05 August 2017

Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Reader

A good friend of mine, a self-described "book philanderer," has asked me several times if I would be willing to put together a list to help people become better readers, or perhaps just readers. As I began to think about sharing my thoughts and ideas, I realized it would be a good idea to do some research on reading trends. In 2014, the Atlantic published an article "The Decline of the American Book Lover" by Jordan Weismann that presented some fascinating information.

  • Over three decades, the number of Americans who did not read any books in the previous year nearly tripled from 8% to 23%. Nearly one in four people read zero books. 
  • However, over one in four Americans (28%) read at least 11 books over the year, which is an admirable number. This was still a decline from 1978, when 42% hit that number. 
  • Although the mean number of books read per year was 12, the median number was just 5. Mean and median are two ways of expressing average and in this case, median is likely a better representation of "average" because the distribution is skewed. A fuller discussion of statistics is beyond the scope of this blog post, however.
Certainly one of the reasons for this downward trend would be the penetrance of the Internet. People increasingly do their "reading" on the web, though at face value, we are taking in fewer books. Recently, prolific author Philip Yancey wrote an article, Reading Wars, lamenting the decline in "deep reading" in his own life. He shares how he used to read three books per week, but in the age of the Internet, he finds himself becoming distracted after a paragraph or two, confirming what Nicholas Carr described in his excellent book The Shallows.

Yet reading has many benefits; here are a few. It provides mental stimulation, which may be important for brain health. It serves as a stress reducer, which is also good for one's cognitive and emotional well being. Recent research suggests that reading may help you develop empathy and the ability to better understand another's perspective. It improves your vocabulary.

Personally, reading has been one of my deepest pleasures. There are few things I enjoy more than reading a good book. I love to put books in other people's hands too, even when I suspect they are internally rolling their eyes thinking, "Not another book. I haven't read the first five you gave me." If you want to become a better reader, you might want to consider Yancey's suggestions in the article above. He is certainly more well read than I am. Nevertheless, here are some things that I find beneficial when it comes to reading habits.

  1. Read. Okay, you may be thinking "well, duh...", but you have to start somewhere. If you don't pick up a book with the intention to read, you never will. You may be someone who says, "I sure wish I were a reader," but then you never open a book. Research demonstrates that there is a difference between online reading and reading books and I would encourage you to develop the habit of reading books at least some of the time.
  2. Spend time with books. This suggestion may seem a little weird to you, and perhaps it is objectively strange. I haven't decided. My basement has been converted to a library which contains a few thousand books. Often, at the end of a day, I will spend time with my books, not necessarily reading, but looking at them. At times, I spend enough time doing this that I suspect my family is worried where I have gone. Sometimes, when I am looking at them, a title will trigger my interest and I will pick it up and read it. Most people don't have a library in their basements, but they do have them in their communities. You can go in and wander the stacks...for free. Or go to the bookstore--used or new, or the thrift store. They all have books and sometimes unusual people. 
  3. Read what interests you. My daughter prefers fiction; I prefer nonfiction, especially theology. Most of the time, I read what I enjoy. When I finish a book, I often will saunter through my library and grab a few titles that pique my interest. I will read the first few pages of each until I decide upon one of them and then reshelve the rest for later. I also reread books, sometimes many times. 
  4. Don't be afraid to abandon a book. Too often, we get embarrassed when we fail to complete things. Who are you trying to please? If you don't want to read the book, don't read the book, even if you've already finished 100 pages. 
  5. On the flip side, don't be afraid to revisit a book that you have previously abandoned. It took me three times before I finally connected with NT Wright's How God Became King. The first two, I would read a chapter or two, but just couldn't continue. Eventually, I gave a third attempt and really enjoyed it. I have several partly finished books on my shelves in the basement. Someday I will finish them. Or maybe I won't. And that's okay. 
  6. Read in free moments. Every one of us is given 24 hours in a day. We presumably sleep at night. Many of us have jobs, significant others, children, and other responsibilities. However, even with all of those things, there are certainly times when you are not tied up. Carry a book with you and read when you walk to and from your office. Read when you're waiting for a friend. Read while cooking dinner. Before smart phones, people read in the bathroom. You still can and it would be much less expensive to drop a book in the toilet than an i-Phone. 
  7. Read in longer blocks. I don't watch a whole lot of TV anymore. Interestingly, it doesn't really hold my attention long, though I can read for hours. If the majority of your free moments are spent in front of the television, on the Internet, playing games, or exercising, you will have less time for reading. I am not suggesting these activities are bad; indeed, they can be beneficial (e.g., exercise). The point is that each of us must decide what is most important to do with our time. If you want to become a reader, it may just be that you will spend less time watching sports. 
  8. Ask other people what they are reading. My interest often increases when friends tell me what they are reading and learning. In your reading, you may also discover that the authors mention books that influenced them. I have found the recommendations from those "friends" quite beneficial as well. Ask for suggestions from friends.
  9. Take notes. When I read, I read with pen. Even if I have no intention of underlining, I nearly always have a Pilot G2 Ultra Fine in hand. For me, it is a part of my reading process. There is significant benefit to underlining what strikes you, writing questions and thoughts in the margins, and marking up your books. For me personally, a pen is preferable to a highlighter. In fact, I buy a lot of used books and if I find one with a significant amount of highlighted text, I am unlikely to buy it, though that may be a personal preference. Similarly, it can be beneficial to write down meaningful quotes for future reference or to share them with others. Associated with this, sites like Goodreads allow you to track progress, take notes, and find out what others are up to.  
  10. Practice. I have often had people say, "I wish I read as much as you." Don't make me (or anyone else for that matter) your standard for accomplishment. It can be beneficial to set a goal (e.g., twelve books a year, five books a year), but I wonder if it may be discouraging when comparing your reading habits to another. But here's the thing: as you begin to develop that habit of reading, you will develop rhythms and efficiency you didn't have when you began. In the same way most people don't just wake up one day and say "I'm going to run a marathon this afternoon," reading habits also require training and practice. If it is something you want to grow in, and you commit yourself to it, you will become a better reader. 
Personally, I would like to see the declining trends above reversed, but I also understand that not everyone enjoys reading, is able to read, or has a desire to become a reader. That is totally fine, do what you love. But if you want to become a better reader, perhaps these tips may be of use. 

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