How to Read More Books

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Friday 18th January 2019

How to read more fiction

How to find the time to read more books

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think that reading books (specifically fiction) is a more ‘worthy’ pastime than, say, watching films or playing computer games. They’re all forms of escapism and storytelling, and they’re all fun. As a child I was led to believe that reading was more important than playing video games, but as an adult I disagree. I have no regrets about the number of hours I played Heroquest, Warcraft II or Jagged Alliance as a child, as they gave me just as much pleasure as reading fiction does now. Whether you’re into video games, fiction, picture books, animation or film, I think we can agree that you like stories. There are just many different formats. This post is for those of you who enjoy reading but have fallen out of the habit of reading regularly. I share how I find books I want to read and how I make sure that I keep reading.

I have always loved reading, but I haven’t always been in the habit of reading fiction. As well as playing computer games and watching cartoons, I read lots as a child and teenager, and I went through a period of time about five years ago where I read lots too. However, there have also been big periods of time, sometimes years, where I have only read non-fiction. Between 2009 and 2014 I was studying for and writing my PhD in environmental social science, and so I read a lot of newspapers (in English and Polish), journal articles and academic text books. I didn’t have any interest in doing more reading in my leisure time, so it was pretty rare for me to pick up a book (I’d go for a run or play Super Karoshi instead). Now that I’ve left academia I enjoy reading again as it’s pleasure again and no longer work. I like reading a mixture of both fiction and non-fiction, and I particularly enjoy books with an historical setting.

Another reason I enjoy reading is it that helps me to sleep better at night. I read for about two to three hours each night and often more at weekends, especially in the winter. I don’t have a TV or watch Netflix so reading, going to the gym or for a swim and playing violin and piano is how I spend my evenings. I don’t think my choices are better than others, as I don’t hold reading in higher esteem than any other hobby or pastime, it’s just what I enjoy. I like films, but I don’t have much interest in TV or TV dramas.

If you’re keen to read more but don’t know how you’ll find the time, think through your day to day routines and see if you can find some time that you’re currently spending on things you don’t really enjoy and could swap quite happily for more time reading. For me, I also spend a lot of time reading articles online, but I’m quite happy to swap reading the news for reading novels instead. Some people find that audiobooks are a good fit as they can find more time to listen to books, for example when driving, than they can find for reading them.

How to find new books to read

Join a library

Once you’ve worked out when you’ll get some reading in each day, it’s time to build some habits so that you always have something you look forward to reading. I do this in a few different ways. Firstly, I borrow the vast majority of my books. It means that I can read more broadly (books are expensive), freely abandon books I don’t like without feeling guilty about not finishing them, and that I don’t have huge stacks of books taking up space at home. I live in a flat, and space is at a premium. I like physical books, but I don’t want to be swimming in them.

I know that libraries vary in quality from region to region and country to country. I live in Birmingham in England. It’s a large city (second only to London) but it’s not a wealthy city. It’s been hit badly by government cuts since 2010, and many of our libraries operate on reduced opening hours and have access to a smaller budget than they once had. I get around this by making full use of the reservation system. While my local library (Library of Birmingham) doesn’t have a great fiction section, the cross city reservation system means I can order in books from other libraries. I keep a long list of books I want to read and make sure that I always have something on reserve. Birmingham libraries don’t always have the books I want to read, but I’ve recently been impressed at how many new titles they do have. It was only a handful of years back that they stopped buying new titles altogether, so something in their budget must be looking up.

I know that it’s controversial to say borrow don’t buy, but I’d argue that borrowing from your library is better ethically and environmentally than buying from the likes of Amazon who don’t pay enough in tax or business rates, and who often sell books at rates that are far below what a specialist bookshop could afford. I still buy books, both second-hand from charity shops and independent eBay sellers, as well as from bookshops, but by only buying books I truly love and know I will want to read again I can afford to support real bookshops and continue my boycott of Amazon (pointless perhaps, given how popular they are, but it’s a matter of principle).

Keep a list of all the books you want to read

Keep a list of all the books you have read, and all the books you want to read. This can be a pen and paper list, or digital using the likes of Goodreads. I am aware that Goodreads is owned by Amazon, and that by using their service I am contributing to their computer learning and algorithm development efforts and therefore, in a backhanded way, their profits. I just use it as a database to keep on top of my reading list until I can find a decent open-source alternative though, as many of the alternatives are based on Google data which is no better.

The benefit of keeping a list is that when you’re looking for something to read, you’ll know where to start looking. It’s also a good place to jot down ideas when you read review, interviews, hear suggestions from friends and family, or see someone reading a book that looks interesting to you. My list is quite long and ever changing, so there’s always something on there for whatever mood I’m in.

Read book reviews & interviews

After I’ve finished a book, I like to read reviews of it. I don’t read reviews beforehand as I don’t want to read any spoilers, but I like to read them afterwards as they are often written by authors who write in the same genre, or on a similar topic. For example, I came across Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s work after reading her review of White Chrysanthemum in the Guardian.

Interviews with authors are also worth reading, as often they will discuss their favourite books or works that have inspired them in some way. On a similar theme, check the liner notes on books you enjoy as there might be other books by the same author, by the same publisher, or by writers who have given a positive review of the book.

