How to read in 2018

So many great books.
The screen is an easier choice than the book. (Old photo of a friend’s apartment, circa 2012.)

The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.

We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.

And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.

Here are some things that have been working for me lately.

Read these online tips to read offline

(The irony! It is not lost on me.)

  • Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
  • Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
  • Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
  • Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
  • Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).

I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.

Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.

How to read a book

133/365If you own the book, bracket thought-provoking or beautiful passages with your favorite Japanese pen. Write the page number of the passage on the last blank page of the book, in a column, for future reference. You will then be able to pluck the book from your shelves during a dinner party and annoy/bore your guests with the passage when you judiciously drop it into conversation.

If you are borrowing the book, flag thought-provoking or beautiful passages with those plasticky flags you hoarded and then stole from your old job. Record the quotes in your Google doc before you have to return it to the library or to your friend, and remove all the flags.

Remove the dust jacket of all hardback books and neatly, gently slide it into your nightstand, lest you forget it. Forget about this dust jacket when you re-shelve the book.

If you are sitting down for a heavy reading session of multiple books, read 20 pages at a time from each book. Arrange the books in a stack next to you by alternating genres (fiction, nonfiction, fiction, nonfiction), lest your stamina begins to flag. This alternating pattern will hold your interest for some time, until a fatal interruption arrives.

If other humans are not home, read aloud from fussy passages. Sometimes, if you are feeling very bold, you will read with accents, preferably a stilted approximation of high-class British (think: Woolf’s watery, unbearably snooty dialect) or a very poor French accent.

Use bookmarks that are composed of a sturdy cardstock. Receipts and other thin tissue-like papers simply will not do. Bookmarks are often cast-offs from calligraphy projects gone wrong, and sometimes they contain obscene statements you have written on them in the throes of a bad job. Never use the bookmark to take notes, because it will be used with other books in its short lifetime, and these notes will be a distraction to you.

Always peep at the author photo and make a judgment about the author’s personality based on looking at this photo for four or five seconds. Judge especially harshly modern authors who elect to have their photos in black and white and who are making a particularly hard, erudite scowl at the camera.

Write down words you don’t know in your Moleskine notebook. Look them up later. If you look them up now on your phone, you will never go back to your book; you will get sucked into an Instagram sinkhole and never emerge.

Always read with a pen nearby. If you do not have one nearby, you will invariably need one, according to the laws of nature, and have to get up and go stomping around the house to find one, which will disrupt your flow in such a way that you may never sit down again for the rest of the day.

It is best to read by a window during the day and to not use a lamp. Read until the light goes dim in the sky. Then, you may sit in the faded blue chair under the lamp and cross your legs on the faded blue ottoman covered with faux fur and wait for Eden to bring you a slimy ball. She will endeavor to drop it right in your lap and smear the pages with drool. She will not rest until you engage her. She hates it when you read.

Never read the foreword. The only instance in which it is appropriate to read a foreword is if it is written by a famous author you already love and trust, like Eudora Welty or Guy Davenport or Annie Proulx. Otherwise, you will find the foreword irritating and if it is bad, it will color your opinions for the rest of your time with the book.

You will only be able to read for about 10 minutes on your side before falling asleep in your bed. If you must read in bed, you must prop pillows up on the headboard and read sitting up, with the book on your knees. In this posture, you may read for hours on end. You will always want to read at least five pages of some book after having sex. If you do not have a book nearby after sex, you will have to go find one, and this will ruin the pleasant mood.

Avoid reading books with ugly design. Never ever read a mass-market paperback, not even if it’s the only book on a six-hour flight. Never ever read a book with a cover that shows the actors in the film adaptation. Never ever read a book that has tiny margins or Times New Roman as the primary typeface.

Stop writing things in books. You will be embarrassed by the old books you have that are filled with your high-school-era marginalia, because your husband will confront you with them when he finally gets around to reading that classic novel, and he will poke fun at you, in a loving way, but you are still embarrassed because you thought you were rather clever at the time and now you realize that you were just a moony teen with too much time on her hands and this will shatter your sense of self in a way that feels uncomfortable right after dinner.