On Cultivating a Reading Habit

A short while ago, I blogged some thoughts for the struggling creative because several of my writer friends were despairing about the difficulties of focusing on their writing projects. With as much upheaval across major parts of the world and our 24/7 exposure to it through both news and social media, I have certainly struggled to clear space in my head and focus my cognitive energies on both reading and writing. That said, for me, these are both lifelong habits and I cannot manage a day without undertaking at least one or the other. As Claire Messud said in a recent Guardian interview:

If you took my reading and writing out of my head, I don’t know who I would be. The people who don’t read, who are they? How do they make sense of things?

Recently, an acquaintance, let us call her X, asked me how she could start a reading habit. Given that she is close to my age, I asked her what kinds of things she liked to read, thinking I might offer her some book suggestions. Consider my surprise when she confessed that she could not remember the last time she had read an entire book. “But I read a lot of news and stuff online,” she said in her own defense.

When I shared this with some other reader friends, they admitted to their own difficulties with reading as much as they used to, especially fiction. Some said there was enough drama going on around the world, so they did not feel a need to read fictionalized drama. Some, like X, said they read online and did not care about offline reading. And there were the odd few who said they “prefer to experience life than rather reading about it.” The first kind is cognitively exhausted, clearly, and this article will probably not convince them. The second kind is who I am hoping to address with my points below. As for the third kind, if they think their lives are so diverse and interesting as to give them all the wisdom and emotional skills to navigate our increasingly complex societies, then who am I to shatter their sweet illusions?

Let me start by offering to you that there is a big difference in the kind of reading my friend X does versus the kind of reading we do offline with a book. I’m not talking about paper versus digital but longform (on screen or paper) vs shorter pieces online. Generally speaking, our cognitive processes are such that we read quicker and with less comprehension and retention when scrolling through short on-screen articles and clicking on link after link. And I equate reading longform works online to going to McDonald’s and ordering a salad or a side of fruit. Sure, it’s the healthier option and there is likely to be some nutrition but it will not be as filling or as nourishing as we need.

So, while I also read a lot online (e.g. news, book reviews, author interviews, etc.), books remain my primary source of knowledge, thought, and intellectual fodder. Here’s why:

  • A good book — fiction or nonfiction — is the concentrated vision of a single writer, who has invested a lot of time and effort in presenting something they consider important for the world to know. How can we understand our own world/lives, unless we also take the time to understand some of the best things that have been thought and written about it?
  • Well-written books take us out of ourselves and our filter-bubbles and place us in unfamiliar, ambiguous worlds, showing us aspects of those worlds we would never know otherwise. So that, when we return to our own world, we see and understand it differently. Our frames, our contexts, our very approaches to seeing and thinking change. (For the record, I disagree that travel, by itself, can enable deep, thorough, specific observations of the world without cognitively-sharp perspectives. I know people who have spent thousands checking off places to visit but they may as well have just scrolled through Google images from the comfort of their homes.)
  • Fiction, in particular, is a writer’s way of saying truths that cannot be said otherwise; it is a representation of a way of being in the world that cannot be expressed otherwise.

Bottomline: Reading is not only about improving the quality of a life but also the quality of the attention we pay to the things and people in our lives. It changes our way of engaging with and being in the world. [Writing, for me, is a natural extension of my reading as it is a way to then either continue my dialogue with the writer or to clarify my own thinking. More on that some other time.]

Here are some approaches I suggested to the above-mentioned acquaintance to begin cultivating a voluntary reading habit. Rather than forcing yourself to read (which, like going on a diet, is rarely sustainable), it is better to find a way into a regular reading practice organically.

1/ Online to Offline: If you enjoy reading about specific topics online, look up the best books on those topics at your local library or bookstore. Remember to check the names of the writers of online articles you like as they might have books out too. You will probably get a deeper, more considered dive into those topics in book-length works. The best librarians and booksellers truly enjoy engaging with readers to recommend specific kinds of books, so do not hesitate to leverage their expertise and knowledge. If you do not live anywhere near a library or a bookstore, you might be able to join a library online and download book loans to read on an electronic device.

