Some days, it seems like reading is a lost art. Sure, we read text messages and Tweets and even Japanese cell phone novels; we read on the iPhone and the Kindle and maybe even the headlines at NYTimes.com, but when was the last time you sat down with a serious work of literary fiction or long-form journalism and actually finished it? Whose was the last biography you read? The last book of essays? The last contender for Great American Novel?
The sad fact is, in the first quarter of 2009, one out of every seven books sold in the United States was by Stephanie Meyer, of Twilight fame. The very existence of Dan Brown in the cannon should be enough to make writers, would be writers, and lit nerds alike throw down their swords and give up the fight. I’m not against popular literature–far from it–but wasn’t there a time in the not so distant past where we made a distinction between pop and pulp, where writers like Mark Twain, Judy Blume and Kurt Vonnegut wrote blockbuster bestsellers that didn’t suck (and that’s just the Americans). Sure, good writers are still out there ( and G-d willing, always will be) but their market is ever-shrinking. The reason? Readers have forgotten how to read.
Sure, the internet has a hand in it, but so does the proliferation of the automobile, the explosion of television, the sub-/exurb and the increasing demands of modern life. Now that you’re un- (or under) employed (or, conversely, now that you’re maximally stressed trying to scrimp around the edges and make ends meet in a fantastically bad economy), here’s 7 tips to help you relearn reading.
1) Break it up: The number one reason non-readers don’t read is that reading is boring. Yes, I admit it, even I get bored with books. That’s why I read across platforms (to borrow terminology). A typical month includes daily internet news, two weekly magazines, one or two novels, a collection of short stories or essays and a biography or non-fiction book. That’s a lot, but even beginners can mix and match to match their ability, taste and appetite. For more clues on how to do it, keep reading…
2) Read in a theme: It might seem counter-intuitive (especially given step 1) but one of the best ways to get back into the habit of reading is to read in a theme. Some folks like to read through a single author, but that’s not the only trick in the bag. Ready-made themes range from geography and language (Russian) to time period (Victorian) to subject (Barack Obama).
The key is to start thinking of your reading lists as playlists. For example, in reading the Vietnam War, you might pick up The Things They Carried, The Killing Fields, and a biography of Henry Kissinger. The more you already understand about a subject, the more you can get out of the literature itself; hence, reading Hunter S. Thompson could include a detour into the All the President’s Men and the wonderful illustrations of Ralph Steadman.
I recently picked out a reading list around Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of my favorite Russian novels. Offerings include the mediocre Whatever Happend to Anna K. and the significantly better Happy Families by venerable Mexican author Carlos Fuentes.
3) Re-learn your Library: You may have noticed, most of my links are to the library. That’s because the library is one of the best places for new and returning readers to start. Books are the original free content. It’s hard to spend $14.99 on something you’re not even guaranteed to enjoy, but the libary’s cache is constantly changing and constantly free.
P.S. If your most vivid library memories are of hushing and bookmobiles, it’s time you gave the public institution a second look. With looser card-issuing restrictions at some of the nicest (San Francisco and Santa Monica, to start), key-ring library cards, automated check-out, online inventory and a huge selection of New Releases (as well as cookbooks, travel guides, DVDs, wireless access, the list goes on), you’re definitely missing out if you’re not at one. The best part? You can take virtually as many or as few as you want, exchanging them almost as often as you like. Which brings us to our next tip…
4) Pick your Pace: With reading, tortises and hares are all rewarded equally. You don’t have to be a particularly fast reader to read a lot, but no matter how fast or slow your eyes race across the page, pacing your read is key. Some people like long chapters; others like bite-size chunks. Similarly, some readers like to curl up with a good book for a whole afternoon, while others prefer a quick read between tasks or while commuting. Whether you get down with hard or soft cover, big or small font, tall or short pages, all of it affects how you read. Older books often come in several editions, so its easy to pick the size/font/hand-feel that fits you. Different authors breakt their books in different ways, but short story collections are snack-packed by definition. Try some on, just don’t forget to keep notes on what you like
5) Life is Better withPost-its: Your 10th grade teacher might have said it’s impossible to really read a book without marring it with your scrawl and dog-earing all the pages, but that’s a lie. Anyone who truly loves books will tell you, the authors words deserve to be left as they were type-set, even if the author is a tool and the writing is unbearable. However, Post-itting your favorite passages can help you recap the book in a hurry, increase your bandwith for quotable passages and leave you with a more meaningful experience of reading. It also makes you look smart, especially when it comes time to…
6) Share and Share Alike: We all know sharing is the most important social skill, but did you know it’s also a fantastic for readers? Sharing your favorite books not only gives you an excuse to talk about them, it can also make you seem exceptionally thoughtful. The right book at the right time can feel transendental, and make the original recommender seem like a mind-reading genius. Ever wonder why Oprah’s Book Club got so hot? Sure, everything Oprah touches turns to gold, but unlike her Favorite Things, the big O’s book-club picks spoke to the particular moment in which they were read. The first time a book you like goes viral with your friends can feel like the internet gone analog.
A couple of my great shares include Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (not as special now that Bourdain’s super famous and sort of a tool), and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (which I shared across several continets almost 5 years before it was optioned for a film by Danny Boyle). Plus, authors are like your own personal rockstars. Unlike movies or even music, books (especially the best books) are made by lonely people toiling away in obscurity who will actually talk to you if you call them or drop by for a drink. A good book is like a good friend…someone you wish all of your friends could meet…
7) Building a Home Library (Media Mail is your Friend):
…which is precisely what makes building a home library so special. First, it gives new visitors to your home something to look at/talk about while you try to rescue dinner. Second, it leaves you ever-ready to forge a new connection by suggesting and/or loaning out a certain special book. When you build your home life around books, you’re not just making a statement about your aesthetic/ideoglogical preferences, you’re saving money. Books, even books you buy (new or used) are cheaper-by-the-minute than DVDs, iTunes downloads or cable. They’re also mobile: they don’t require any technology to read, and although they are heavy, books and periodicals are about the cheapest thing in the world to ship. I posted 50 lbs of books, notebooks, cards and magazines from New York to California for less than $30.
The take-away here is that the more you read, the better reader you are, and the more meaningful each book, magazine and journal becomes. There is something infinitely special about sharing a book with someone, knowing they will read it in an entirely different way than you have. It’s more than “sharing” an article on Facebook or Twitter, hoping that you’re “friends” and “followers” will share in a descrete tidbit of knowldege–building a library and sharing has the potential to expand your consciousness. FOR FREE.