Reading is the cheapest journey you’ll ever be able to take. It’s an opportunity to visit cities you’ve never been to, try foods you’ve never heard of, and meet people you would never be able to meet otherwise. But like all travel, it can be daunting to undertake. It is a harder choice to go somewhere new than it is to stay at home, where things are familiar and easy.
Many of us used to take these trips all the time, as children. Unencumbered by anxiety or responsibilities or knowledge, we would pick up a book and instantly be transported somewhere else. It was easy to go and easy to return to those places again and again until the adventure was over, or until we tired of it.
But adulthood brings with it all sorts of excuses to stay home and avoid these excursions into fantastic worlds, both ordinary and otherworldly. It becomes difficult to reach for a story with all the noise of Real Life clamoring on the edges of our consciousness, threatening us with the spectre of “not enough time”.
Nevertheless, for those who wish to get back to it, I have five tips to make it easier to get back to traveling.
1. Audio books
Everyone is busy. Finding the time to get anything done can be a challenge. From obligations, to desires, to necessities, it can be difficult to fit it all in around the rush of chores and commutes and commitments.
There is an option for people who want to do two things at once; audio books leave your hands free. If you’re able to listen while you fold laundry, cook dinner, or drive to work, you have plenty of time that can be used to find out what happens next in any book of your choice.
For anyone who listens to podcasts, this is a great option. It’s just a matter of switching content, rather than form. This is not to say that you need never listen to a podcast again, but if you’re feeling starved for the experience of reading a book, you don’t have to rearrange your entire life to find a way to fit it in.
Even better, if you’re willing to read something a little bit older, plenty of people make use of works that are out of copyright to make audio books, and upload them for free on YouTube! Rather than signing up for a service like Audible right off the bat, try The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
or an Edgar Allen Poe story first.
Others, like me, might find the idea of someone reading to them grating. I grew up with my father reading me The Hobbit and Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, while I had a few Maurice Sendak stories on tape and an audio book of My Father’s Dragon I love my father’s reading voice best. I’m not willing to trade the experience in for anyone else. I’d rather hear the stories in my own head, than aloud in someone else’s voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of options.
Despite the fact that ebooks lack much of the tactile experience of book books, that doesn’t mean they must be dismissed entirely out of hand. If you’re trying to read something really thick, like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5000 years which clocks in at a whopping 700-odd pages, you might not want to carry it around in your bag on the off chance you find some time to read a few pages.
Likewise, on a crowded commuter train or bus, you don’t necessarily want to pull out a book of any size, wrestling with your bag, finding a comfortable position to hold it, worrying that you’ll poke someone around you with the corners, or, perhaps worst of all, fearing someone might read the cover of the book and judge you or attempt a conversation with you about it. It’s a minefield. Ebooks provide a clever way around those problems.
I read most of Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver on my tablet going to and from campus during my last semester at school. However, I also read bits and piece of it, and Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia on my phone when there wasn’t room to pull my tablet out, or I was running errands that didn’t require me to bring it along. Most ebook services, be they from Google, Amazon, Apple, or someone else, will let you sync your current page across devices, so you can pick up where you left off, regardless of which device you were reading on at the time.
3. Change your habits
Reading ebooks on you phone brings me to my most important point: don’t just change how you read, but what you read.
The average American spends approximately two hours a day on social media.1 That’s a lot of time. Most of the time you’re on social media, you’re reading something whether it is tweets, facebook statuses, or captions for cute cat pictures.
I’m not here to rail against social media. But if you put your ebook app next to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, whichever app is your vice of choice, you’ll be giving yourself the option to choose whether you want to look at pictures of a vacation you didn’t take, food you haven’t eaten, or people you haven’t spoken to, or whether you want to take a trip somewhere you’ve never been, eat food you’ve never encountered, or meet people you’d never be able to meet.
You don’t have to replace social media with books completely, even if you just spent half as long on social media, you’d be reading seven more hours a week than before. That’s a lot of reading.
4. Start small
Maybe seven hours won’t let you read all of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (600+ pages), you might not even be able to get through all of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency — but you can probably finish three stories from Raymond Carver’s collection, Cathedral.
It can be daunting to face down an entire book or novel when you’ve been out of the reading game for a while. But that’s why we have poetry, short stories, and essays. There are plenty of stories which will transport you which can be read in seven hours. You might try Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities which will take you to a new city with every page turn. Or you could read the short stories of Robert W. Chambers (which are in the public domain), or discover the absolute genius of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom which is only 100 pages.
Equally you could read the essays of James Baldwin, or enjoy the desolate road trip in Sasha West’s poetry collection Failure and I Bury the Body. The worlds of poetry and short fiction are sterling examples of the adage “Less is more.” They have the added benefit of helping you get used to traveling. It’s a weekend in New York City or New Hampshire, rather than a week long stay in Paris. Once you’ve whet your palate with the more manageable reading lengths, you’ll be ready to launch yourself headfirst back into novels, biographies, and history books.
5. Set goals
Everyone has a bit of a competitive streak in them. Maybe you have a friend you challenge to seemingly impossible tasks (like who can read the longest book), maybe you have a coworker whom you look up to because they seem to be able to do it all — and then some, or maybe you like to push yourself to achieve new markers of success. Not everyone is up for the quantification of their lives, but humans love to watch numbers increase.
With that in mind, maybe you set yourself a goal of how many pages you want to read a day, or how many books you want to read a month, or you have a list of “Great Books” you’d like to read before you die. But give yourself something to work towards, because sometimes, the most satisfying part of a reading experience, is finishing the book. As someone with a tendency to read political and economic theory, there are lots of books I read with the goal of finishing them. The experience is always entertaining and illuminating, but there are stretches where I find myself thinking “just 10 more pages to the next section, just 5 more pages, just 3 more…” and then I put the book down and go do something else, like watch TV or take a walk while the information percolates.
Personally, I set myself a goal of finishing 50 books by the end of the year. I decided to exclude graphic novels, but I’ve allowed myself to include poetry collections. I look at my list and I’m proud to say that with 33 books read I’m over halfway through, although I can still see myself sliding in under the wire on December 31st, to get to that sought after fifty.
What I like about my arbitrary numeric goal is that it leaves me free to read whatever I want. I’ve also let myself include books I started reading years ago, but never finished. At the same time, I’m pushing myself to read more fiction, rather than only theoretical nonfiction.
Your goals don’t have to be immediately clear. You’ll find that the more reading you do, the more motivated you are to do certain types of reading. The loveliest part of coming back to reading is remembering the joy of the process. With every book you read, you learn something new about yourself, and you are reminded of the places you’ve always wanted to go; literary fiction, historical fiction, geopolitical analysis, science fiction, historic essays.
So, take what you will from these little tidbits. Get back to reading, and give yourself the time to get away from Real Life. Go somewhere you’ve never been, eat something you’ve never heard of, meet some people who you’d never be able to meet otherwise.