How to Be a Better Reader, With Librarian Margaret H. Willison

Photo: Micaela Heck/Elena Scotti
Photo: Micaela Heck/Elena Scotti

This week we’re learning how to be better readers with help from librarian and podcaster Margaret H. Willison. Listen to hear Margaret break down how we should rethink our definitions of what a being a “good” or “well-read” reader means, and the tactics we can use to improve our own reading game — from taking advantage of audiobooks to letting go of books that just aren’t grabbing us at the moment.

In addition to being a librarian, Margaret is a frequent guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and co-host of the podcast Appointment Television. She also co-authors the newsletter Two Bossy Dames.

After our conversation with Margaret, we get more tips from librarian Nancy Pearl on how to find a book you’ll love. Nancy is an award-winning librarian and can often be heard on NPR’s Morning Edition; she also hosts a monthly television show on the Seattle Channel called Book Lust with Nancy Pearl and is the author of the novel George & Lizzie.

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Highlights from this week’s episode

From the Margaret H. Willison Interview

On the benefits of audiobooks:

I would also encourage people to think of audiobooks as reading. I think a lot of people are like, oh, if I listen to a book, I haven’t read it. And they are different processing experiences, but neither one is more or less valid than the other. And I find audiobooks to be just like a much easier thing to fit into my schedule because I can clean my room and put on an audiobook. I can go for a walk with an audiobook. And so especially right now, when carving out time for yourself is so hard, that can be a really good way of finding new writers.

On a simple trick to kickstarting a better reading habit:

[I]t’s great to start with rereading because if you miss a sentence but you already know the story, you’re not having the same degraded experience of the narrative that you would have if it’s brand new to you. And then once you’ve built the habit, you can branch out and they’re always going to be some writers who are not really well suited to that.

On why you should give up if a book just isn’t grabbing you:

[I]f a thing is not working for you, also feel free to abandon it. You know, your experience of reading is subjective. It is a conversation between you and the book and saying, you know, I’ve tried Infinite Jest three times. I’ve not made it through yet. I’m still confident I’m going to read it someday. I just have to find the right time, the right mood to meet that book in its completion. And I haven’t yet. And if you keep forcing it with a book you’re not liking, it’s not fair to you, [and] it’s also not fair to the book. You think you’re doing the book a favour by not abandoning it. But if you’re not in the right headspace to enjoy it, you are hurting that book’s chances of getting its hooks into you in the future.

From the Nancy Pearl Interview

On the best way to quickly find a fast-paced, plot-driven novel:

[T]he way to find a fast-moving book is to go to a section like the regular fiction department of a bookstore or a library, or go to the mystery section and open up a book and see how much white space there is on the page. If there is a lot of white space on the page, what that means is that this book is going to move along really quickly because a lot of white space on the page indicates a lot of conversation. And when there’s a lot of conversation, everything moves along lickety-split.

On how to easily find a character-driven book:

If you’re looking for a character-driven book, there are two places that you could look for in the bookstore or the library. One of them is the fiction section. And in the fiction section, look for books in which the title is the name of characters or the title is descriptive of characters. For example, my novel, George & Lizzie, is very character-driven…I called the book George & Lizzie to alert people to the fact that it was a character-driven book. Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy is another really good example of character-driven novel. Ruth Doen MacDougall’s novel, The Cheerleader, is a wonderful character-driven novel. So what you’re looking for is books that describe characters and that will help you find a character-driven novel. Another place to look for character-driven books, although not novels, is to look in the memoir section or the biography section. Those books are by definition about characters, about people.

For more tips on how to improve your reading habit and how to find books you’ll love, we recommend listening to the full episode!

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Episode Transcript

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