How to Be a Better Reader

If you want to be a better reader, you first need something to read. Already have a book at home you want to start with? Great. If not, let’s find one by asking yourself some questions:

  • Do you want to read for enjoyment or for knowledge?

  • Do you want to stretch yourself in some way?

  • Are you looking for escapism? (There’s nothing wrong with that!)

  • Do you want to be part of the cultural conversation around the current “it” book?

  • Are you curious about a book that has been atop the best-seller list for months?

However you answer these questions, find a book to focus on this week. You don’t need to buy one: Pluck a book from your shelves at home, borrow from a friend, download a book to your phone from participating libraries or simply swing by a Little Free Library on your way home to see what the reading fates have in store for you.

If you’re still not sure what you want to read, here are some other ways to figure it out:

  • Go to the “What Should I Read Next” website. When you type in the name of a book you enjoy, you’ll get a long list of titles you may also enjoy.

  • Check out “Literature Map,” which will give you suggestions based on your favorite author.

  • Ask a friend.

  • Follow famous readers online. Bill Gates, for example, writes a blog about what he’s reading and loving. On Facebook, Barack Obama frequently posts lists of books he has finished and found meaningful.

  • Head to the library. In the age of making online reservations and placing holds, libraries aren’t always a great place to look for new titles (although they’re fabulous places to browse books from years past). The librarians inside, however, are a terrific source of reading recommendations; the New York Public Library even offers dozens of online recommended reading lists. Don’t forget that if you’ve got an e-reader or smartphone, you can download books from participating libraries without leaving the house with the Overdrive app.

  • Find a bookstore. Booksellers are great at recommendations, both in person and online. Barnes & Noble curates a large number of recommendation lists, and the Canadian book chain Indigo features recommendations from its CEO.

  • Look at a “best book” list, such as The New York Times’s “100 Notable Books” of the year, which collects recommended titles from the previous year.

Want to be smarter? Read a book. In a 2013 study, researchers at Emory University discovered that reading creates new pathways in the brain — not just in the left temporal cortex, where language is processed, but also in areas that control physical movement. That’s what makes reading feel so real: If you’re reading about running, for example, you’re actually activating neurons associated with running. Think of it like the muscle memory you develop through exercise. As you read, your brain makes connections — and those connections remain (at least for a while) after you have finished reading a book. As Gregory Berns, the neuroscientist who headed the study, explained, “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

A good reading plan is a commitment to keep reading a part of your life. How you go about that will depend a lot on your personality, of course. (Only you know what your greatest challenges are: Finding time? Turning off the TV?)

A reading plan doesn’t have to include a schedule — although that’s helpful — but it should include a goal or promise to yourself that will keep you motivated. The more specific and detailed your reading goal is, the better your chances are of reaching it: Goal-setting has been linked to higher achievement.

“The only difference between a nonreader and a reader is that a reader has a plan for future reading and a nonreader does not.” ⁠— Donalyn Miller, author of “The Book Whisperer” and “Reading in the Wild”

Neuroscience shows that it helps to put your plan in writing. As Dr. Mark Murphy, who has authored several studies on goals, has said, “People who very vividly describe or picture their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goal.”

So how are you going to finish that book you picked yesterday? As you make your reading plan, consider these factors:

  • Set aside the time. Decide how much time you would like to devote to reading every day — a half-hour? an hour? — and then think about where you could carve out that time: on your commute, during your lunch break, in lieu of watching TV. If you think you simply don’t have the time to read, try reading instead of using social media this week. If you keep a calendar — digital or paper — schedule your reading time like you would anything else.

  • Allow yourself to quit a book. Nothing will derail you faster than books that don’t hold your interest. You could commit to reading 50 pages of a book before you make a decision. Or you could simply trust your gut: If you realize in a book’s opening pages that it is absolutely not right for you, then put it down and pick up another one, no guilt included.

  • Find a reading buddy. Some people find it easier to commit to a reading challenge when they have a friend doing the same thing. Others incorporate book-reading challenges into family time. (There’s a great Pizza Hut reading challenge for kids). Feel free to forward this challenge to a friend and have your friend read the same book alongside you.

