How many books do you read in a year? Who’s your favorite author, and why? When was the last time you truly got lost in a good read?
Only about 18% of the adults in the United States read more than one book a year for pleasure. As authors we have to sit up and say, “Yikes!” However, as humans, we also need to acknowledge that our “market” is pounded constantly for time. People are busy with work and personal obligations, social commitments, and even a dizzying array of entertainments. The quiet book on a shelf doesn’t exactly shout out for reading time.
But for us lucky ones, those who love the book, we know several good reasons to read. And topping the list for us is simply that to write better we need to constantly aspire to read better.
Last week, I picked up a copy of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book, originally published in 1940, is still found in local book stores, selling well. And no wonder. Adler and Van Doren conduct a thoughtful exploration of reading from multiple perspectives and different levels. This isn’t the only good book on reading, but, as once critic said, it “has become a rare phenomenon, a living classic.” If you get a chance, try to add “How to Read a Book” to your reading list.
After poking around "How to Read a Book," I started researching other books, blog posts, and articles on reading. Here are three tips I hope will help you both to become a better reader and a better writer:
One - READ MORE
Well duh. Like eat more veggies and lose more weight, we writers know it’s important to read as much as possible. The question becomes not whether to do so, but how. Here are some suggestions:
- Keep an on-going book list – so you never run out of materials. Some people even set up a separate email account to send reading ideas to themselves, and follow-up emails with reviews and notes.
- Keep reading handy – Have a book, anthology, magazine, or other reading material strategically lodged in those places you naturally gravitate to perch – your car, your favorite chair, the bathroom, etc.
- Plan reading times – sometimes finding time is a matter of thinking ahead. Do you rush back to work from lunch and find you’ve only been gone 15 minutes? Maybe you can use that extra time for a good reading break. The twenty minutes before falling asleep at night, or turning on your light when the alarm goes off so you can wake comfortably with a good book are also good. If you look for time, you’ll find it.
- Make reading a habit – Once you make reading fun, you’ll be inspired to return to it over and over. Keep track for a week of times you otherwise “waste” when you could be reading, and then change that habit for a reading one.
Two – MAKE YOUR BOOKS YOUR OWN
Adler and Van Doren encourage readers to jot down notes and questions in margins, underline unfamiliar words, mark in the margins great turns of phrase or quotations, and outline the book you’re reading in the couple of blank pages at the front or back of those books you buy. I have a hard time with “outlining fiction,” but if you glance through any Cliff notes, you can see ideas for how this might be done.
One RMFW author was talking at her book signing, and mentioned that when her editor/agent suggested she write a mystery she went out, bought more than a dozen mysteries, and outlined them. She didn’t run to the “how to write a mystery” section of the bookstore. She read the genre she was interested in writing. She made those books her own.
Three – READ AT NEW LEVELS
“How to Read a Book” talks about how most of us read at an elementary level. This isn’t to be insulting, but accurate. If you’re like me, perhaps you too read at this level. Word. By. Word. Page one to “the end.” And if you’re as slow a reader as I, then becoming frustrated with reading more is understandable. But here are some other levels of reading to consider:
- Inspectional Reading – This is essentially skimming through an entire book, no matter the length, in a small set amount of time. Check the title, categorize the book, read the blurbs that so many of us struggle to write, and dive in here and there to get a complete feel for the book, before wasting time on something you don’t enjoy.
- Analytical Reading – This is probably done the second or third time you quickly read a book. Start arguing with the author, ask questions (in the margins) and classify the book in several ways. This is active reading to help you remember more, and enjoy the experience at a deeper level.
- Syntopical Reading -- This is an expression developed by the authors to say that sometimes you need to read multiple books and sources on a single question, and that when you do this, your expertise is more highly developed. As a mystery writer, for example, I wouldn’t want to read only Agatha Christie, but I need to delve into several authors in order to create my own concept of what a good mystery is all about.
In the past couple of weeks I have to admit that I’ve been indulging in Netflix reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.” In one episode, an aspiring writer asks Jessica Fletcher how he can become a better writer. Without hesitation she answers, “Read, read, read!”
I hope you’ll share your own reading tips in the comments below. Meanwhile, “Hound of the Baskervilles” is calling.