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How to be better at reading in a world of distractions
We all need a break from life, but focusing can be hard. Here are tips to love books again.
Feeling distracted? Get into a good book this summer.
Feeling distracted? Get into a good book this summer. [ COLLEEN E. HAYES/NETFLIX ]
Published Jun. 1

The following first appeared in Stephinitely, a weekly newsletter from columnist Stephanie Hayes featuring a bonus column and behind-the-scenes chatter. To get it in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.

Mental escapism has never felt more necessary than in these unrelenting, punishing news days. It’s easy to turn to a reality dating show in which humans participate in animal mating rituals (that’s, uh, real). But I humbly offer another suggestion.

This summer, how about reading? Pages of words glued together? Or Kindled together? Books! I’ve always been a reader, but my relationship with books has ebbed and flowed with the caseloads of life. I’ve had voracious pleasure reading years and thin, nearly nonexistent pleasure reading years.

I reconnected with books in a major way at the start of the pandemic. Free time was abundant without a social calendar, but more acutely, my schedule had been disrupted. With extra time in the mornings and afternoons, I found myself cracking spines, developing a habit like exercise, like brushing teeth, like... checking Twitter and devolving into despair.

Here are tips that helped me. I’d love to hear what works for you! I’ll share replies in an upcoming newsletter.

Don’t worry about speed.

I know people who read a book a week, sometimes more. On average, I’m reading two books a month. Maybe two a month sounds lofty to you. Maybe it takes you months to read one book. That’s fine! Let’s normalize reading at individual paces. There are no rules here, and once reading takes on a punishing, deadline-oriented feeling, the joy seeps away. So much happens on deadline, from work to bills to making time to watch the jungle sex show. Give yourself a break.

Embrace chapters and line breaks.

One of my favorite literary features is, put elegantly, A CHUNK. Short chapters, breaks within chapters, white space aplenty. It offers a mental cue to read one more, then maybe just one more. Before you know it, the book is gone. A chapter with no breaths feels like watching one of the lesser “Star Wars” movies in which two robed characters talk while making infinite strides down hallways.

Read in the morning.

This might not work for everyone, but my brain is more brain-like earlier in the day. If I recline in bed and open a book, it’s as if someone hit me with a two-by-four. Heaven is a weekend morning with lots of coffee, a good read and nowhere to be.

Read what you want.

Literally, no one cares. You do not have to impress anyone. My taste runs toward contemporary literature, but sometimes I just want a celebrity memoir (hey, Jessica Simpson), or a beach read that involves making out in a hot tub. Follow your bliss to the hot tub!

Let it go.

I struggle with this. Once I have started a book, I feel guilty casting it aside. It’s hard to write a book, and I want authors to sense my camaraderie when they feel their noses itching. But life is too fleeting to stay twisted up in a story that’s doing nothing for you. Stick it in the little free library where it will find a better suitor, a Mr. Darcy all its own.

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Know this can be a cheap hobby.

This is important in these days of 300% upcharges for, you know, air. I buy books when possible to support authors. But we still, in our limping societies, have places called libraries. Community book boxes are a treasure trove. Or share with friends! Lastly, don’t sleep on the dollar store. Books there are “remainders” that didn’t sell at other stores, or overstock. Think about it like a top at TJ Maxx. You love a top at TJ Maxx!

Find a low-key book club to challenge you.

Now, I’m going to throw my book club under the bus briefly, but it has a happy ending. Our host (hi, Ellen!) picked “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. It is a tale of generational trauma, abuse and racism. It’s heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s also 800 pages. Our monthly meeting dragged into two months, possibly three? I am grateful I read this and not sure I would have had the courage to pick it up had someone not pushed me. But, uh, I’m also glad the book club was chill enough to reschedule.

Listen.

Say it with me: Audiobooks are books! Everyone learns and processes differently, and if Audible works for you, lean into it. Now that I’m commuting more, I’ve listened to seven audiobooks this year. I can only fully listen while driving or taking a walk. If I am sitting at home, I will reach for my phone or turn on the show about mating in the jungle. No one needs that.

BONUS CONTENT! I asked Times book editor Colette Bancroft for her tips. She is the expert, after all. She said:

Try a book in a genre you don’t usually read.

“I have a friend who told me for years she didn’t understand why I read all that crime fiction, because it’s no good. I gave her a Michael Connelly book, and she had a conversion experience and has since borrowed all of his books from me (not all at once).”

Try a book you loved in the past.

“It’s possible it won’t hold up, and you’ll wonder what the hell was wrong with your 18-year-old self when you thought it was so great, but it’s also possible it’s even better than you remembered.”

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