How To Cultivate the Reading Habit

Reading takes effort. But with the right habits and tools, it is richly rewarding. Here’s a list of tips for improve your reading skills and achieving more of your reading goals.

  1. Relate your reading goals to your larger goals. If you’re powerfully motivated to achieve some larger goal, try thinking about reading as a component in achieving that goal. One goal will fuel another.
  2. Understand that you don’t have to read everything on your list to benefit from the reading habit.
  3. Set specific reading goals. How many books do you want to read in the next year, or month? What kinds of books do you want to read? Make a note of the specific reasons you want to read these books.
  4. Select several books to have on hand to read at the same time.
  5. Use procrastination to your advantage. If you’re procrastinating about reading a particular book in your pile, use that procrastination to read another book in the pile.
  6. Select books that are practical and books that are theoretical. Books of the practical sort recommend solutions to interesting problems, provide guidance for self improvement, or explain how to do something. Books of a theoretical nature expand your knowledge base and enlarge your powers of critical thinking.
  7. In each broad category—the practical and the theoretical—include books that fit different subcategories. You might pick one book from each of ten subcategories: literary fiction (a novel), light fiction (another novel), short fiction (a collection of short stories), poetry (an anthology of works from a specific period, or on a common theme, or by the same writer), biography, history, inspirational literature, cultural commentary, and two practical books (for example, a book that will help you improve your writing and a book about sea kayaking).
  8. Make a note of the primary reasons you have for reading each of the books you’ve selected. Don’t settle for mere enjoyment. Assume that you’re going to enjoy the books you’ve compiled and refine your reasons for reading each book. Is one book in your pile because you want to improve your motorcycling skills? Is a book in the history category going to help you understand some event in the present? Will a particular novel enlighten you about a personally puzzling aspect of the human condition? Will the poetry you’ve picked improve your powers of imagination, or help you see the ordinary in extraordinary ways? Are you reading this book on cosmology in order learn the latest theories about the origin of the universe? Is that book about the narcissistic personality disorder going to help you understand a difficult colleague at work? Write these aims into each book.
  9. Keep these books together in a place where you feel relaxed and are most likely to have the inclination to read. This may be a cabinet next to your bed. Otherwise, use your imagination.
  10. Develop the habit of reading whenever your book stash in nearby. If you have a varied selection of books in different categories, just read what most suits your mood at the time.
  11. Pre-read each book to get an idea what it’s is about and how it’s organized. This will save time in the long run. It will help you decide whether to read the book more carefully, how to re-read the book to achieve your specific goals, and how much time to allocate for a closer read.
  12. Guard against time consuming eye movements. Keep your eyes moving from left to right, without regressing (even if you feel you’ve missed something). Train your eyes to “land” (ever so briefly) on points along the trajectory of your reading path, without moving your head. Work at reducing the number of “landings” for each line as you subconsciously scan for key words and phrases in the line.
  13. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on your pre-reading, decide which books deserve to be read more closely.
  14. While reading more analytically, pace yourself to fit the specific goals of your reading and the nature of the material as it changes from one passage to another. Skip over the bits that you already understand, or are repetitive, or don’t serve your reading objectives. Slow down for the complex parts, where key concepts are explained, or crucial details of a plot are revealed, or the line of a major argument is delineated.
  15. Mark your book in pencil as you read. Underline, circle, add symbols in the margins to identify a feature of special significance (for example, asterisks, question marks, explanation marks, bracketed numerals for lists or numbered items, arrows, horizontal lines for significant but unmarked breaks in the progression, check marks, squares, triangles). Create a simple shorthand system with letters of the alphabet for frequent kinds of marking. (If a passage is quotable, I draw a ‘Q’ in the margin. If it should be noted elsewhere in my files, I draw a cursive ‘f’.) Use vertical lines. Bracket sections with corner marks. Experiment with squiggly lines, double lines, light lines and heavy lines, and lines that are mostly light with brief stretches of heavy lines.
  16. Write unfamiliar words in the top or bottom margins—and look them up in a dictionary. This is the best way to improve your vocabulary. Over time, you’ll write fewer words and have a record of the growth of your vocabulary.
  17. Write out questions that come to mind—questions stimulated by what you’re reading. Interrogate the author. (Or, if you prefer, have a “conversation.”)
  18. Draw simple charts to show relationships that have been describe.
  19. Create your own index to the book, using the back endpages. Index key terms and concepts. If necessary, invent names for concepts.
  20. Reserve space in the back endpages to index passages that relate to research, writing, or speaking you may be doing. If you have an abbreviated title for each project, you can use this title for indexing purposes. Later, you’ll be able to return to these notes and enter them elsewhere as needed.
  21. Keep track of the structure and progression of the book.
  22. Write a summary and/or general outline of the entire book into the front endpages, and make a note about the general value of the book relative to your purposes. You may want to draft this on separate paper or with a word processor, and then transfer your final version into the pages of the book. Another option is to use Post-It notes that are nearly the size of a trade book and stick them into the front of the book with these notes and comments.
  23. For maximum portability and time management in pursuit of your reading goals, buy a Kindle and learn how to use it efficiently. (See separate posts with Kindle Tips on this blog.)


