I was once a child who spent several hours a day curled up in a chair tearing through books from start to finish. I checked stacks taller than I was out of the library at a time, and almost always finished them all. But like many once-avid readers, when I hit high school, the demands of my English classes became a priority. In college, I got bogged down with hundreds of pages of academic articles a week. Even when I had time off, I couldn’t concentrate on novels for long, only ever getting 40 or 50 pages into a new book before putting it aside. As the end of college approached, I feared that I would never again enjoy reading the way I had as a child.
Fortunately and unfortunately, the end of my undergraduate career coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the advent of quarantine. This was horrible in almost all respects but one: I learned how to love reading again. I had tons of free time, not much to do, and a heap of books to get through.
At first, I struggled to focus on books the way I had as a child. But I kept at it, and eventually, I found myself able to read longer and longer chunks at a time without pausing to check my phone. Even better, the act of reading felt once more like a wonderful pleasure instead of a chore I was enduring in the name of self-improvement.
These days, I’m taking some time every morning to read something completely for fun, and it’s making me much happier. Since I’ve broken through the barriers of academic fatigue and probable-but-undiagnosed ADHD to learn to love reading again, I’m here to tell you how to do it, too.
1. Be bored
I got back into reading this spring because I’m not allowed to leave the house. The only time I read multiple books for pleasure during college was the summer I worked full time in a museum that attracted few visitors. Looking at my phone while I was sitting around doing nothing wasn’t allowed, but reading was. So I got through several books that summer because reading was the only activity I could do during the workday.
Maybe people who are more motivated than me don’t need to be forced into reading, but it’s definitely helpful for me to have nothing better to do. To that end, I also recommend drastically culling your social media feeds so that instead of an endless stream of content, you only see a handful of posts each day. Once there’s no point in continuously scrolling because you’ve already seen it all, a new book looks much more appealing.
2. Do other activities
I know: I just said it helps to have nothing better to do. But I’ve also found that when reading is just one way to occupy myself out of a bunch, while the country is still (mostly) shut down, it becomes more appealing. If I’m sitting in bed all day, inertia prevents me from starting a new activity. But if I go for a walk and then come back to my room, doing some reading feels like a logical way to continue being active, even if I’m not physically moving.
It doesn’t have to be a physical activity! Just something to structure your time. If I say to myself, “I’m going to do the dishes, and then I’m going to read another chapter, and then I’m going to paint something,” I’m more likely to sit down to read than if I just vaguely intend to. And if I end up reading more than one chapter, that’s perfectly fine.
Also, not everyone has endless free time right now. Your time might already be structured by work. I started reading novels for fun again while I was still finishing my university classes. Balancing out my coursework with some fun reading motivated me to get both done. If you’ve got fixed hours you have to be at work, pick a time in your day when you think you could get some reading done. It could be right when you come home (or clock off, if you’re working from home), a half hour before bed, or during your commute. Mentally set aside that time as reading time, but think of it as a treat, not another obligation. If you’re just too busy to get to it some days, don’t stress about it.
3. Read what you want
This might seem ridiculously obvious, but what I mean is: read stuff that genuinely brings you joy, not things that you think you ought to read. For years, I was daunted by my to-read list, mostly composed of classics my high school English classes didn’t cover or academic books I thought I might find marginally interesting.
There’s nothing wrong with that sort of reading, but if you’re really in a slump, don’t try to start there. One of the books I read this spring is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s definitely written for a younger audience, and it only took me a day and a half to finish, but I loved it. Plus, the satisfaction of finishing a book, even if it was a children’s book, motivated me to keep reading.
It doesn’t have to be “easy” reading, just as long as it’s something that legitimately brings you joy. Middlemarch is one of my friend’s favorite books, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Just pick something you think you’ll enjoy, regardless of the reputation attached. Once you build up a habit of reading for pleasure, you can tackle all those books you feel like you should have read years ago.
4. Set goals
I try to give myself some kind of daily goal. It varies based on what I’m reading; sometimes it’s 20 pages a day for something I’m taking more time with, sometimes it’s multiple chapters. This is especially helpful for books with long chapters, because I don’t always have the concentration to read a whole chapter in one sitting, so instead I set a certain number of pages. Also, sometimes it’s more vague, like, “I’m going to finish this book by Friday,” so I might read 15 pages one day and 50 the next.
I also ignore my own goals a lot, either by reading more than that, or by not reaching them. This isn’t homework! The point isn’t to read as fast as possible or force myself to get to a certain page count. You just want to do some reading and enjoy it. So if you planned to read 30 pages and only got through 20, don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s still a good chunk of reading. Just keep coming back to it every day.
5. Read different types of things
By this I mean different genres, different time periods, and different levels of difficulty. You might discover an author you like and be perfectly happy to read all their books in a row, but I do better with a good amount of variety. Again, I don’t mean you should force yourself to read something you don’t have any genuine interest in. I just fundamentally believe that variety in all things, whether books or music or films or food, makes for a better overall experience.
You also might discover something you love in a genre or era you assumed you wouldn’t enjoy. I generally prefer 20th century fiction over any other period, but when I followed through on a friend’s recommendation of Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, it immediately became one of my favorite books. I still don’t find most contemporary novels appealing, but I’m not going to write them all off.
