How to read more

It was a doctor who once said, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ That was, of course, Dr Seuss in his mesmerising children’s book, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!

As we grow older, it gets easier to appreciate the wisdom of the good doctor’s words. The irony is that many of us are so busy letting life drag us in other directions – work or the school gates or that private part of our mind where only Instagram can take us – that we rarely find enough time to actually crack open a page.

‘The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago,’ wrote the British novelist Tim Parks in an essay for the New York Review of Books. ‘Now, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.’ He wrote that in 2014; last week, I finally found time to read it.

Part of the problem, writes Parks – whose oeuvre includes the Booker-shortlisted novel Europa – is that the modern mind ‘is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication.’ Or, as Philip Roth put it in 2010: ‘The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore.’

So how do we reconcile our digital addiction with a our desire to read more books? The most obvious – not to mention sensible if you like big books (and aren’t prepared to saw them in half) – approach is to get an eBook reader. Or, if you're Neil Gaiman, get the app.

‘I have the Kindle app on my phone, my iPad and on pretty much everything except the toaster, and I use that, because I am besotted by [its] ability to know where I am in a book,’ he told the New York Times recently. ‘I’ve been using it to read Huge Books of the kind I always meant to read, or to finish, but didn’t, because carrying them around stopped being fun. Books like The Count of Monte Cristo.'

But screens, you might say, are imagination-leeches, little glass sponges of boredom and self. Screens are not for everyone. The Cider House Rules author John Irving claims never to 'read anything electronically’. More interestingly, as he told an interview in 2012: ‘I get up early and read a little before anyone but the dog is up. I also like to read at night, not in bed but just before I go to bed … I don’t read in bed, ever.’

For others, reading just before sleep is ideal (the Sleep Council says '39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well', which is nice, even if it won't help you get through Ulysses any time soon). Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Life puts it rather beautifully: ‘We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else’s mind.’

When it comes to that other big rivals for your attention – the TV – Groucho Marks had some novel advice. ‘I find television very educating,’ he said. ‘Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.’ Granted, when he said that, he didn’t know about Netflix.

Then there are life’s dead spaces: on the train, in the dentist’s waiting room, hanging solo for your late friend to arrive for dinner. Crime king Ian Rankin, for instance, does his best reading when he travels. ‘Trains, planes and ships,’ he recently told an interviewer. ‘I’ll plug in headphones, play some ambient music and lose myself in a book.’

But maybe time isn’t your issue. Maybe you’ve just hit a slump. Maybe you need a new genre to reanimate your book lust. You could experiment with something completely new like cli-fi (novels about climate change), or Twitterature (books written entirely through the medium of Twitter), or spoetry (poems composed from the subject lines of spam emails). But if all that feels too try-hard, you could just do as Marian Keyes does and double down on a genre you know you love, and that already loves you back.

‘I tend to read only women,’ the Grown Ups author told the i newspaper in January. ‘I boast about that, actually. The number of men who say, “I only read men,” and I just think, “F**k you.” A taste of their own medicine.’

Nina Stibbe holds a similar line. Her advice: don’t try too hard. For her, that means comedy ‘in all its shapes’. ‘In case anyone thinks me frothy or lowbrow, I want it known that as a young adult I was brimming with curiosity and grit,’ the Reasons to be Cheerful author told the New York Times last July. ‘Nowadays, though, I’m drawn more or less exclusively to absurd, funny books that present worlds I want to inhabit and never leave — Maria Semple, P. G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, David Sedaris, Magnus Mills.’

For me, sometimes, the sheer volume of recommendations I receive on a weekly basis can weigh down my enthusiasm for reading like a lead-bound War and Peace. You must read this, friends, colleagues, newspapers and websites say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes – it’s easy to get lost in such a book-storm of advice.

Haruki Murakami suggests avoiding the bestseller list altogether. ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,’ he wrote in his 1987 novel Norwegian Wood (fortunately for Murakami, few people at the time took this advice, and it became a stratospheric bestseller).

We all wish we read more. And there are many ways to reinvest in our reading. But perhaps the best advice I ever came across was from a six-year-old girl. OK – it technically came from Harper Lee via Scout, her young protagonist in To Kill A Mockingbird – but still. ‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read,’ she says. ‘One does not love breathing.’

Maybe, then, the best medicine for reading sickness is to take a break from it altogether, recharge, and realise how ugly life looks with a gaping, book-shaped hole in it. I can't think of any better incentive to read than that. 

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