The following is a guide for anyone who wants to read more books or is hoping to restart their reading habit. It incorporates elements of behavioural science, my understanding of the subject as a voracious reader and observations of those who have struggled to make reading a part of their life. This is a long read, but hopefully, one that will ensure you enjoy embarking on long reads moving forward!
The 3 Aspects of Reading
I believe anyone considering reading can look at it through the lens of “Habit”, “Intention” and “Routine.”
|Note: the below are my own definitions, and not strictly accurate from a behavioural science point of view.|
Habit is What you do
Intention is Why you do it
Routine is How you do it
These three are distinct elements that combine to form a person’s relationship with books. The combination can change at any time, with some elements being stronger, weaker or altogether absent.
Here’s a simple example to get us started.
In preparation for the IELTS exam, you might pick up English books to improve your reading and writing skills.
Here the intention is to clear the exam with the required score. Your routine is accordingly defined. You plan to read a certain amount of pages every day (or week or month), till you give the exam.
Also Read: Why Do So Many Malayalis Fail IELTS?
Depending on how long you sustain that routine, a habit starts to take shape.
But as we know, habits are hard to develop and even harder to maintain.
So, keeping these three elements in mind, here are a few steps to help you transform your relationship with books.
Figure Out Your Intention
Reading has a lot of benefits, from improving comprehension skills to enhancing writing ability and even strengthening cognitive function and staving off Alzheimer’s disease. But each of us has to figure out our own, current intention for reading.
Are you looking to learn more about the past? Or are you fascinated by successful people and their life choices? Perhaps you’re yearning to learn how to write better and become a more effective storyteller.
Your intention will directly influence what you choose to read, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, prose or poetry, short stories or novels.
But your intention doesn’t need to be specific, nor should it be rigid.
For example, after years of reading English books, my intention now is to read from a variety of genres so that I can expand my writing style in different directions, and continue to improve myself as a fiction writer.
But I recently picked up my first Malayalam book. The intention is simply to improve my reading ability. I don’t really care whether the book is a comedy or tragedy, fiction or non-fiction.
That intention will and should change. So ask yourself why you want to pick up a book. Pick a genuine reason, and let it guide you till you reflect and recognise a different intention.
Also Read: Things Only Book Lovers Will Understand
Secure A Supply Chain
I didn’t read many books last year because the local library was closed due to COVID. Our minds, much like nature, abhor a vacuum, so I ended up watching way too many Korean movies.
Once you decide why you want to read, it’s important to start securing a supply of books. Yes, that sounds very militaristic and serious, but I’m only half-joking.
Never underestimate your mind’s ability to dodge reading.
Many who begin reading think of it in an idealistic way. Books are wonderful companions, portals to another world, friends to spend time with…
All of that may well be true, but we live in a world where books are competing with far more powerful portals of entertainment and information.
Here’s an analogy that might help. Think of Netflix (streaming services), Spotify (songs and podcasts) and Xbox (gaming) as different sources of food, like Books (print, audio, and electronic). Set aside the question of the quality of food for now, and simply think of the availability factor.
Unless you stock your house with enough books to consume, you will invariably consume something else. That’s not because you are lazy or lack willpower or just aren’t the type who likes to read. It’s because you don’t have an effective supply chain.
Doesn’t mean you spend 3 hours on Amazon right now buying two dozen books.
Instead, consider what you’d need to do to secure a steady supply of this “food”. Is there a local library you could join? Or a local bookstore that you can start checking out every few weeks?
Buying a huge stack of books isn’t necessary, and might simply intimidate you. Rather, go “grocery shopping” periodically, ensuring there’s a regular supply.
Balancing Want Versus Need
Here’s my theory about needing to read books, versus wanting to read them, and why both matter.
Needing to read books is often associated with a short term goal, such as wanting to pass the IELTS exam or improving your technical skills at a new job. In other words, needing to read books is greatly reliant on extrinsic motivation. You are pushed towards doing it because of outside rewards or punishments.
Conversely, wanting to read books is generally linked to a long term goal that is less tangible, such as becoming a better storyteller, a sharper critical thinker or improving your E.Q. (Emotional Quotient). It’s greatly reliant on intrinsic motivation. It has to be something that’s personally rewarding for you.
Most people who pick up a book to read for the first time in their adult lives often do so for extrinsic reasons. They need to improve their vocabulary, comprehension skills or technical knowledge. This provides enough fuel….for the short term. Either they achieve their goal, or they eventually lose interest in pursuing it.
What happens if they achieve their goal? The reading “habit” isn’t sustained unless they change their intention, or rather, let it evolve.
Now here’s the problem the other group faces.
Those who want to read books as adults often have positive memories of doing so from their childhood. They remember the pleasure they derived. Returning to books means hopefully triggering those past emotions.
But a few weeks later, many are disappointed to realise that they don’t enjoy reading like they used to. Why is it so hard to finish a book? Five or ten years ago they’d have breezed through one, yet now the bookmark pokes out of the untouched pages, seemingly accusing them. There are several reasons. First, and seemingly most obvious, is the choice of book. There’s a very good chance you might have picked a book that’s just not interesting.
Also Read: Books on Magical Realism by Malayali Authors
However, it’s important to understand that reading is not just about the book, it’s about the reader. It’s perhaps the medium of communication that requires the most active participation. You can feel the effects of a song even if you didn’t mean to pay attention to it.
