Some Advice on Reading a Little More

I’m not a fast reader. But I’ve definitely improved over the years. Perhaps a few of the things I’ve learned will help…

Concentration in Reading

The most important thing is to concentrate and think when you read. If you’re thinking, then you’re learning. If you’re learning, then you’re growing. But if your thoughts are distracted and broken, your reading won’t profit you very much. Some ways to stay focussed:

1. Turn off your phone (obviously). I am embarrassingly prone to distraction and diversion. This self-knowledge is helpful when I want to read because I know that I can’t get anywhere if my notifications are on. Apparently, like pavlovian dogs, we get addicted to the ‘ping ping’ of trigger and reward as our phones seduce us to check what’s happening. You can sidestep that temptation by simply turning off your notifications, since you probably don’t need them anyway.

2. Set a deadline for when you’re going to stop. This is by far the most effective technique I’ve ever discovered for concentrating on the task in hand. That deadline might be a timer, or a set number of pages. Either way, if you know when you’re going to finish you’re far less likely to fritter your time away.

3. Make sure you enjoy what you’re reading. More on this below, but it is obviously the case that we will concentrate on things we find interesting and enjoyable. I have often made the dumb error of jumping into books that I found boring and then attempting to wade through, getting little benefit from them.

(By the way, subjects become more interesting the more general knowledge you have about them. For example, a book about Calvin’s theology is going to be a lot more interesting when you’ve already got a good idea of Reformation history. Start with the general and work to the particular, and always in that order. When you have your bearings with a subject, the details become a lot more interesting.)

4. If you have to read something you don’t enjoy, refer to (2) above. We don’t always get to read the stuff that scintillates, and sometimes you know you need to read something for a project or for personal growth that is not easy or particularly enjoyable. As with so many things in life, this is best accomplished by breaking it down into measurable units (e.g. a set number of pages per day) or working against the clock (e.g. I’ll read for 20 minutes and then I’m stopping).

Reading More

While I don’t think a vague sense of ‘more’ is a particularly great goal in reading, most of us look around at all the books we wish we had read, and we want to read more because there’s so much wealth in them. These things might help:

1. Keep track of what you’ve read. We tend to make progress in those things we measure. If you step on the bathroom scales every day you’ll begin eating less and losing weight (or so I’m told). Simply keeping a list of what you’ve read, and maybe counting up your total at the end of the year, will serve as a strong motivator to keep working at this.

2. Set a goal for what you want to read. Goals help. If you decide in advance how many books you want to read over the next year you’ll probably read more, even if you don’t achieve your goal. So, set something realistic. A book a month? A book a week? And, if you’re really keen to work through particular books then make sure they’re on a list that’s attached to this goal.

3. Don’t try to memorise your books. If you’re fretting about getting the most out of a book, and anxious that you will forget things, then you’ll read very slowly, and you’ll forget things. Somewhere in Wordsmithy, Doug Wilson talks about reading until your brain creaks. The aim isn’t to memorise what you’ve read, but rather to read so much that some of it sticks. Wilson uses the analogy of a forest floor covered in leaves; you want to lay those leaves on thick and allow it all to turn into mulch in your head. I heard recently that our memories are designed for recognition rather than recall. (That may have come out of some bogus book on evolutionary theory for all I know, but it’s true if you think about it.) Just try recalling the details of a friend’s face; it’s much easier to recognise a friend than to recall their features from memory. So it is with reading. The more you read, the more you will develop instincts and ways of thinking, and you’ll learn to recognise truth when you see it. Even if you can’t remember all the facts, the principles and ideas will stick.

4. Use all the available moments you can find. On the one hand, it’s very sensible to establish some kind of routine where you read regularly in the same place at the same time. Could you read before you sleep? Could you read on your commute? How about in your lunch break? Perhaps there’s a moment’s calm just after you’ve put the kids to bed? On the other hand, routines don’t always work so well (depending on your lifestyle), so you probably need to carry a book with you wherever you go and jump in when you can. Kindles are brilliant for this.

What to Do When You Get Stuck

If you find you haven’t picked up a book for a while then check if one of these problems is at the root.

1. Are you reading something you don’t enjoy? Sometimes we have to read for work, but if you are just pushing your way through a book because you feel you ought to, and all along you’re not enjoying it, then this is likely to make you stop reading altogether. I remember David Field, one of my lecturers at college, saying that books are like conversations: they’re not all equally interesting or equally helpful, so feel free to drop in and out of them as you please.

2. Are you indulging in too much entertainment? The book has a hard time competing with the screen (TV, internet, smart phone) because it isn’t designed to give instant gratification. If you’re not reading there’s a strong likelihood you’re opting for the easy, mind-numbing options. So, set yourself some limits for TV. Delete the Facebook app off your phone. Put down the rubbish paper on your commute and bring a book instead (at least for one direction of the journey). Do whatever it takes not to waste your life on these things.

3. Are you scared of books? Books can be intimidating, especially if you’ve tried and failed many times. I’d say this: get some books that are short and sweet and start racking up the book count. It will help you get more confident with reading. Also, you could try reading something totally addictive like the Hunger Games trilogy, or some Jack Reacher novels. They won’t help you grow as a person, but they will give you a restored appetite for reading in general, and then you can start digging into some more nonfiction.