Follow the long and shortlists of literary prizes

Follow the long and shortlists for literary prizes, but don’t take them too seriously. Often literary critics will celebrate books that are on a trendy topic socially, politically or otherwise, or are theoretically interesting from an academic perspective in terms of how they’re written. These things don’t necessarily translate to a good bedtime read! I’m not suggesting that all books should be light and happy and easy to read, but don’t try to make your reading too ‘worthy’ if you know what I mean.

By all means try and be more experimental and varied with your reading, but if reading books that you feel you ‘should’ read rather than books you want to read feels like too much work and you then end up not reading anything for months on end, very little is gained.

For example, I don’t like the ‘classics’. I have no interest in the worlds or writing of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Dickens or the like. The worlds and social systems they describe just don’t interest me. It’s the reason I hated English Literature at school and dropped it as a subject as soon as I could as the syllabus was stuffed full of books I didn’t like. If I tried to force myself to read them as they’re so highly regarded, I’d end up not reading anything. I mostly read and enjoy books written after 1950, with a few exceptions (e.g. Stefan Zweig’s work).

Read what you enjoy

On a similar theme, read books that you enjoy. If you like genre fiction, young adult books or historical non-fiction, then read widely in those areas! Reading is, afterall, just another pastime, like playing computer games, watching films or TV, or being into running or scrapbooking. It’s a hobby. We should enjoy our hobbies, they shouldn’t feel like work.

Abandon books!

The moment I realised that I didn’t have to finish every book I started was illuminating. There are so many good books out there, and more being published every month, that there really is no need to labour your way through books you simply don’t enjoy. I now freely abandon books, and because I borrow rather than buy the majority of my reading material, I don’t feel guilty about it either.

Books I’ve recently abandoned? Game of Thrones. I love fantasy, but really struggle with the gender stereotypes and casual sexism that is so common of the genre. I borrowed the first GoT from the library as it’s so popular, I thought there must be something in it, and then swiftly abandoned it after the first page upon reading one of the characters say something along the lines of “don’t believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit”.

I also gave up on Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted’ which I came across after reading and loving Katherine Arden’s ‘Bear and the Nightingale’ which some suggest is very similar, as I didn’t like the writing style, and found the gender stereotypes boring. I mean, FFS, it’s fantasy, it’s make believe! In fantasy, women can be anything, so why make them servants of wealthy learned men, locked up in towers. What I loved about Katherine Arden’s book was that she had created a really strong, independent minded female protagonist, despite the historical setting of the novel. It was refreshing.

I abandoned Robert Walser’s ‘Berlin Stories’ pretty swiftly, as despite the stories being quite interesting, I didn’t like the writing style and the stilted use of the second person, and I also abandoned Nicole Krauss’ back catalogue. I read and half enjoyed Forest Dark but then found that many of her books also feature writers writing about being writers, and got bored. I also abandoned Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ despite reading and loving his first two novels, as I found it really miserable!

You are what you read, but not exclusively, so don’t base your identity on it

I have a much loathed phrase, and it’s also much overused. The hated words in question? ‘Well read’. The reason I hate the phrase is because it’s judgemental, suggesting that there are ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ books to read and that one should only concern themselves with ‘proper reading material. It also places too much emphasis on a single art form and means of communication. Whilst there is a lot of light fiction out there that probably won’t be remembered in years to come, what’s considered by society to be highbrow or intellectual changes with time, so to me it’s a meaningless measure. I don’t think there’s an equivalent phrase for being well versed in TV or film culture, or knowing lots about anime, graphic novels, or the post-hardcore scene from twenty years ago. To me these are all valuable bodies of knowledge and interesting art forms.

Books are knowledge, they’re social histories, social commentary, and an essential means for communicating across space and time, but they are also useful for whiling away boring Sunday afternoons, train rides and, for some, time on the toilet (although judging by the number of times I’ve heard of people dropping their phones down the toilet, I think that particular habit might have been replaced in recent years!) Books serve many functions, and many of the books we read and revere today were the popular fiction of yesterday, take Dickens for example. Popular fiction in the present time is often scorned as being less intellectually demanding or rigorous than contemporary literary fiction, so I find it amusing that historical popular fiction is praised so highly and has come to be regarded as ‘literature’ in present times that we ‘must read’.

It’s the same with classical music. I like some classical music, for instance I love Bach’s compositions for solo piano and solo violin, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and some of Elgar’s work too, but I also like punk-rock, post-hardcore, and metal. Western classical music has its roots in the church with many composers being commissioned to write lengthy religious or political works (sometimes both) and these were often the only opportunities, outside of the folk music scene, where people would encounter music. Western Classical Music was the popular soundtrack of the times in which it was written and we celebrate it, and see it as ‘serious’ music, but rock, pop, dance, metal and all other forms of contemporary popular music are for some reason seen as less serious or valuable. I just don’t understand it.

All this is to say that you shouldn’t base what you read, listen to, watch, or do in your spare time on how others will perceive your choices, or whether your interests are deemed intellectual enough by your peers or society at large. It’s art, it’s a hobby, and there’s no need to be too serious or too much of a snob about it!

The books you read can shape you as a person, but so can any experience or pastime. You may be ‘what you read’ but you are not only what you read, there are so many things that shape us, not just our literature choices. There are many reasons for reading, so don’t be ashamed to read for pleasure rather than for developing your character or intellectual standing in society. Hopefully you’ll find, like me, that once you separate your identity from your reading material, you enjoy reading a lot more.

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