I’ve always been a reader. When I was younger, I didn’t even have to think about it. I read anywhere, anytime. Over meals, during class, in the car, in the doctor’s office… you name it. I could read everywhere and it didn’t take me but seconds to sink into a book. If I only had ten minutes before an appointment, I could still manage to get deeply into the story. As I’ve aged, however, things have changed. Whether it’s due to natural aging, the distractions of adult life, or social media that has hacked and destroyed my attention span, I can no longer just drop into a chair and read. Well, I can, but I can’t get deeply into the story as quickly as I used to. Those ten minute snippets of time are now better served with magazine articles rather than books.
But this little problem infringed on my longer reading blocks, as well. It now takes me a solid fifteen to thirty minutes to fall deeply into a story. By then, my window for reading is almost up, or at least seriously depleted. Long, uninterrupted stretches of time are hard to come by these days. It got to the point where I thought, “Why even bother to read? I won’t be able to get into it before I have to move on, so why bother?”
As a result, I inadvertently deprived myself of a beloved hobby. I stopped reading “doorstopper books” and settled into too much bullet point-style non-fiction, or Bridget Jones-esque fiction. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those types of books. They have their place and I enjoy them. But they don’t make for a satisfying reading diet. At least for me.) Way to go, idiot. Depriving yourself of something just because it’s hard isn’t sensible.
So I set out to fix my little problem. How to get back to a place where I can quickly settle into a book and read deeply? I tried many different things, but creating rituals around my reading helped the most. For most of my life, my reading just happened. Anytime, anywhere, for as little or as long as I could manage. But, as with everything fun and satisfying like good sex, good sleep, and good meals, it turns out that reading is best served with time, attention and planning. That’s especially true as you get older and adult life drags on your free time.
When I was thinking about the best way to claw back my reading enjoyment, I remembered how my parents read to me as a child. Every evening we had what we called “Coke and Book.” This was a sacred time when a parent would sit down with me and we would read together. Everything about that time was ritualized.
We sat in the same place on the sofa, under the same light. I was always in my PJ’s. The book was chosen earlier in the day, or else it was one we’d already started. I was allowed a tiny bit of cheese (still my favorite snack, cholesterol be damned), and a tiny bit of Coke (soda, silly, not drugs). Since I wasn’t allowed soft drinks at any other time, the tiny sips of Coke as we read were a major thrill. This routine was so set in stone that even the babysitters had to follow it exactly.
(I still owe an apology to the poor sitter who insisted on sitting in the spot closest to the light, which was where I always sat. I did not take well to being booted out of “my” spot. Of course, I understand now that she wore glasses and needed the light to see, but at the time I hated her guts. Now that I wear glasses, I feel terrible about my behavior. But at six years old, I didn’t understand. Sorry!)
Anyway, the light came on in my brain. Perhaps creating rituals around my reading time was the answer to my problem. Take it back to my youth when reading was my world. Bingo! I would create an adult version of Coke and Book. Here’s how I did it:
Step one: Create a time for my focused, deep reading.
When I was a kid, reading time was 7PM every night and we stuck to it. Scheduling it made it happen. If we had simply said, “We’ll read sometime today,” we would have likely found other things to take its place. But scheduling it like a meal or an appointment made it happen.
Part of the problem with my adult reading time was that I was putting it after everything else. I only read when everything else was taken care of, or when I wasn’t distracted by something else. In practice, that meant I didn’t read because there is never a time when everything else is taken care of and there are no distractions. Work, chores, and nagging household projects are always there. Or there’s always another TV show or movie to watch. Always. If you ever want to do anything besides chores or flop on the couch and numb yourself with TV, you have to schedule it.
Now I set reading time as M-F from 7PM – 8PM. It’s a great time. Dinner is over and cleaned up, and I’m not yet too tired to stay awake. Instead of quitting, I often reach 8PM and decide to keep reading because I’m into the book and don’t want to stop.
Step two: Find a place for reading.