NOTE: Some of the ideas described in this post can also be found in How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. As the subtitle says, this is The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

7 Responses to How To Cultivate the Reading Habit

  1. Cliff Sockwell says:

    Great information 🙂


  2. Mark says:

    >> Mark your book in pencil as you read. Underline …

    >> Write unfamiliar words in the top or bottom margins …

    >> Create your own index to the book, using the back endpages … Reserve space in the back endpages to index passages …

    >> Write a summary and/or general outline of the entire book into the front endpages …

    >> buy a Kindle …

    It depends on your purposes for reading, but my own view is that most should be reading beyond their ability to buy books or they are reading too little. I think the limited reading of material for most college courses (a few chapters of different books and a few journal articles) and discussion leads to the impression that reading quantity matters little, but I think it does for anyone that cares about having knowledge broadly based or even someone who is even a little bit adventurous (those that aren’t probably don’t read anyway). And you can learn a lot even from books that aren’t very good or that you think are misguided, but you’ll never buy them if you know this in advance, and if you learn this after the fact you’ll feel like you got taken.

    So I think getting plugged into a good, free, and effortless interlibrary loan system is the only reasonable way to go in this day and age, and you’ll have to adjust reading habits to fit loaned books any way you can. Here’s a good one I’ve been using for about two years. It has changed the way I read dramatically, but most importantly in my appetite and drive to read. In my opinion when and how to take notes and such are more of a detail compared to that. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone that advocates taking notes tell how they actually used the notes they take. I can’t help but wonder if they really do that much. At any rate, at this point in my life I find things that I read that matter to me embed themselves in my memory in an unforgettable way. Things that don’t don’t, but I still retain certain important implicit understandings that can still be affirmed, denied, or corrected by further reading or life experiences. We can know very well even what we can’t recall in a discursive manner.

    Mary Carruthers taught that the medievals lived in a “memorial culture”, and we in a “documentary culture”. I often think we feel compelled to write many things down that will never be read just because we should. I tend to find that I don’t remember things for reasons, and what I remember clearly and what I remember less so, or at least differently, is very significant. I think the medievals were right that the memory is a component of the moral faculty, and I found out that it is best for me right now to ignore the demands to write indexes for all but a handful of books out of hundreds. Maybe five years from now it will be different, but I think there are stages to ones understanding and the first one is to get a lot of knowledge under your belt about the some really important things you care about and that fire your imagination. Lacking that I suppose not a lot else matters.

    Just my $.02.


  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Thanks, Roger. Very cool tip. I’ll look into the work by Dr. William Bates.


  4. Roger says:

    Hi Doug,

    I just happened to come accross this artile. Very useful tips, some of it I have already practised it and thus made a connection to your points.

    One thing I would like to note. Point #12, you mentioned without moving head while reading. I honestly thing this would result in a person becoming fatigue quickly as the neck muscles are locked and tensed. What I suggest is small movements to the neck to keep it loose. Also, blink frequently and always scan the words(as Doug suggested) while you read. Important also is to centralize which is paying most attention to the spot you’re looking at. Do not try to see everything at once by diffusing in attempt to read quickly. Breathe deeply and relax 🙂

    I’m concerned about this because tensed neck muscles contribute to forms of imperfect eyesight like myopia. If you like to know more, read about ophtalmologist Dr. William Bates who discovered the principles of natural vision and the cure for imperfect eyesight through holistic methods.

    All the best,


  5. Max Weismann says:

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


  6. Doug Geivett says:


    Maybe I should have encouraged readers to adopt only those recommendations that will be most useful to them.

    For all I know, you’re the only one to have read the complete list—and I guess I really don’t even know that.

    Alas . . .


  7. ^^int says:

    reading this list is like reading a short book. {chuckle}


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