles in pre-colonial Samoa, or biographies of famous mosaicists. Reading for pleasure, rather than duty (however subtle), can lead us to some unexpected and interesting places, as our quirky and individual natural tastes begin to assert themselves.
Whether it’s day-to-day or long distance, travel represents some prime reading opportunities.
I absolutely hate the feeling of driving when there’s a good book in my bag begging to be read, and the laws of the road (and physics) are meanly telling me I can’t drive and read at the same time.
Unless you love driving more than you love reading, I highly recommend getting some other person or system to transport you while you indulge your number one passion.
This might sound outrageous, but people have done much crazier things for love than stop producing climate-wrecking gases in a small metal box on wheels. Trust me, it’s win-win.
(If you really need to drive, audiobooks or podcasts might be a good compromise.)
If you have access to public transportation, then this is a tried-and-true reading opportunity — it just needs some sneaky strategies to make it work. To enjoy peaceful reading on public transportation, I highly recommend noise-cancelling or ambient-sound headphones (see number four, below), avoiding rush hour commute if possible, and leaving lots of time so you’re not rushed and stressed, which doesn’t make for a good reading state.
Slow travel in general fits well with reading. Long-distance trains and buses are a perfect match with a good novel, literary journal, or immersive non-fiction work. I’ve found that flying and reading don’t go well together for me — the oxygen deprivation, the noise, the squashyness, and the complicated logistics of security, airport negotiation, and transfers kill the reading impulse. The most I can manage is a lightweight magazine.
No, sit me on a train, boat, or bus any day. That feeling of sitting down, knowing I have a good three, eight, or 12 hours ahead of me, fueled with tasty snacks and tasty words, with no demands or things to do? Bliss.
This is just me — find the transportation solutions that work for you to maximize your reading time.
I’m one of those people who can’t tune out conversations. No matter how boring the thing you’re talking about on the other side of the café, or how crass the radio show playing in the background is, I’ll be listening and absorbing it all. It’s like I’m cursed with automatically eavesdropping, little satellite dishes on the sides of my head.
This “ability” means I find it really, really hard to engage with my own writing, reading, or editing when there’s any kind of word content going on in the background.
I used to think I just needed to focus harder, but I now realize that my brain is just so into language and words that it’s hard-wired to be on the alert for verbal input, and that I need to actively work around this fact.
If you’re like me in this way, I highly recommend giving some noise-cancelling headphones a whirl. They’ll transport you to a blissful realm of silence, where you can savor the language in front of you in peace. Think of it as cleansing your palate before you eat a delicious morsel — you don’t want to be sampling a fine cheeseboard in the middle of a greasy diner full of smells.
If you don’t want to commit to the ‘phones, try tuning in to an ambient noise site or app, such as http://asoftmurmur.com. I often put this site onto background rain or wave noise when I want to read in peace but people are talking. Beware, though: The rain noise will make you need to pee.
It’s anti-social, it’s probably bad for my digestion, and not all that mindful, but I don’t care: I like reading while I’m eating. Beware, however: If you’re gripped by a riveting storyline or a fascinating argument, you may forget to actually taste whatever it is you’re shovelling into your mouth. Cue tragic scene when all the cookies are gone and you have no memory of eating them.
On the flipside, I know this is really obvious, but it took me waaaay too long to realize that I don’t absorb words well when hungry (or sleepy). Body demands come first. Come back to that book you wrote off that time you were starving, and you might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite good.
Mastered reading and eating? Next level: reading in the bath. I’ve tried a lot of options here, and short of confining your reading to those waterproof books designed for three-year-olds to drool on, I’m afraid none of them are foolproof.
Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions: First, read a book you don’t mind getting a little soggy. Less precious = more relaxed. If you have a reading device with a waterproof case, that can also work (although I’m a fan of making bath time “no electronics” time). Second, keep a hand towel close by so you can dry your hands if you need to, and third, I recommend tall taper candles as a good compromise between romantic candlelight and actually-able-to-read-the-words light. Oh, and lastly, don’t try and read anything too intellectual or verbose. Your relaxed body won’t be having any of it.
And finally, you knew this one was coming, didn’t you? Yep, here it is: reading while in the bathroom. The key is not to rush the call of nature and to fit your reading material to the situation. You want some easy reading that you can engage with briefly. I also recommend “hands-free” options! My favorite: poetry or articles taped to the back of the door, updated regularly.
