Commentary: Finding time to read is hard but here's how to get going again
Finding regular time for reading literature is not easy, especially right now. That’s why we need to read in fragments, say English lecturers.
OXFORD: Like many people, you may have resolved to read more in 2021 and spend less time on your screens.
And now you may be wondering how to find the time to do it, especially as COVID-19 restrictions remain, with different time constraints and anxieties pressing on us.
One solution is to go with shorter bursts of reading. Our Summer 2020 pop-up project, Ten-Minute Book Club, was a selection of ten excerpts from free literary texts, drawn from a wide range of writing in English globally.
We found that the top two things people responded to were the core idea of brevity – one of the most common terms in tweets about the project was “short” – and the quality and diversity of the literature.
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Our analytics showed that readers dipped in and out of the project over the 10-week span rather than regularly following along. One possible reason for this is that finding regular time for reading literature is not easy, especially right now.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, this article contains no advice about time management or habit-building. Instead, our five tips for reading are about fragments: Literature interrupted.
This is nothing new. It is sometimes easy to forget that the 19th-century novel developed by the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, which appear so dauntingly thick in book form, were first read in magazine instalments featuring a chapter or two at a time.
Brevity was a significant part of their original appeal.
DON’T START FROM ZERO
Begin positively by noticing how much you are already reading in your life without even thinking about it.
Even if you have not opened a book in over a year, remember that we are in an age of hyper-literacy and our days are saturated with words. You can harness this.
You probably flex your reading muscles all day long without giving yourself credit for it. Recognising that is a step towards choosing different content, if that’s what you want, or simply considering how you engage with the texts you already read (even if they’re often 280 characters or fewer).
QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY
Prioritise the quality of the attention you are paying to words. Reading well is the practice of noticing carefully and with an informed perspective – it’s not so much what you read as how you do it.
Throw away your inner “reading activity tracker” and enjoy curious and provocative engagements with whatever you’re reading, without worrying about racking up the literary miles.
This will also dispel that sense of guilt about not reading “enough” that can make reading seem like yet another chore, akin to “not getting enough exercise”.
In his introduction to Sudden Fiction International (1989), an anthology of very short stories or “flash fiction”, American novelist Charles Baxter made the point that the duration of our attention is not as important as its quality: “No-one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans.”
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LOSE TRACK OF TIME
As well as not keeping a count of books read, try to note how different the time spent reading feels. Many people assume that reading takes time, the very thing most of us lack.
Yet there is another, more subtle temporal element to reading that has more to do with the cognitive experience of the text itself.
Centuries can flash by in seconds and moments can roll out over aeons. Jia Tolentino captures this brilliantly in her characterisation of reading the work of Margaret Atwood: “Nothing was really happening, but I was riveted, and fearful, as if someone were showing me footage of a car crash one frame at a time”.
You can find pleasure in a few snatched moments of reading, and these are just as worthwhile for the immersive experience they bring through the encounter with language, images and ideas.
There is no ideal environment or place to read – just do it wherever you can and whenever you have some spare moments.
CONNECT AND TAKE CONTROL
Choose what you read and find ways to try texts out for yourself to help your search, rather than relying on recommendation sites. Such sites are usually not as objective as they claim.
For instance Goodreads, the social site where people can compile books they’ve read or would like to read, as well as find recommendations, is owned by book-selling behemoth Amazon.
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Recognise, too, the difference between buying a book and reading more. In her 2019 book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books, Leah Price emphasises that every reader finds the text through their own journey, in the conversations, forums and different devices that could have brought them to it.
Rita Felski too, in Uses of Literature, talks about the ways that texts need to connect with us and “make friends” – surviving history necessarily because they make connections with people again and again.
So, will you be reading more in 2021? Reader, you already are.
Alexandra Paddock is Lecturer in English and Assistant Senior Tutor at the University of Oxford. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.