Thursday, June 13, 2024

How Do I Develop The Reading Habit?

 “How can I get into the habit of reading?”, I am often asked. Since they ask the question, one can presume they have already decided they want to read more than they do, so perhaps don’t have to go into the benefit of reading over other forms of entertainment or gaining knowledge. But I will.

What are the benefits of reading over other ways of taking in information?

The biggest difference between reading a book and watching a movie is that reading requires you to do more. On screen, you see the characters and the settings, but in a book you are forced to visualise them through the often sketchy descriptions. On screen, you observe the reactions of the characters, but in a book, the story is normally told from the perspective of on character at a time, and you need to use to imagination to understand how the other characters may be reacting. Reading fiction forces you to get into the shoes of the characters- it teachers you empathy. While reading a book, it is much easier to go back to re-read a portion you might have missed, or check a fact you are not sure of- something that is much harder to do when you are watching a movie or a show. Having said that, however, I will reiterate that there is nothing inherently superior about reading or being a reader. If you prefer to consume your stories on screen or to get your information from documentaries, do so. The important thing is to hear stories, to get information, and to extend the boundaries of our imagination and knowledge- reading is just a medium to doing so.

Having said that, if you still want to develop the reading habit, here are some tips that work for me.

1. Set achievable targets which can be broken down:

From a very young age, it has been drilled into our head that we should achieve targets and meet deadlines, so the easiest way to start reading is to set a target. Probably the best time to set a target is at the start of the year but you can start anytime and set it for whatever time period is convenient for you. Ideally, the target should be doable, but one that you will have to work to achieve. It should also be a target that can be easily broken down into smaller targets. For example, if you decide to read 20 books a year, you can further break it down into 2 books a month. This is important, because unless you have smaller targets you tend to put off starting and before you know it half the year is over, and since you know you are now unlikely to achieve your target, you abandon it altogether. Making your target public is a good way to hold yourself accountable.

2. Recognise that not every book will be a “significant one”

One common mistake people make while trying to develop a reading habit is to want every book they read to be a significant one. While you may be tempted to pick up the most recent Booker Prize winner, or the 700 page tome that everyone is raving about, the probability of abandoning these books is quite high. Instead, pick books that you are likely to enjoy. For instance, if you love watching movies on the German Occupation, you could pick a book like ‘Book Thief’ which is set in a concentration camp. You are far more likely to finish a book you really enjoy than you are likely to finish ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Ullysis’, and once you finish a book, you are instantly motivated to pick up the next and the next and before you know it, you have built up the habit! Remember Newton’s Laws of Motion? The aim is to shift your inertial plane from ‘not reading’ to ‘reading’- pick books that will help you achieve that.

3. Create opportunities to read

There are people who advise you to set aside half an hour for reading everyday. I am not a proponent of that system, because I know even if we would like to, most of us do not lead very disciplined lives, and it is very easy to miss the “reading slot” due to situations beyond our control. The danger is that if we have missed the slot for a couple of days, we might decide to abandon the entire project. Instead, what I do is to ensure that I am always carrying a book with me, so I can read whenever I get an opportunity. Technology makes it easy to be well prepared all the time. I read a lot of e-books and I make sure the Kindle app on my phone is always synched with the Kindle. Whenever I get a couple of minutes (while waiting for the metro, at a traffic light when I am not driving, while waiting for a meeting), I pull up the book and utilise the time which I would have normally spent in scrolling social media or forwarding memes on WhatsApp to read. Before you realise it, reading starts becoming a habit, and you start to realise how much time you actually spend scrolling on your phone!

4. Learn to abandon books you don’t enjoy

This is a hard lesson for most of us, because right from childhood we are taught to finish- finish what is on your plate, finish your homework on time, finish everything you start. This does not hold when it comes to reading. You do not have to finish every book you start- some books are just not meant for you and other books are meant for you but at a later time. If after reading 20 pages, you aren’t enjoying the book, push yourself to read another 10, 15 or even 20 pages. But if after 50 pages, you still don’t like the book, just put it aside. There are so many books in the world that even the most voracious reader will never be able to read all the books she wants to read. Life is short, your time is precious; don’t waste it on a book you don’t enjoy (unless you need to read it for professional reasons).

I normally leave a book mark in the book, so if I ever want to go back to it, I have the option to pick up from where I left off. There are many books which I abandoned, returned to after six months and abandoned again. But two years later, I come back to the book, and love it so much I finish it in two sittings. Books come to you when you’re ready for them. If you’re not able to read a book if you’re just not enjoying a book leave it, you don’t have to finish it.

5. Celebrate the books you read

When you do finish your book, take a few minutes off to celebrate it. I log all my books on Goodreads. I leave a rating and I try to put in two or three sentence review. For me, it is a record, and a celebration. If you want to celebrate with an Insta story, go ahead and do it. Each book you read is a milestone worth celebrating!

These five tips will certainly help you get into the reading habit. Once you have done so, you can start upping the stakes a bit.

How can you get more out of reading?

Try and find a community of book lovers. This is not essential, but when you have read a book that you loved, or hated, or were confused about, discussing the book with someone else adds to the pleasure. Maybe you feel intimidated about seeking company because you feel you do not read ‘good books’ or that you do not have anything substantial to discuss. It really doesn’t matter- book readers are nice people, and discussions increase the pleasure. Of course this is not essential. Just a good to have if you can find it.

Once you get into the reading habit, try to diversity your reading. Ask people to recommend books, but be specific in what you are asking for. If you tell them which other books you liked, it will help them suggest books which you are likely to like. However, you may nor may not like the books they recommend, so rather than rush to buy the book, download a sample on Kindle, and get the book only if you like the sample you read.

When I first started logging the books I read, I found that while I was reading a lot, the books lacked diversity. The next year, I set myself new targets- reading more books by Indian authors, reading non-fiction and reading books by women. Once I started tracking the nature of books, my reading automatically became more diverse, and now, I exceed the self imposed targets without consciously trying to.

Personally, I am now actively reading more translated works, and works by religious and sexual minorities. I am also pushing myself out of my comfort zone by reading poetry and memoirs. It is important to know what you read- if you are reading to understand the world better, for instance, that determines the books you pick up. This year, I am also tracking the year when the book was first published because in the quest to read the books that everyone is talking about, you often end up missing out on some classics.

Try to get out of your comfort zone. You know you don’t like horror, but try one. What is the worst that can happen- you don’t like it. But at least you made a conscious decision, instead of just deciding you will not like it.

A lot of people are book monogamists and only read one book at a time. I am not. I believe in reading multiple books simultaneously- I typically have one fiction and one non-fiction going at any point of time because sometimes you need to take a break from a book, and in such times, a second book is useful to have.

Also, while talking of books and reading, I cannot ignore the elephant in the room- audiobooks. Many people love audiobooks- they are prefect for people who have long commutes, people who walk for an hour everyday and people who travel a lot. Personally, I am on the fence when it comes to audiobooks. Despite not being somebody who enjoys movies, I found audiobooks quite charming because the reader is still expected to fill in the details. The disadvantage of audiobooks, for me, is that you are stuck at a slower pace, and it is hard to flip back and read parts of it. Do check out audiobooks- you will only know whether you like or dislike them when you actually start.

Follow these tips, and before you know it, you will get into the reading habit.

Happy reading!

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