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Commit to your plan for this book in writing. And then stick to it.

A reading plan can be for more than just one book; it can be for the rest of your life. Here are some worthy goals to consider:

  • Read a certain number of books — per week, per month or per year. You can do it on your own, or you can sign up for a reading challenge at Goodreads, Bookish, BookRiot, Popsugar or Reddit. (The nice thing about the Goodreads challenge is that it’s not tied to a Jan. 1 start date; it’s designed to begin at any point during the year.) Don’t be too ambitious: Start small, with manageable goals, and increase them slowly as you go along.

  • Commit to variety. You want to look forward to your reading time every day, so don’t make every book you pick up an intellectual challenge. Pick lighter titles some of the time, and mix fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Create a (semi) perfect reading environment. One important step on your road to reading better is to find or create an ideal reading environment. A great chair and good lighting come first, of course, but after that, you have to consider the mood-killers of reading. You know what your biggest distractions are, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you need to do to set yourself up for success. If the lure of your phone will tempt you, stash it where you can’t see it (and mute your notifications so that you can’t hear it, either). If you need to tune out chatter on your morning train or the drone of your roommate’s TV, consider noise-blocking headphones.

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

To read more deeply, to do the kind of reading that stimulates your imagination, the single most important thing to do is take your time. You can’t read deeply if you’re skimming. As the writer Zadie Smith has said, “When you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it.”

At a time when most of us read in superficial, bite-size chunks that prize quickness — texts, tweets, emails — it can be difficult to retrain your brain to read at an unhurried pace, but it is essential. In “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age,” David Mikics writes that “slow reading changes your mind the way exercise changes your body: A whole new world will open up, you will feel and act differently, because books will be more open and alive to you.”

To read deeply, make sure you set aside at least 15 minutes today to read your book and try this exercise:

  • Notice if you start to skim or skip sections. Then, backtrack. It can help to use your finger on the page to underline text as you go.

  • Keep a dictionary nearby. If you’re uncertain about the definition of any words, stop and look them up.

  • Actively reread. If something is confusing you, reread it. If it’s an especially knotty passage, try to read it aloud or express it in your own words. And if all else fails, mark the troublesome text in some way, whether you highlight it or affix a sticky note. It’s likely that you’ll find clarification later in the book, and this way you will be able to come back to it.

  • Use a highlighter (or sticky notes). Mark the passages of your book that resonate with you. Perhaps the ideas fascinate you, or perhaps you’re struck by the author’s language. When you finish the book, return to those pages to see if you still feel the same way.

  • Summarize. At the end of your reading session, sum up, in your own words, what you’ve just read. (There’s a reason your teacher asked you questions after every chapter in high school!)

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Reading makes you more empathetic. By immersing you in other cultures and helping you connect more deeply with the world around you, books give you “the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” as The Times explained in 2012. A cognitive scientist, Dr. Keith Oatley, told the paper, “Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

Teaching yourself to read critically is a skill you can learn, like any other. When you are reading deeply and critically, you will find yourself thinking more often about the book you’re reading. You’ll sharpen your deductive reasoning. You’ll tease out connections between different books, and you’ll discover parallels between books and current events. (And you’ll sound smarter at parties!)

Next time you read your book, try this:

  • Stop and ask yourself questions. Here are a few to try: “What is the author trying to say?” “What is the point of this chapter?” “Could the author have used better examples to buttress her argument here?” “What techniques is the author using to build so much suspense?”

  • Consider whether you agree with the book or disagree with it. Try to separate your personal beliefs and biases from the book. What questions do you have about what you’re reading? What issues is the book making you rethink or reconsider? Use a highlighter or sticky notes, scribble in the margins, or keep a digital list of queries. After you’ve finished the book, return to your questions.

  • Think about what makes good writing. It doesn’t matter what kind of book you’re reading — historical nonfiction, a classic, popular fiction. If you’re reading one of Lee Child’s thrillers, for example, take the time to note how carefully he choreographs his elaborate fight scenes, and ask yourself why they work so well.

