How to Read a Book

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Ries’ five tips on reading for pleasure.

I’ve been trying to read more lately. It’s harder than it feels like it should be.

Here’s the rub: I already love reading. The hard part is out of the way, as it were. I love bookstores almost more than I love reading itself; sometimes, when I’m stressed, I go stand around a collection of books just to unwind. It’s like the words come and work out the knots in my muscles via the air.

Yet, despite my love for (and obsession with collecting) books, actually sitting down and reading the little buggers often proves trickier than most folks would have you believe. In fact, I’d wager that there’s a Catch-22 here: the more you enjoy using your imagination (whether it be through watching movies, playing video games, painting, listening to or composing music) the more you have an innate love of reading, tucked away somewhere deep inside you. The problem is, the more ways you have at hand to entertain yourself, the easier it is to get distracted.

So – to recap – the more you are primed to love a good book, the harder it may be for you to sit down…and enjoy a good book. Oh what cruel gods are ours. Et cetera. I know plenty of people, in fact, who love a good story – who confide to me that “I can’t read,” or “I’m such a slow reader,” as if these things are somehow prohibitive of reading a book. I think one of the biggest mistakes we readers make is assuming that anybody who doesn’t read simply doesn’t want to.

So!

With all of this in mind, I’ve set out to untangle some of the knottier elements of reading a book that nobody ever actually tells you. Some of these may seem obvious, while others may not. Either way, here are some steps I’ve learned along my journey, assembled for you here in a neat list with corresponding paragraphs. Consider it a how-to manual for the soul. Without further ado; How To Read a Book.

1.     Decide that you’re going to read a book. We’re going to start with baby steps here, folks. This is a step that I can’t overstate. Seems silly to say that, but if you think about it, reading a book is a commitment. A commitment of energy, hours, attention and – you guessed it – money. If you want to read a book, make the conscious decision that you want to read a book – just like you make the conscious decision to go see a film in the theater that you’ve been waiting for since you saw that totally wicked trailer six months ago. Make reading a book a priority. Make it a task and treat it as such. (The fact that this “task” will eventually come to feel less like a task and more like binging television shows is a bit I’ll talk about later.)

Step one comes with a warning, too, for you would be readers: when you’re a rookie, beware the impulse buy. Impulse buying plagues us all. Actually, the more you come to love books, the worse it gets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at an airport, sleepily poking around through a Hudson’s Booksellers when a book cover caught my eye. I crack the cover, check the publication date and edition number (a strange little tradition) and read the first paragraph. If the first paragraph is strong, not buying the book on the spot is an exercise in self-control. For the novice reader, however, situations like this one present a trap, of sorts. Impulse buying a book because “Hey, this might be groovy!” is actually a pretty big gamble. Let me tell you why.

If you just buy a book on a whim, you haven’t committed to reading a book, let alone this book. What you’ve done instead is bought something without really knowing if its what you wanted. To illustrate my point here, it’s kind of like saying you want to become a wine connoisseur and then going to the grocery and dragging a boxed wine off the bargain shelf. Is that really the best use of your money? Is that experience going to set you up for success, make you want to keep going? There’s a higher likelihood the wine won’t taste great, and will make you sick.

To be clear: I’m not saying never buy a book on a whim if you’ve got some spending money burning a hole in your pocket and you’re in an airport on your way across the continent. I’m just saying: if you’re a novice reader, impulse buying can backfire – you may end up buying a book that you don’t like. Which leads me to point two:

2.     After you have decided to read a book, find a book you want to read. The trickiest – and simplest – step of this whole list is to find a book you actually want to read. Simple, because you probably already have an idea what you want to read about (Magic? Robots? Character drama in a lighthouse? Murder mystery? Sexy time with gag balls and nipple clamps?) but tricky, because you probably are a little shy about embracing your real taste…in part because you may not even truly know what your tastes are yet. Most people don’t know what they like to read because they haven’t done much reading. They might like the idea of murder mysteries, but in fact, put a murder mystery in front of them and they’re bored to tears. Maybe they don’t like the idea of fantasy, but once they start paging through Le Guin or Gaiman, they’re hooked.

The trick is to start somewhere you want to start. Do some research, find recommendations based off of books you know you like (everybody in a literate country has at least two books they can think of that they liked as a kid) and go from there. It’s okay to start with derivatives of what you know you like. As you read more, you’ll take more and more risks – and you’ll come to realize that even when you read a book you don’t particularly enjoy, you’ve added a part onto who you are as a person that deepens your character and strengthens your mind.

One of the dirty little secrets of reading is that for every “life changing” book you read, you’ll probably have three books that range from “decent” to “shit” on the experience spectrum. Sure, people who love reading can rattle off three or four or five books that they think are just the bee’s knees, but what they probably aren’t as likely to tell you is all the books they slogged through and gave away for free once they were finished. I guarantee, though, they’ve all got them. Ask a reader sometime for their top three least favorite books. They’ll have a list for that, too. I guarantee it.

