Jonathan and I have talked at length about reading, especially fostering that love of reading that so many of us experienced in childhood or adolescence. It’s clearly a significant topic, because it’s also cropped up in both of our friend groups. I’ve been sitting on some thoughts about it for a while now, and figured it was time to share with you all.
I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I remember writing little notes to my parents and hiding them around the house when I was three or four, reading Bob Books and Dr. Seuss, and trying to write the longest sentence in my kindergarten class. I started reading Junie B. Jones books in kindergarten or first grade, and I vividly remember reading my first “big kid book,” The Wizard of Oz, in second grade. I was a voracious reader throughout elementary and middle school.
And then that sort of shriveled up sometime in high school. I’d have little fits of reading for pleasure, like the summer I read Pride and Prejudice, but for the most part, I stopped. I read for school still and, for the most part, enjoyed it, but not much reading happened on my own time. It got worse in college; I read even more for school then, but didn’t feel like I had time to read on my own. I did, of course, but just wasn’t choosing to make time for it.
This reached a breaking point in grad school. I was having to read two, three, four entire books a week (and write on them!) for class, and it was back-breaking. There is supposed to be some method to get through books for academic purposes like grad school. In all honesty, dear reader, I never figured it out. I would just slam a book, skimming or skipping sections in a feverish anxiety to try to force down a thousand pages a week and be able to speak moderately-intelligently about the content. It was driving me batty.
About the time I figured out that a lot of my schooling, intentionally or not, had the result of producing a kind of reading that wasn’t enjoyable anymore. Let me be clear: I had some wonderful teachers throughout all of my education, and I don’t think any one of them was trying to make reading into a chore. But telling a teenager who’s still trying to figure herself out to take a stance of authority over a book, to do a “close reading” with endless notes and commentary before even finishing a chapter, to hold something in a critical stance without really even knowing what makes a book good, bad, or indifferent—it’s just plain not enjoyable. Vivisecting a work of art kills it, and with it dies the possibility of enjoying it. This is very true of books. There’s a time and a place for critical engagement with a text; there’s also a time and place for just enjoying it, gleaning what you can, and letting it be.
I hit a wall with reading sometime between my first and second semester of grad school. The words of a friend rattled around in my head: a few years previously, she said that, over the course of grad school, she’d “lost the ability to read for pleasure” (paraphrasing, probably). I was terrified that was happening to me.
I made a concerted effort over the next year to get back into reading. I think it’s been successful. I read 50 books last year, almost all of which were for fun. (In 2020, I read 75 books, though that was about 50-50 for-fun and for-school.) My goal this year is to read 52 books. It’s not really a race, and I actually pick that number intentionally: it’s enough to keep me motivated to make time to read daily (or at least nearly daily—when we had a big and fast trip for a family wedding in April, my reading habit did suffer) but it doesn’t make me feel stressed out. If you are trying to get back into reading for fun, your number will probably look different, which is fine.
To get back to reading like you did when you were young, you have to un-learn a lot of reading habits you’ve picked up along the way. I won’t call those habits “unhelpful” or “bad,” necessarily; some are, to be sure. But a lot of them are probably just unnecessary. Assessing sources, identifying what type of irony is being used, figuring out the scansion in a line of poetry, trying to figure out if something is signified by the color of a room—all of these things can be useful, but, realistically, it’s probably not called for if you’re just reading for fun. If you’re confused about something, go ahead and put your school-cap back on and try thinking about it critically; you might figure out whatever is tripping you up. But it usually isn’t necessary to bring a literary pickax to everything you read. It’s sort of like bringing a hammer to the breakfast table: I guess there are scenarios in which one might need a hammer at the breakfast table, but it’s probably better off left in the toolchest, where you can get it if you need it.
But, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is my advice for getting back into reading or reading enjoyably.
Pick something you actually want to read
Sometimes, when I fall into a reading rut, I try to force myself to read a book that I think I ought to read. It’s usually heady non-fiction that would be good for me to read. And guess what? I almost never finish it.
