Filmmaker Max Joseph wants to read more than one book a year—he wants to read one a week. So he asked a few voracious readers for advice, in a 38-minute video that includes lengthy tours of European bookstores. Here’s some of the best advice for never-readers who want to start reading more books.
Don’t set an audacious goal, not at first. Set one that’s ridiculously easy to meet, as writer Eric Barker tells Joseph. Promise yourself you’ll read two pages a night, so that all you have to do is start reading, and you’re done in a couple of minutes. This keeps you from stalling out early on.
Once you’ve built the beginning habit, you can raise your goal. But the real habit you’re building is the act of starting to read. It’s less about reading in three-hour marathons, more about picking up a book more often.
Read something fun
Start with something easy and enjoyable. Don’t worry about “guilty pleasures” and do not feel beholden to the classics. Learning to read more is not the same as learning to read tougher books. You have to get good at the first before you can get good at the second. Don’t start with Moby-Dick unless that’s actually your thing. (But when you’re ready for it, Moby-Dick actually slaps as a long winter read.)
Some good starter books for adults who haven’t read in a while:
If you like Orphan Black, The Legend of Korra, The Hunger Games, and the new Star Wars movies, read The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, the first in a trilogy about a planet where earthquake-controlling wizards are feared and hated by the population, on a planet where climate events regularly destroy civilisation.
If you like the Decembrists, Wes Anderson, and Noah Baumbach, read Less by Andrew Sean Greer, a tragicomic novel about a middle-aged author going on a world tour to avoid his personal life.
If you like Monty Python, Harry Potter, and Guardians of the Galaxy, read one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy novels. Mort is about a young man taking over for the Grim Reaper. Wyrd Sisters is a Shakespeare parody where the witches are right. Small Gods is a gentle send-up of religion.
If you like Lady Bird, Six Feet Under, and Transparent, read family drama The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. There’s a chapter narrated by all the attendees at a bar mitzvah at once, and it’s a riot.
Read the memoir of someone you enjoy, like Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.
Read the books your favourite movies or shows were based on. Some particularly great original novels include The Handmaid’s Tale, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Magicians, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Or read the short graphic novel Coyote Doggirl by Bojack Horseman co-creator (and Tuca and Bertie creator) Lisa Hanawalt.
Read in every format
Read in any and every medium that you can enjoy. In Joseph’s video, “Wait But Why” blogger Tim Urban tells him to listen to audiobooks in the morning. Writer Eric Barker says he took all his social apps—even his email—off his phone, and replaced them with the Kindle app. If you really want to build the habit, try reading ebooks, print books, and audiobooks.
You don’t have to buy three editions of the same book. (You don’t have to buy any editions—most library systems will lend you audiobooks and ebooks right from your phone.) Get a few books in each format, and you’ll always have something ready whether your ears or eyes are free, and whether you’ve brought a paperback or just your phone.
Read with a partner
You don’t have to join a book club, but find one book to read with one friend. You don’t even have to schedule specific times to meet up and talk about the book—just bring it up when you see each other, or when you’ve both finished.
Having a like-minded person to discuss the book with will make the reading feel more social, and it’ll help you remember and process the book better. And if your friend get ahead, hopefully you’ll feel jealous and want to catch up.
If you live with a partner, don’t just read the same book, read it to each other. I read aloud with my wife each night as we go through our bathroom routines, carving out an extra 15 minutes of reading time each night. Any time one of us gets sick of a book, we quit it and try another—we always land on a good one after two or three tries.
It takes us a few weeks or months to get through a novel, so at the end of the year, we’ve read maybe 10 books together. It’s better than watching TV together, because if you want to comment on the book, you won’t be talking over the dialog.
Switch when you’re bored
Reading multiple books at once also keeps you from stalling out. If a book is boring you, just pick up another. That first book won’t disappear! It’s way better to find a book that engrosses you than to struggle through one difficult (or just bad) book and to give up on reading altogether.
Some people know how to quit a book as soon as they stop liking it. But many of us feel some sort of completist pressure to stick with every book we start, even when reading for pleasure. We struggle through stuff we don't actually like, and so we're less likely to pick up the book and more likely to pick up our phone. We start reading less.
This is also the best way to read a tough or long book. Moby-Dick took me a year, because I kept reading other books too, and it was great. I had time to process Moby-Dick and I never got sick of it, because I just switched to another book until I missed Ishmael.
Read what you’re in the mood for, and you’ll eventually find yourself back in that mood. This weekend, in the middle of a summer Sunday on the lawn in Prospect Park, I saw a raven overhead. Well, I saw some black bird. And I got nostalgic for the summers I spent reading fat mass-market paperbacks of A Game of Thrones and its sequels. I didn’t even realise: Every summer, I’m in the mood for a thick escapist fantasy novel. Any suggestions?