Switching difficulties can also help you build up to something challenging and avoid burnout. I read a couple murder mysteries — I recommend Sarah Caudwell and Dorothy Sayers for light but satisfying reading — to remember how to read more than five pages at a time before I attempted some academic nonfiction that I brought home from school. If you get through a challenging book, take a break with a lighter, quicker read next.
6. Have the next book lined up
I’ve been getting books from two sources: my bookshelf, which holds many unread books, and the Libby app. I highly recommend Libby if you’re not using it already. If you have a public library card, Libby will give you access to a library of eBooks and audiobooks that you can read or listen to with your phone, your laptop, or your eReader.
Everyone else with a library card is using Libby right now, so the wait times for holds are sometimes longer than usual. I’ve started planning what I’m going to read next well before I’ve finished the book I’m currently on. If it’s something I have a physical copy of, no problem. If it’s an eBook, I check to see if it’s readily available on Libby, or I place a hold sooner rather than later. I also sometimes read something just because I see it’s available now on Libby. Though a regular Libby loan lasts three weeks, “skip-the-line” loans on hot titles sometimes become available for shortened loan periods of seven days.
Even if I’m just reading books I have in my house, knowing what I’m going to read next means it easier to make progress. Instead of looking at my whole unread bookshelf and feeling hopeless, I just focus on the book I’m reading now, and the one I’ve picked next. As with my daily and weekly reading goals, I do not stick closely to this. If the book I thought I wanted to read next isn’t appealing by the time I get to it, I put it to the side and pick something else. Again, this isn’t homework, and it shouldn’t be a chore.
7. Talk to a friend
I’m greatly motivated by being around other people who are doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Being around others is generally not an option right now, but I’ve been able to get reading motivation remotely. When I’m facetiming my girlfriend and she says she’s going to go back to reading, I think, “Oh, hey, I have a book I could be reading too.” It’s especially good at getting me to stop pointlessly refreshing Twitter.
Maybe you aren’t in frequent contact with someone who talks about their reading, but maybe you could be. Getting and giving book recommendations has been a great way to keep in touch with friends I can’t see in person anymore. If you know someone who’s probably reading something, check in with them about it. Maybe it can become something you exchange notes about.
8. Go outside
I know not everyone has access to an outside that they’re allowed to be in right now. You might not be able to go sit on a blanket in the backyard like I’ve been doing. But if it’s at all possible, I recommend getting some fresh air, even if you’re sitting still instead of doing a physical activity. Sitting in the sun instead of my bedroom makes reading for long periods of time much more enjoyable.
Even if you can’t sit outside, try to find a place to read that isn’t your bed, just for a change of scenery, and to keep from getting sleepy. When it was too cold to sit outside, I spread out my blanket on the floor of my room and sat there like I was having a picnic, and it was surprisingly fun.
9. Stop listening to music
For years, I thought I concentrated better while listening to music. Then I spent a summer reading in a completely silent museum, and I found out that just wasn’t true. Now I almost always read in as quiet an environment as I can find, without plugging in my earbuds. Maybe this is just me, but if you’re having trouble staying focused with music, turn it off and see what happens.
A parting word
This list is deeply biased by my own experiences and preferences. I focused almost exclusively on novels, because that’s what I get the most joy out of, but there are plenty of other forms of reading material that might bring more joy to you. And I didn’t mention audiobooks because I can’t focus on them at all, but my editor, Peyton Thomas, has a few words to say in their favor:
Until last year, I was deeply in the, “I can’t get into audiobooks, no way, I could never focus on them” camp. Then I downloaded the Libby app and my life changed. Last year, the majority of my reading was audiobooks. This year, in quarantine, I’ve had more time to focus on good old-fashioned paperbacks, but audiobooks still make up about 40% of my reading.
Audiobooks, I think, aren’t mean to be experienced like books in print — that is, it’s a little hard to remain focused if you’re just lying on the couch and listening to one. But they are a godsend for when you’re running errands or riding the subway or driving a long distance.
These days, any time I have to cook or clean, I pop my headphones in and listen to an audiobook to make the chore more fun. I also love to put on an audiobook while I’m playing a video game like The Sims or Civ 5, where the pace of action is slow and there’s not a lot of text-based information on the screen. And when I hiked el Camino de Santiago last year, I listened to “A Little Life” on audiobook the whole time, because I am a Stanya Stanigahara.
One other inestimable advantage of audiobooks over regular type: having somebody read out loud to you. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography sounds far better in his rich, gravelly voice than it does on the plain page. If you haven’t heard Donna Tartt reading “True Grit” in her Southern twang, oh my God, you haven’t lived. And I’ve found that I like Sally Rooney’s work much more when it’s being read by Irish narrators who pick up the specific regional nuances of her sentences and slang.
If you’re curious about whether or not audiobooks will work for you, check one out on Libby and give it a try! You might be surprised!
I’ve described a kind of aggressive method of building momentum and jumping directly into a new book after finishing one. That’s because I find I’m happiest when I have a book I’m actively reading, and the longer I go without picking up a new book, the less I want to. But if that way of reading sounds unpleasant to you, by all means try something different. In the end, it’s all about figuring out what works for you.
But if you’re having trouble reading and you’re unhappy about that, try some or all of the things I’ve recommended. It is possible to love reading again. Trust me.