People often claim to have no time to read, but that’s probably not true. The average American watches more than twenty hours of TV a week, and even busy people can usually tell you the plot lines of a few shows.
The time is there, but reading is a habit, and even if you want to read, it takes some strategizing in this distracted world to make the habit a reality in your life.
I’m saying this as someone who has recently had a major breakthrough on the reading front. I’ve always read some. I track my time, and from April 2015 to April 2016 I spent more than three hundred hours reading. That’s close to an hour a day. However, a lot of this was magazines. I can remember only a handful of books I picked up during that time that I didn’t have to read professionally, and I can count the number of novels on one hand—a particular disappointment because I’d like to write more fiction, and reading is the best way to figure out what works.
Then 2017 began. I read twenty-two books between January 1 and March 1. This included nonfiction such as A Room of One’s Own and Hillbilly Elegy, as well as novels including My Antonia, Siddhartha, and that creepy classic Picnic at Hanging Rock. I also indulged in some lighter modern fiction: Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, for instance, and Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner.
How did I suddenly read more novels in sixty days than I had in a year? My answers can help anyone who wants more and better literature in their lives.
First—and this is no small matter—some stages of life allow for more reading than others. When I did a time diary study a few years ago of 1001 days in the lives of women with big jobs who also have kids, I found that women with children under age 2 read for significantly less time than those with older children (they also exercised less and watched less TV—because they had less leisure time available!). My youngest just turned two and sure enough, the early morning wake-ups are getting better. This allows me to stay up later reading. My husband and I also decided to get some extra childcare for evenings and weekends. The main purpose was to allow us to take our older children to some of their practices and games without chasing little ones around the sidelines, but if my 7-year-old has three three-minute wrestling matches within a four-hour meet, that’s a lot of time for indulging in some Virginia Woolf.
But it’s not just that—I also installed the Kindle app on my phone. This was a game-changer. It quickly became clear to me that I had a bad habit of killing time by picking up my phone and scrolling through headlines after checking email. If I had a book going on the Kindle app, I was perfectly happy to check that instead of looking at social media. Little 5-10 minute chunks really do add up, and since I have my phone with me everywhere, the Kindle app turned wasted bits of time into reading time.
Next, I became much better about figuring out the answer to this question: What should I read next? (Incidentally, the title of an excellent podcast on book suggestions.) I hunted for recommendations in magazines and blogs and followed Amazon’s algorithm suggestions. I looked for other books by authors I’d remembered enjoying in the past. I also decided not to be cheap in the book-buying department. A paperback or e-book tends to cost less than what many people would spend on morning Starbucks and lunch out during the workday. I brew my own coffee and make my own food. If I buy two books a week, I still come out ahead.
Then, I made a discovery: The more good books I had in my queue, the more reading time I found. Any given day brings many decisions on how to spend time, and time turns out to be pretty elastic. The average social media consumer now spends 116 minutes per day on sites such as Facebook and YouTube, yet this category of time did not exist twenty-five years ago. Where did the time come from? It’s not really clear. All I know is that when there are things we want to do, we find the time somewhere. If you ever think you have no leisure time, try starting a binge-worthy TV series and you’ll magically discover extra hours. Or you can pick up a real page turner and discover the same thing. If I had a good book going, I’d read it instead of responding to emails on the train. Voilà: more time spent reading.
Finally, what gets measured gets done. I began keeping a list of books read, and found it immensely satisfying to fill in another row.
While other people might have different time and money constraints than me, versions of all of these strategies would work. If the budget’s too tight for buying books, the library is a great resource. Go once a week or two and load up on whatever looks good. Also, a lot of e-book versions of classics (that are in the public domain) are close to free. Since I work for myself, I have reasonable control of my time, but even traditional schedules tend to have space. If you spend a lot of time commuting, audio books can fill the time far more pleasantly than listening to the radio, and if your commute is long enough you can easily get through a book or two a week that way.
Then, if you’re like me, a funny thing will happen once you start reading regularly. You’ll remember that you really do like to read. Of course, it's always easier not to. Reading is “effortful fun,” not effortless fun like watching TV. It demands something of you. But it gives a lot of pleasure back, and when you’re reminded of that daily, it becomes a lot easier to keep going.
Photo Credit: Syd Wachs