How To Cultivate the Reading Habit
September 7, 2008 7 Comments
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.
- 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.
- Understand that you don’t have to read everything on your list to benefit from the reading habit.
- 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.
- Select several books to have on hand to read at the same time.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on your pre-reading, decide which books deserve to be read more closely.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Write out questions that come to mind—questions stimulated by what you’re reading. Interrogate the author. (Or, if you prefer, have a “conversation.”)
- Draw simple charts to show relationships that have been describe.
- Create your own index to the book, using the back endpages. Index key terms and concepts. If necessary, invent names for concepts.
- 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.
- Keep track of the structure and progression of the book.
- 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.
- 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.