When I was a little kid, my mother used to read aloud to us every night. It took me years to appreciate how lovely that time was, and how it has positively shaped my tastes and personality. Reading as a child was a looked-forward-to, loving, multi-person event.
Somewhere along the line, reading became rather solitary. I developed my own tastes, and forgot the special bonding that can happen through reading aloud. It was only while staying with friends (a couple), and observing how they made time to read to each other from books they both enjoyed, that I was inspired to reintroduce reading aloud into my life.
Reading aloud needs more than one person, so we need to get a little creative to make it happen. For it to work, it has to be consensual. I don’t recommend randomly reading out loud to people based on your pleasure in what you’re reading — it’s about mutual pleasure and enjoyment, not imposing your tastes on someone else.
Reading out loud also requires us to slow down a little. I read so much faster in my head that at first, I was frustrated by reading aloud, or being read to. This frustration was revealing in itself. Why was I in such a hurry if I supposedly enjoyed words so much? If I liked a book, why was I rushing to get it over with?
I realized that my reading had become semi-panicked and greedy, affected by the sense of rush common in modern culture. Reading aloud forced me to slow down, share pleasure in words, and savor reading and being read to at a relaxed pace. It doesn’t get sneakier than having your own live audiobook read to you while you relax and rest your tired eyes.
As a nice side effect, you’ll become a better out-loud reader — a very handy life skill.
Another side effect of reading becoming a solitary pursuit was that I didn’t tend to read if there were people around. Somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that if there are people around, you have to talk to them … regardless of whether you actually have anything interesting to say to one another.
Maybe you know more interesting people than I do, but I’m going to come out and say it: a lot of what I read is more interesting than what most random people I encounter have to say. Instead of feeling anti-social for wanting to read, I’ve decided that reading is socializing — I’m hanging out with some of the most interesting, thoughtful, creative, inspiring people ever — and some of them aren’t even alive anymore!
In The Prophet, mystic poet Kahlil Gibran writes:
You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
Give me a good book/article/magazine/think piece/tweet/poem/shopping list over that kind of talking (i.e., most talking) any day.
This point is true with the dearest people as well as strangers: I’ve found talking less to be a nice practice in general. It not only frees up more time (and energy) for reading, it opens the way to that most peaceful and intimate of scenarios: being with someone you love, both reading your own thing.
Reading together like this can be a sweet acknowledgment of the peace and contentment you feel in each other’s company, requiring nothing more than warm presence, without demands or debate. Add in a real fire, and you have my heart.
Have you ever had that terrible experience where you feel hungry, eat a whole bunch of not-very-nice junk food, and then discover that there’s something delicious on offer, which you can’t enjoy because you’re full of the junk?
It’s a tragic scenario.
Avoid the reading equivalent by staying attuned to when you’re not enjoying your reading, and save your time, energy, and attention for words you can truly relish, whether they’re in a book or on a screen. Don’t force yourself to read something unless you truly have to, or you’ll be so full of rubbish words you’ll have no room for sweet ones.
This point applies no matter what kind of content you’re reading!
One person’s junk text is another one’s fascinating treasure trove: The only way to tell is to respond to your own feelings about it. If you feel bloated, dead-eyed, hollow, bored, forced, or like you’re having to “push on through,” you’re probably not reading the right thing for you.
Good reading shouldn’t necessarily be easy, but it should be exciting and engaging, causing sparks to fly in your brain and a sense of well-being. Whether it makes you laugh, cringe, immediately start planning a treehouse, cry, or sigh with satisfaction, some kind of emotional response is key.
If you love reading as much as I do, I’m sure you have and will continue to find ways to sneak it into your life wherever you can. I’m happy to say my research project of how to read more is an ongoing and highly enjoyable enterprise!
My key findings are to get clear on your priorities, to read only what you love, to slow your life down as much as possible, and to get creative about when reading is “appropriate” (the correct answer is, whenever it won’t endanger someone’s life or cause a fire).
Anyone who has been in love knows that when you’re in love, you make time and space for the object of your love, whatever the sacrifice incurred. So if you love reading, don’t expect it to always be plain sailing — make the sacrifices you need to make to enjoy the pleasure of your love affair.
Now excuse me, I need to go and be with my latest beloved.
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.