This is important, because novice readers tend to believe that people who love reading, love reading because they have only read good books – or, more accurately, because “real readers understand” books in a way that’s simply outside the average person’s ability. There’s a real danger to this mindset.

Consider when John, who wants to start reading books, asks Jessica (who reads a lot of books) what some of her favorite books are, Jessica might say The Devil In The White City, The Lord of the Flies and The Mists of Avalon. Hot dog, John thinks, Jess has read a lot of books, surely one of these is a surefire way to get into this racket and see what the fuss is about. John then goes to try and read The Mists of Avalon and falls asleep every time he gets three paragraphs in. Eventually he gives up – and what’s worse is, he thinks he is unequipped to read because if he couldn’t handle a good book, then he’s just not cut out for reading.

This is false. I’d be willing to wager that what John doesn’t know is that Jessica could easily give him a list of books she read and hated that’s just as long as, if not longer than, the books she loved. A book John might love could easily be – and if he and Jessica didn’t share the same tastes, indeed likely would be – on the list of Jessica’s least favorite books.

The bad news is, you only find books you love by reading books you love, not by finding something to love in any given book you read. Therefore, purely by a numbers game, the more books you read, the longer the list of books you love will grow – and the more you read, the more you come to recognize authors, learn who inspired them, thereby discovering new authors, and so on and so forth.

The good news is, books aren’t locked boxes you have to go into blindly. When at the bookstore, grab two or three books, go take a seat somewhere with a hot cup of coffee or tea, and read the first page or two of each book. Get a feel for the writing, for the author. Split the book in half and read a paragraph out of context. (Yes, yes, I know, spoilers, yadda yadda, but if the entire book is hanging on a single paragraph for its effect you maaaay want to get a different book.) How does it feel? Has the author gotten lazy? It happens more often than I’d like to admit. Sometimes the prologue or opening page can be absolute fire, only to run out of steam after the book has grabbed your attention. Remember – books aren’t pre-written. Someone sat down and hammered this thing out, letter by letter. Odds are, the first page has been around the longest, and seen the most revision. Thus, the split the book rule. If you’re buying a book online, even if you elect not to purchase through them, Amazon offers a chance to read the sample of most books. I highly recommend you do so – it’ll give you an idea what you’re signing up for without dropping a dime.

3.     Once you’re about to pick your first book, make sure it’s not too long. So you’re at the bookstore or sitting at your computer and you’ve picked out three books. They all seem right you’re your alley, you’ve read the first page and/or the samples available. Which should you buy? Assuming all other qualities are the same, probably the shortest one. 

Important step here. Folks who read a lot of books didn’t come out of the womb reading a lot of books. They probably started reading young, and kept up with it as they grew older. Reading is like any other muscle or pastime – the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Going into the gym and trying to lift the heaviest weights without having worked out a day in your life doesn’t end well. Likewise, going into a bookstore and buying War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings because you want to read a book, by God, more likely than not is going to result in you having the mental equivalent of a pulled back muscle before the evening is out.

It’s okay to start small. In fact, it’s not just okay – I’d argue that some of the finest books out there are on the shorter side of the spectrum. Longer books tend to get unwieldy, in my experience, and are generally less consistent. Veteran readers tackle the books almost expecting them to be kind of clumsy. There are notable exceptions to this generalization (I’m thinking now of Susanne Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I consider to be the finest example of long-but-consistently-remarkable I’ve encountered to date) but as a rule, some of the heaviest punches come in the slenderest of packages. (Remember The Giver, by Lois Lowry?) A simple rule to go by: the bigger the book, the bigger the gamble. Like with poker, you want to start with ten-dollar buy ins at the local poker night before you try and make it big in Montenegro.

4.     Chart a course. So you’ve got your book. Hot damn. You did your research, you read the opening pages, you split the volume and checked a middle paragraph (some random conversation about the rains and how they didn’t come in time, so now the harvest will be late, really titillating stuff) and now you’ve got a friend in a bag/on its way in the mail.

Here’s the part where people panic. Buying a book is easy, after all. It’s the reading bit that’s hard – or at least, is the part we build up in our heads as being hard. So many things threaten reading – distractions, sleepiness, comfort levels (a big one), whether the book itself is boring as drying paint. Remember the part where I said to pick the shortest book of the three you were considering? Here’s where it starts to really matter.

The best way to read a book is to divide and conquer – but before we can do any conquering, we’ve got to divide the opposing force into manageable groups. We have to chart a course, as it were. Do this by flipping to the very back of the book (don’t peek at the ending) and check the page count. Let’s say your book is 317 pages, like the book I’m reading now. Especially if you’re a novice reader, and not somebody who reads because you’re a craven addict (which I guarantee you will happen to you, with multiple books, if you stick with this long enough), I recommend doing a bit of math here.