If you’re in the reading doldrums, the important thing is getting out. You don’t have to read the Iliad or 5,000 Prooftexts of Trigonometry or something like that. It’s okay to just read the book you impulse-bought a while ago because you thought the title and cover sounded interesting, or go to the library to grab that book that’s been sitting on your to-read list since middle school. I wouldn’t suggest reading harlequin romance just so you can read something, but there’s plenty of stuff out there that is enjoyable and actually interesting. Consider avoiding highly-technical books, books that are within your line of work or study, books that you “need to read” but have been avoiding, and anything that makes you sleepy when reading the first couple of chapters.
Pick something you actually can read
Another problem I see (and something I also struggle with) is reading a book that’s not a good fit for your current spot in life. For example: I would like to get back to reading more German and Latin, since obviously I did a lot more of that in school than I do on a regular, day-to-day basis now. However, it would probably not be a good idea to, say, sit down with some full-length text in German or Latin and try to read it all. My language skills are a little rusty, and it would quickly become a herculean academic chore rather than a fun read. This can also happen by picking up very specialized non-fiction works or fiction books that are arcane or verbose. A historical monograph that frequently uses a foreign language you can’t read in the main body of the text is probably not a good nightstand-book pick.
Again, this doesn’t mean you should avoid this books entirely; I’ve definitely got some “reach” books that I’d like to get to. But you should probably not put that at the top of your “get back into reading” list, and you should probably approach them a bit differently, not trying to chug through it in a week.
If you have a book that you’ve really been wanting to read but are concerned about getting in over your head, read it slowly and read it with a reference handy. When I was first getting into classic lit, I benefited immensely by using an e-reader. I still like doing my first read-through of an older book with either an annotated edition or on my Kindle so I can look up words quickly and seamlessly. This need usually lessens over time, especially if you read a lot in the same genre or by the same author, but it can be a huge help when you’re starting out.
Avoid picking it apart
I think one of the things that kills for-fun reading is picking it apart. We live in such a hyper-critical age, and a great deal of our education revolves around criticism and critical methods, that it can be very hard to escape this mindset. I think it is truly poisonous for reading for fun. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but let me make it clear that there are appropriate times for criticism; trying to get your “reading mojo” back isn’t one of those times.
I find that it’s easiest to be critical when reading a subject about which we have some expertise. Case in point: I have pretty doggedly avoided reading any history outside of my school reading for the better part of a decade now because I have had to spend so much time tearing apart history books. I’m finally getting interested in reading history “just ’cause” again, but it’s required a very intentional sabbatical. I read a decent amount of theological/Christian doctrine and living books in a year for fun, but again I usually have to take breaks from them, because it can get draining to be always on the look out or at the edge of frustration and annoyance with a book.
If reading is a part of your job or studies, I would highly suggest avoiding reading things related to your work for fun when you are starting back at pleasure-reading. You don’t have to avoid it forever—and if there’s something that really calls to you, go for it!—but giving your brain a rest from debating with a book will help you read more enjoyably in the future. I’m really looking forward to some of the history books I’ve got on my to-read shelf now, but I’m only able to do that after stepping away from it for a time.
Interlude: Why read?
Before continuing, I think it’s important to stop for a second and think about an important, but overlooked, question: why read? Specifically: why read books?
Reading isn’t just about entertainment, nor is it about gaining information. Those can be part of it, but that’s not the whole purpose of the pursuit. I think of reading a lot like I think about listening to music or looking at art. I am frequently moved emotionally; I frequently learn something; I always (provided the book, music, or art is worth my time) experience and understand some small corner of human life in a new way because of it. I understand my place in life better, often by better understanding the place of others, whether that’s imagined individuals in a novel, long-dead figures from history, or the variety of animals, vegetables, minerals and more among which I find myself situated on this earth. Fiction especially is suited to conveying truths about life in a way that has even greater weight by communicating it in a heightened way, like J.R.R. Tolkien expressed in his essay on fairy-stories.
There is also just something refreshing about reading (and being read to, whether by a family member or friend or by a narrator in an audiobook). It’s transporting, even if it isn’t for the purposes of entertainment or “escape.” A capacity for language is part of what makes us human, so it makes sense that it would feel right. Reading (and being read to) requires time and focus and a quiet and non-distracting environment.