For Coke and Book, I always camped out on the same corner of the sofa. It was a comfy spot with the armrest to lean on, the end table nearby to hold my drink, and a nice lamp above me. It was also impossible to see the TV. If you sat in that spot on the sofa, reading was about the only thing you could do besides nap.
As an adult, I needed to find a similarly comfortable spot that would protect me from distractions. The living room sofa was out because the TV is right there and I didn’t want to rely on my poor self control. Fortunately, we have an old sofa in another room. (The dogs use it most of the time.) I just needed to rearrange some things to get a nice lamp and end table in there, and then add some comforts like throws and small pillows. With a little effort, I now have a nice reading nook just for me. (And the dogs.)
Step three: Choose a book ahead of time.
When I was a child, we always chose the book ahead of time. It was either one we’d already started, or I’d chosen earlier in the day and laid out on the sofa. If we finished a book one night, we often chose the next book that very night so that we wouldn’t waste time the next night. It was a great system. We didn’t waste valuable time hemming and hawing over books. We simply sat down and started reading.
Nowadays I can waste most of a reading block just choosing what to read. If I’m not already in the middle of a book, I can waste hours trawling my shelves (virtual and physical). Even if I’m in the middle of a book, it’s often tempting to start another because maybe my mood is different, or I think it will be better. Or it’s a new release and I don’t want to hear any spoilers. Too much of this is “reading without reading.”
Part of my ritual now is making sure I have the book picked out ahead of time. Either I commit to reading what I’ve already started, or I pick something new (earlier in the day) and stick to that. No wandering around (or clicking around on my e-reader) pondering what to read tonight. (For those using e-readers, it also helps to keep only one or two titles on there. Don’t load up your entire library or else you’ll spend the whole time going, “Ooh, I should read that. No, that. Oh, there’s that book I meant to read.” And so on for hours.
Step four: Come into the space with the proper drinks and snacks already prepared.
Before I sat down to read as a child, I already had the Coke poured and the cheese cut into cubes. There was no need to get up once I was comfortable and into the story. I do the same as an adult. I grab my drink and any food before I settle in. Nothing is more annoying than getting into a good book only to realize you’re thirsty and the beverage isn’t there. Even if you think you don’t want anything, it can’t hurt to at least bring a glass of water with you.
Step five: Leave all distractions at the proverbial door.
I mentioned above that the TV wasn’t watchable from from childhood reading space, and I made sure it wasn’t in my current space, either. I do not bring my phone into the reading room. This is critical because I will want to look something up or check an email and then spend the rest of my reading time on the phone. It stays out. My e-reader is a dedicated device, not a tablet. It has internet access, but the interface is so poor that it isn’t tempting.
If you can’t keep all distractions out of your space, make it difficult to engage with them. Unplug the TV, or stick the remote in a cabinet on the other side of the room. Turn your phone off and stick it in a drawer. If you have a real problem with your phone, invest in one of those safes that will lock your phone up for a pre-determined amount of time. Turn off the wifi if you can’t keep your hands off your computer. Keep the reading time for reading.
And you can laugh, but step six is to wear the proper clothing.
As a kid, I was always in my PJ’s, ready for bed. I was comfy. As an adult, I’ve found that I can’t read if I’m still dressed from the day. It’s like my brain is still thinking it’s work time or something. “Oh, I’m still dressed so I can quickly vacuum the house or go wash the car. Or handle that one work-related thing.” So now I take my bath and get into my PJ’s, or at least some comfy sweats. This signals my brain that the hard, mundane part of the day is over and it’s time to relax and do something for myself.
All of this combines to create a comforting, happy place and time for my reading. As a result, I now look forward to reading again and I’m reading much more often. I’m back to reading big books and enjoying them. I can follow the story and fully comprehend more complex books. “Coke and Book Redux” gave me back all that I lost.
I still read at odd times and in short bursts. You’ll still find me with a book at the lunch table, or in a doctor’s office. However, I now know that those bursts aren’t going to be satisfying so I save the “easy” books and magazines for those times. I save the big, important books for my ritual time and they are enjoy them all the more for it.
(Image courtesy of Anrita1705)