I usually start by rounding the page count either up or down to the nearest 50 pages, because 25s, 50s and 100s are easy numbers to work with. So for my 317 page book, I round down to 300. Here’s where I start to slide the page count scale, asking myself, if I read 50 pages a day, and there are 300 pages in a book, I can conquer this book in…6 days. What about 25 pages a day? 12 days? What about 10 pages a day? 30 days. (Thirty one, recalling that floating 17 pages we cut out of the rounded number.)

At ten pages a day, that’s one month to finish a book. New readers tend to shudder in horror at the notion of spending a month reading a book. Folks, spending a month reading a book is no different than spending a month watching a television series. Taking a month to read a three hundred page book is – honestly – a very nice pace. Which reminds me: a quick word about reading slowly.

In my opinion? Speed reading is the worst. Some people brag about how fast they can read a book – and while there are practical uses for this technique (like studying, for example) reading to relax and speed reading don’t really go together. Think about it. There’s no prize for reading a book fast. There’s no prize for reading at all, in fact, except for the joy of reading and the experience of the book itself. Why rob yourself of that? You can only read a book for the first time once. Why would you rush it? Would you watch a television show on fast forward?

Some might be asking – what if I’m nervous about even ten pages a day? Oh GOD what if I can’t even manage that? To you I say this: How about five pages?

You heard me. Five pages a day. I believe in you. I believe if you are twelve years of age or older, you can do it. I guarantee that you read more than five pages a day of stuff you have absolutely no interest in, or stuff you have only a cursory interest in. Think about how many Instagram posts you read, how many articles on Facebook, or news reports. That adds up to much, much more than five pages.

If you read five pages a day, and your book is 300 pages long, you’ll finish the book in two months – max. You’ll actually read the words, an action which a lot of veteran readers are guilty of foregoing, myself included. Reading slowly is a great art. Reading slowly means you’re taking the time to experience what the author took arguably months or even years to build. There’s nothing wrong with that – and in fact, it is the superior way to read.

5.     Divide and Conquer. So we’ve charted a course. How do we divide and conquer? More specifically, the concept of dividing is all well and dandy, but how do you know how many pages you can realistically expect to read a day? Luckily, this part is pretty straightforward.

On the first night you have your new book, sit down, set an alarm, and read for thirty minutes. Try not to get distracted. Don’t put on YouTube. Don’t put on the TV. Don’t thumb through social media feeds. Put your phone on the floor, and read. Don’t worry about page count. When the alarm goes off, see how far you made it.

However far you made it, double the page number. These two numbers make your “range goal” for your daily reading. So if you read three pages in thirty minutes, your range goal should be to read between three and six pages every day, come hell or high water. The more you read, the higher (and bigger) that window will grow. If you sit down and read for thirty minutes and you get through eight pages, for example, your goal should be between eight and sixteen pages a day. Divide the total page count by both your low and high numbers. You’ve now got a range of how long it will take you to finish your book – a range goal of 3:6 with a 300 page novel translates to a targeted finish of somewhere between 50 and 100 days until completion. Likewise, a range goal of eight to sixteen pages results in a targeted completion time of somewhere between 19 days and 38 days.

For someone like me, I tend to set my page counts a little higher because of how much I read in a thirty to forty-five minute setting. I aim for a minimum of twenty-five pages a day, but a maximum of fifty. At that rate, I’ll finish my 317 page book somewhere between six and thirteen days. Some people no doubt just gasped. Fifty pages a day?! Does he mean to imply he might read more than that if he doesn’t put a cap on himself? The arrogance! The gall!

Peace, my friends. I put a cap of fifty pages on myself because I recommend a cap for any veteran reader. If I (or anybody) reads too many pages in a single sitting, we run the risk of skimming, our brain getting lazy, our mind wandering, et cetera. I’d go so far as to argue that reading too many pages is worse than reading too few. The risk you run reading less than five pages a day is not getting to experience what I call the “contours of a story”. In short, when it comes to novels, authors can easily spend more than five pages setting up little narratives. Breaking apart those little narratives can lead to kind of a clunky experience. On the other hand, the more pages you churn through in a day, the higher the likelihood of you cheating. Not cheating at reading (there really isn’t any such thing) but cheating yourself out of a wholesome experience.

And that’s it. The next thing you do is stick to your goal. You read until you hit your window of acceptability – every day. The good thing is, if you can find thirty minutes or so to carve out of every day, you’ll always hit your window. Most people will actually find that they are able to read faster the longer they stick with it, due to a multitude of factors – interest in the story, confidence in ability, routine, whatever. As a rule, if you set a range for yourself (say, between eight and sixteen pages a day) and you find yourself reading at your cap (a full 16 pages) for more than three days straight, slide your range up in two page increments. The thing isn’t set in stone. It’s a gauge – a mile marker. It’s there to help you.

If you do this, you will finish a book. And once you’ve finished a book, the mystique of books goes right out the window. You will realize that yes – you can read. You’ll have an opinion on what you read. If you didn’t like it – you never have to read it or that author again. If you did like it – you can look for other books from that author, books that author enjoyed or recommended. Congratulations. You’re a reader, and you go wherever you want. Safe journeys. Have fun.

-R