2/ Movies to Books: If you enjoy movies, look for ones based on book adaptations and then read the original sources. Avoid the trashy bestsellers that have become movie franchises, though. When something is that popular, it is likely because it has been pandering to the lowest common denominator. (Of course, there are exceptions as with everything in life.) One easy source is to go to the movie awards websites and look for the lists of movies awarded for “Best Adaptation.” Go as far back as you need and you are bound to find something to suit your tastes. Make a fun event of it by inviting a friend or family member to read the book and watch the movie with you.

3/ Travel Literature: If travel is your thing, look for books about the next place you are planning to visit. Read these books before, during, and after your trip and I guarantee they will make the whole experience richer and more satisfying. Often, travel books are about going off the beaten path and such books not only enlighten but they also encourage us to also wander down roads unknown.

4/ Short Stories: If book-length fiction is not quite your thing, begin with short stories. You can typically finish these in a single sitting of maximum one hour at a time. And they will whet your appetite for longer fiction works. There are many wonderful short stories available free online (a little tip: save an online story as a PDF, then convert to your e-reader format and save to read later if that works better for you). You can check out my monthly series where I feature several of them by theme. You can subscribe to or check your library for literary magazines per your tastes. Or you can look for award-winning short story collections as a starting point.

5/ Reading with Friends: Join or start a book club if you like company when reading. I’m not personally into communal reading but I do enjoy the odd book discussion with readers from across the world on bookish websites. It’s fascinating to understand how differently we all interpret the same things and I always learn something new.

6/ E-readers: If strapped for time, invest in an e-reader or a good audiobook membership. That way, you can “read” while waiting in the grocery checkout line, during daily travel commutes, while taking a bath, doing chores, etc. It is amazing is how much time we lose in these daily activities, don’t you think? So, reclaim some of this time and put it to good use.

7/ Journalling: Start a book journal where you write daily about what you have read. This is not as hokey as it sounds. It will help you structure your thoughts and reflections on the topics/themes, which is the whole point of reading after all. Write it in a private journal or a public online blog, whichever works for you.

8/ Goal-tracking: If goal achievement and quantified selfhood drive you, sign up to a site like Goodreads or LibraryThing to log every book you read by date. I’m not into setting book-reading goals but I use one of those sites to keep track of my personal library.

9/ Books-related Podcasts: Listen to some decent books-related podcasts, where they invite writers to discuss their books. I have, I confess, rushed to buy a certain book after hearing its writer speak with great passion and conviction about it.

10/ Book/Literary Festivals: If there are any book-related festivals near your home/city/state, try to go to one a year if you can afford it, time-wise and money-wise. Celebrating books with other readers is a special kind of joy. I don’t go as often as I used to but I always meet wonderful kindred spirits whenever I do.

BONUS POINT: As with anything in life, avoid too much of anything in your reading diet. Mix it up now and then with genres and topics. There are many book recommendation websites out there, so do your research for what works best for you. My approach is to have 4 books on the go at any time: fiction, non-fiction prose, poetry collection, writing-related. This may not work for everyone so use your own trial and error system. And, for goodness’ sake, do not try to keep reading a book you have lost interest in — it is a sure way of killing any reading practice. There are so many books out there on every imaginable topic. Find another if the first 25 pages do no grab you. And, on that point of 25 pages: if you can, commit to a minimum of that amount daily.

Our world and our lives continue to become more complex and fast-paced. We need, more than ever, to keep our wits about ourselves and consider the contexts and nuances of world events carefully instead of reacting to every new outrage that shows up in our news feeds. Our economies and professions are increasingly knowledge-driven versus labor-driven. Reading books is a personal investment that will continue to pay off in the long run because the best books go beyond entertainment, education, altering perspectives — in the end, they enable us to develop and strengthen our cognitive and emotional muscles to deal better with whatever comes our way.

For me, as Jhumpa Lahiri said in a recent Literary Hub interview:

But reading is fundamental. A book is a life jacket.

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