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Our Reading Lives

How I’m Repairing My Reading Habits

Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

It’s 2014 now, and the air is heady with New Year Resolutions. I’m not big on New Year Resolutions, but I do think it’s useful to take dates like that, or your birthday, as chances to step back and examine your life. Post New Year’s, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time taking all my gears out, examining them, and putting them back together (this is a metaphor. I am not a robot. I am also a human like you. Do not feel the need to check or to alert your puny terrestrial authorities). It can be useful to examine what’s working and what isn’t and then try to figure out how to fix things.

One thing which sort of hadn’t been working was my reading life, but I didn’t quite realize it until I sat down to fiddle about and think about changing things. I thought I’d talk about what didn’t work and what changes I’ve made.


What Didn’t Work

My reading habits have always been a gigantic, erratic mess. I tended to read four or five books at once (and because I retain books pretty well, I’d occasionally pick up a book I set down months ago, open to an old bookmark, and resume reading). Sometimes it seemed like I was in the gradual process of reading or re-reading every book in the house, all at once. That might’ve been true. This was all messy, but fine, because it was working pretty well. I got through a lot of reading.

Gradually, though, it stopped working, until in 2013, it kind of collapsed. I have two boys, whom I’ve talked about before, and kids are pretty good at making all aspects of your life a gigantic, erratic mess. Suddenly, there was no room for reading to be the messy place. Now, it was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle on top of a pile of rubble. I’d have several books on the go, but some of them would fall out. I didn’t dislike them, I just couldn’t retain them all anymore in my head.

The other problem was that sometimes, I wasn’t paying attention to what order I was reading books in. I didn’t know that this was a problem ’til I began dismantling and analyzing my reading, this past week. Sometimes I’d read books a bit too similar in some way and get bogged down. When that happened, life’s distractions took over and I’d find myself going days or weeks without reading.

That’s what was busted. So what have I done about it?


Begin A To-Read-Next Shelf

My first, greatest new technique came about by accident. This happened because at the same time as Christmas gifted me with a small stack of books I was eager to read, I also received a package in the mail which was a ton of other books I wanted to read. I have no free shelf space…so this two-foot-tall stack sat on my desk and I began reading my way through it. I’m not reading them in order of the stack, but the stack is what I’ll get through before I move on.

It turns out I like having the next fifteen-ish books or so out, in a visible heap, waiting for me to get to them. For one thing, it focuses the vast expanses of my shelves into what I’m fairly sure I’m interested in next. For another thing, it’s an added little boost of energy and sense of accomplishment when not only do you read the last page of a book, but you make the stack a little bit shorter by choosing the next read. (My current plan is to try and get through the entire stack before I build the next one)


Read One Book At a Time

As I said above, I read lots of books at once. The point of this was so I always had books going for whatever mood I happened to be in when I sat down to read. Now, I’m reading a single book at a time. Even if I’m not completely enamored with it, I’m now not likely to forget about it and just wander off (which is messy and I don’t care for it). I’m trying to finish it, then move on. The focus is useful. I think it’s better. Now I’m bending whatever mood I’m in toward this singular book, and I’m finding it beneficial. It also means I finish books more often, and the little boost upon completion keeps my reading momentum going nicely.


Keep A Reading Journal

This isn’t actually new for me. I was intrigued when author Joe Hill talked about his reading journal he maintains, and I thought it would be fun idea. I expected it to last about five minutes, because as I said, I’m erratic and messy. I’ve had it for three-and-a-bit years now. I lost track of it in 2013, but refocused and regained it in 2014. It’s useful and fun to know how many books you’re reading and how long it’s taking you. It doesn’t really cause me to rush anymore than my GoodReads 2014 Goal does, but watching the log of books-read tick up is nice.

The pattern here is that all of these elements are about focus and momentum and that’s important. They are elements I really began appreciating when I took up running and they’re beneficial in most other aspects of my life.


Find The Hidden Reading Time

We’d all read more if only we had “more time” for it, right? Well, I won’t criticize anyone else for this excuse (it’s your life. You might really not have enough time. That’s fair enough.) but it was an excuse for me. There’s so much available reading time in the day, the trick is just freeing it up from other activities.

I don’t mean swearing off sleeping or blowing up your television set either, by the way. I just mean focusing a bit. Provide boundaries for tasks and pastimes and the margins in-between will present themselves as reading time. Also, weigh your activities. Do I get more benefit (and, equally as important, more pleasure) out of vegetating on the couch watching too many episodes of a TV show, or out of reading? Then read. Gone are the roaming trips through related youtube videos or endless articles that twitter offers me, or filling time re-watching movies and marathon-watching TV shows. Some of all of those things are fine, but by consciously keeping them in check, I’ve discovered so much extra time in my day. It’s wonderful.


Be Mindful of What You’re Reading Next

As I said before, I tend to get bogged down by picking certain books next and then I forget to read for awhile. I’ve started being very aware of what I’m reading next and trying to maintain variety and difference in density with some of the books. Maybe don’t follow up a massive, thick novel with a massive, thick biography of Charles Dickens, huh? I’ve done this consciously for six books now and it’s working like a charm.


Dig Up The Old Books


As I’ve talked about before (and will discuss more in February,) I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir and was

Since I was asked, and it was an obvious thing to have included, here's my To Read Pile, with the city of Gondor for scale. (the pile is now a number of books shorter)

Since I was asked, and it was an obvious thing to have included, here’s my To Read Pile, with the city of Gondor for scale. (the pile is now a number of books shorter)

nuts for it. It was an intense, exciting hard-science-fiction thrill of a book. When I finished it, some long-dormant science fictional centers in my brain had shuddered awake and I looked around my shelves and realized how much science fiction and older books I had simply forgotten about. This year, I’m excited to dust them off. I don’t know quite why I stopped reading the genre-fields of my youth, but I’m going to go explore them again. Re-read old books, discover new ones. Make a conscious effort to explore further afield than I have been. It’ll be fun, and that’s the key to all of this, after all.

So, these are my plans. They’re working so far. I’m very happy that I took apart my reading habits, dumped all the moving parts on the table, and have been slowly cleaning them and putting them back together. Everyone should do that once in awhile. Here’s a screwdriver and a mallet. Why not dismantle your own and see what gears fall out?




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