How to Get Better at Reading

This is going to be embarrassing. Over the last year, I forgot how to read. Every time I picked up a book, well, I couldn’t actually connect with the words, pages, paragraphs. The novels and memoirs that I normally loved became cumbersome strangers. Perhaps it was the books I was reading, I can hear you saying, but it wasn’t the quality of my selections. From fun reads to intellectually stimulating journeys, I was trying to read works by talented authors.

There is a line in one of J.D. Salinger’s short story, For Esme:–with Love and Squalor, that reminds me of this predicament:

“He was seated on a folding wooden chair at a small, messy-looking writing table, with a paperback overseas novel open before him, which he was having great trouble reading. The trouble lay with him, not the novel.”

Ever since I read this line almost eight years ago, it stuck out to me because it showed that the problem with reading is often not the book; it’s the state of the mind of the person. Perhaps books can also read people. As a journalist, a graduate with an MFA in creative writing, and a published author, I was just not enjoying reading. Everything I read felt like work.

So, what was wrong with me?

Perhaps I can blame this on just being tired. After working all day, reading and reading and writing and writing and strategizing and strategizing, it was easy to surmise that I just didn’t have the mental strength to come home and read for enjoyment. But I heard on a podcast that the mind shouldn’t be thought of as a muscle that becomes fatigued and needs a rest; it’s more of computer that is always on and can never be turned off … it just needs, well, a variety of inputs.

What else was strange about my disinterest in reading was that I was crushing Audible books. Over the last two to three years, I have noticed that the amount of books I consumed in an audio format was beginning to exponentially surpass (I’ve decided I’m pro split infinitive 😉) the amount of physical or digital books that I was reading. I started to wonder if I just preferred the audio format of books now, and that my tastes had simply evolved. Homer was meant to be spoken rather than read after all.

I asked myself: Why was I enjoying the audio books more than the physical artifact, which I collect and love so much? What changed?

I couldn’t understand it. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. Perhaps my capabilities as a reader were just simply diminishing. Perhaps I was actually just dumber than I was before. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore.

Then it hit me like a ton of books.

When I listen to audiobooks, I play the books at a speed that is 1.75 times faster than the original speed. Technology is amazing, and Audible cuts the spaces in between words so that I can consume my books faster. There were times when I would listen to the audiobooks in my car on a walk in my neighborhood in South Park, and I would realize that I just completely tuned out. I didn’t remember what I had just read, but I didn’t care and still enjoyed the experience.

If this same phenomenon, a sort of literally hypnosis, happened when I was reading a physical book, then I would have reread the paragraph or sentence or section until I was sure I consumed and comprehended the material. When I read a physical book, I stopped tuning out and sinking into the material. It was sort of like listening to someone speak and asking them to repeat the last sentence they just said because I couldn’t understand it. No one wants to talk to that person.

I didn’t used to read this way. I used to be able to consume books, to become lost in their worlds, and to see reading as leisure and not drudgery. How did this happen?

Well, it’s probably years of school. Years of analysis. Years of critical thinking. Years of trying to deconstruct works of literature to figure out how to put them back together.

I had to stop. I had to learn to read again.

Now, I’m reading books the way I listen to them. I’m not worrying about every word, every sentence. I’m trying to leave this world and enter the one created by the author.

I’ve heard similar problems from many of my friends. They say it’s hard for them to read when they come home from work, but they have no problem watching Netflix. And I’m not judging. But I think many people in my generation and younger are falling victim to an education system, a community, a culture, that demands we interpret books rather than experience them.