There’s something, then, about reading—both the physical activity and the content, and, I believe, both simultaneously, in a way where the one cannot be extracted from the other—that is good and fitting for a person to do, because it affirms what it means to be human. It’s something that can’t be replicated with truly bad books or even other “reading” media—even blogs like this one! I really think there is something about the story, the song, and the artwork—something offered there but not necessarily accessible except through a few avenues of engagement. Which, in my mind, is why we read.
Putting it all together
So what does that mean concretely? For me, getting back into reading started with audiobooks and ebooks. I got one of those deeply-tempting marketing emails at the beginning of 2020 for some Audible deal where you get free credits if you sign up for a free trial (and then piggy-backed on some reading challenge they were running where you got free credits for finishing a certain number of audiobooks in a certain amount of time). I did Audible, which is a paid service, because I am in a weird library position: we move around a lot for school and have had a hard time establishing at a public library—we were very nearly denied a library card when we got to St. Louis, and only then were begrudgingly granted a very temporary one, and the library in the city we’ve been in during my husband’s vicarage internship has been closed this whole time, and the surrounding cities won’t let us get cards at their libraries. Additionally, Jonathan and I don’t spend very much on entertainment, so we talked it over and were okay with doing this one. This was especially true when I first started out: my eyeballs were about ready to fall out of my head at the end of every day because I was just reading so much for grad school, but I couldn’t stand not reading anything just for personal enjoyment. I was able to “read” (I am not a purist about audiobooks and these sorts of things) a lot of books I couldn’t have otherwise during a very stressful time of my life because I had them on audiobook. It was definitely a worthwhile investment for my intellectual and emotional health!
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest copying my every move, though, because I didn’t really follow my own advice. The starting point for my reading renaissance was actually Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (on audiobook). I was chomping at the bit for something, well, critical of the critical methods I was learning in grad school, but I was really struggling to find any. I believe I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here in great depth, but it was just what I needed at the time. I devoured audiobooks over the next couple of months, especially over 2020 quarantine when we returned to Alabama and I found myself back sitting in the backyard and doing chores at my family home for a while!
When the first 2020 stimulus checks hit, Jonathan and I decided that I was going to use some of mine to purchase a Kindle. I had wavered between being pro- and anti-e-reader for a long time. I had a Barnes & Noble Nook tablet, back when those were popular, which I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with, since it was pretty much a normal tablet with beefed-up e-reader software. I used it for a couple of years in high school and then never touched it again. Jonathan had a Kindle, though, that he really loved, and he thought it would be a good idea for me since it would cut back on our mountainous book collection if some were digital. He eventually prevailed, and I got the Kindle Paperwhite. I was still on my Roger Scruton kick, so I think I read a short book of his first on it, and then I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I got Jonathan to read it, too, and we spent a couple of very happy weeks chattering over it in my parents’ backyard. Even though it’s non-fiction, it’s a really fun, weird book that reads like a great southern gothic novel.
I’ve pretty much kept on reading at a steady clip for about two years now, after a really long dry spell in high school and college. I still fall off the wagon every so often, but usually finding a novel or non-traditional non-fiction book gets me back on track again. Sometimes I re-read a book I really loved; other times I pick stuff way outside of my wheelhouse. (I’m currently listening to an audiobook about the science of mushrooms, which is crazy—and not something I would normally read!) I think a lot of getting back to reading is just about starting with something manageable to create sustainable habits.
So, from my own experiences, here are my concrete tips:
- make a reading goal that is ambitious, but achievable: something that will keep you on track but not be a burden
- consider non-traditional reading media, like audiobooks or ebooks, especially if you have to read a lot already for your school or work, or if you have time to be read to but not necessarily read (certain jobs, moms and dads with small children, long commutes
- find things that are interesting and accessible to you, rather than something that you feel obliged to read
- avoid inciting your inner critic with genres, authors, or books that will encourage “arguments” with yourself, because then reading will get tiresome again
- read outside your areas of expertise about topics that excite you
- read fiction or creative non-fiction especially if you can’t read non-fiction without it feeling like school
- consider reading with a friend, family member, or book group
- if you get stuck, try something new and atypical or return to an “old friend” book
What about you? Do you have any advice for getting back into reading? What gets you excited to read?