But when it comes to reading, your mind plays almost as important a role as the text your mind is deciphering.
Consider how that affects the reading habit.
If you are someone in your mid-20s currently struggling to read every day, even though it was so much easier in your teenage years, what role does your mind play in the equation?
Addressing Increased Attention Deficits
Isn’t it safe to say you and I, like the rest of the world, had better attention spans a decade ago? Our eyes and ears processed fewer images, visuals and sounds back then. Think of how aggressively fast-paced movies, television shows, Instagram reels and Tik Tok videos have become. Not just the content, but the delivery of the content. It’s relentless. There’s a reason why researchers are concerned about the addictive nature of Tik Tok’s algorithmically curated, never-ending flood of bite-sized videos.
Our attention spans have dramatically reduced over the past decade. That’s why some of us who pick up a book today find our minds drifting within a few lines of text.
I know this to be absolutely true because I experienced it myself last year. Even though I’m more or less a voracious reader, picking up a book after subsisting on a diet of TV shows and movies for several months meant I couldn’t really concentrate much. It was akin to eating a bland meal after having lived off of processed food. It didn’t taste good, I was constantly wondering when I’d finish, and I was trying to push away the thought that a can of Pringles was just an arm’s length away.
So what’s the solution?
Realigning the Three Aspects of Reading
Solely having an intention to recapture the pleasure you derived from reading won’t be enough, if there isn’t a corresponding adjustment in routine and habit.
If you want to read books, but don’t set up certain guidelines, restrictions and goals in terms of routine and habit, sooner or later the bookmark will stop moving.
Put it another way, if you want to read books, you need to read books for certain short term goals.
Also Read: 6 Books That Will Make You Smarter
Establishing A Sound Routine
Here’s an illustrative example: imagine you want to read, say The Ministry of Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
To prevent your mind from drifting away, you need to also decide on a routine.
Sure, in an ideal world you’d pick up the book every chance you got because it’s amazing to read and you love it.
But you don’t love it yet.
Perhaps because it’s not the right book for you, but more crucially, perhaps because your mind isn’t trained to appreciate it yet.
So set aside a fixed time during the day when you can be alone with your book, such as:
- 20-minute commute to the office
- 15 minutes during your lunch break
- 30 minutes before bedtime.
|Here’s a relevant aside: Melatonin is a natural hormone in the brain that helps regulate sleep. Melatonin levels rise at night, preparing us for sleep. Digital screens neutralise this, making it harder for us to fall asleep. So how do you put aside your phone before bed, and not get bored? By having a book in your bedroom!|
Whatever routine you decide upon, remember to reduce as many points of friction as possible.
- Pick a time and place for reading that you can stick to consistently.
- Make sure you have access to the book you’re reading when you want it (for example, during your commute or lunch break).
- Don’t aim for lofty goals. 15 minutes a day during your lunch break for two months is better than 60 minutes for a week.
Once you stick to a routine, you’ll begin to develop your reading habit. This means slowly your mind will begin to adapt to reading and rewire itself accordingly. You won’t just be reading faster, your stamina for reading will increase.
There’s a reason why voracious readers can get lost in a book for hours. It’s not because they’re boring people who don’t want to mingle with others. It’s because their attention spans are longer, which means more time for their imagination to fully flesh out the world they’re bringing to life through the words on-page.
Create Short Term Goals
So if you want to read books, take a page from those who need to read books. Create short term goals even though you don’t have any short term requirements. If you want to rebuild your reading habit, act like your fellow Malayali who wants to pass the IELTS exam. Create a target for how many books you’ll read in a year. If that’s too daunting, break it down into simpler terms.
The average reading speed for an adult is 250 words per minute. Let’s take it as 200 for this equation.
So if you picked up a 100,000-word book and read it at a pace of 200 words per minute, you’d be done in 500 minutes. That’s 8 hours and 20 minutes.
If you read 30 minutes a day, you’d be done in less than 17 days. In a month’s time, you’d have finished almost two books. In a year, you’d have completed 21 books!
30 minutes a day. 21 books in a year. Think of the possibilities.
Why Books When Other Mediums Exist?
To be clear, I don’t believe books are inherently superior to television shows, movies, podcasts or any other form of content. There are trashy books just like there are trashy television shows and movies. However, I do strongly believe that we as a society need to diversify our “media diet”. We’re consuming fewer and fewer books with each passing year, and that is a shame.
I’ve often heard people justify their lack of reading habits by stating that they get valuable information from, for instance, documentaries or podcasts. They’re not wrong, but they’re missing the bigger picture.
Books are not solely for information delivery. Books are not solely for vocabulary development. Books are a distinct form of art, that engages the reader in a way that movies, TV, music and other art forms don’t.
It allows you to refine your critical thinking skills, process information in a more efficient manner, explore your own emotions and gain the ability to perceive the world in different ways.
Also Read: LGBTQIA+ Books You Need To Read Right Now
So if you are reading books for the short term, I hope you’ll reflect on how you can make it a part of your lifestyle moving forward. If you are hoping to read books for the long term, I hope you’ll consider creating short term goals.
Most importantly, I hope we can change the way we consider books. Rather than as a protein shake for short term gain or a delicious piece of chocolate consumed for pleasure, let’s try thinking of books as a plate of vegetables.
They’re not always pleasurable to eat, they’re not always going to show tangible benefits in the short term, but you consume them regularly.
Because you know it’ll make your life better.