Your current book could be fodder for your next great read. As you read, make notes to yourself about possible related reading. Maybe you’ll be inspired to read a biography of the novelist whose book you’re reading, or a nonfiction book about the time period in which the novel takes place. Or, if you’ve just finished an especially engaging nonfiction title, you might want to explore the topic further with other books or articles. You can get ideas by examining the author’s sources in the bibliography and notes. (Here’s a great Bill Gates video explaining his method for note-taking.)

Reading can help you unwind. A British study found that reading was a more effective stress-reliever than taking a walk, listening to music or drinking a cup of tea. (We said it was a British study!)

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

Variety is the spice of reading, right? (Or something like that.) There’s a great deal of debate over the “best” way to read a book, but there’s no conclusive scientific evidence about any of it. So mix things up. You could start by trying to read out loud, or by asking someone to read a chapter to you. (Studies show that when people read a passage and then take a test on the material, they do no better than people who have had the passage read to them.) Or you can try turning from print to audio or digital versions of the same story.

Being open to different formats will expand your reading possibilities. Having options means you’ll always have a book at your fingertips. Today, take a break from your current book format to try one of these options:

  • Use your cell phone for good. What’s the one thing you almost always have with you? Your phone. And today’s big screens have made it easier than ever to read books using one. So get a reading app — like Kindle or Overdrive — and download your book digitally. Now, when you’re stuck in the doctor’s office waiting room for an hour, or your bus is hopelessly mired in traffic, you can spend the time reading instead of skimming through social media. And remember: Using an e-reader or your phone can be easy on your wallet. Not only can you check out library books on them, you can also download thousands of classic public-domain books for free. (If you’ve got a tablet, download a reading app on that, too.)

  • Try an audiobook. The audio version of a book can be just as good as print, unless you’re multitasking. Then, writes Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, you’ll “get gist, not subtleties. Still,” he adds, “that’s no reason for print devotees to sniff. I can’t hold a book while I mop or commute. Print may be best for lingering over words or ideas, but audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none.” Don’t forget that you can download audiobooks for free at many libraries (or check out the CD versions).

  • Mix and match formats. Sync your devices: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with listening to a book for a few chapters and then reading it digitally for a while, or vice versa.

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Get an e-reader. If there’s one downside to printed books, it’s that they can be quite heavy, and sometimes — given how much we stuff in our bags — it can be hard to carry one all the time. But e-readers weigh only a few ounces, can contain hundreds of titles at a time, and are designed for the purpose of reading.

Considering buying a new e-book reader? Wirecutter recommends the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (10th generation). Here’s their review:

The Kindle Paperwhite’s great display, even lighting, waterproofing and affordable price, coupled with Amazon’s vast collection of reading material, make it the best device dedicated to reading.

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

Reading may be a solitary endeavor, but once we’re done with a book, most of us want to do the same thing: talk to other people about what we loved, what we hated, what we didn’t understand. No matter where you are in the book you are currently reading, today’s the day to find a place to talk about it.

There are many ways to do that:

  • Join an online book club. Unless you’re reading a currently popular book, it’s unlikely you’ll find a local in-person book club to discuss it. But that shouldn’t deter you. You’ll find literally thousands of book clubs on Goodreads, Facebook and other social media sites.

  • Find your author on social media. Stephen King, for example, often talks about what he’s reading and what he recommends on Twitter, and so do many other authors; many of them invite lively discussion of books. If you can, try to find the author of your book on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and see what type of conversation he or she is leading.

When you choose your next book, perhaps make the social part of reading a key part of your book pick:

Credit…Egle Zvirblyte

Your experience with a book doesn’t need to end when you get to the last page — in fact, in some ways it’s just beginning. Here are some simple steps you can take to stay engaged with books, authors and the subjects you’re learning about.

  • Start a reading journal or reading log. Seeing a list of what you have read will help you branch out. Some people keep a reading log for years.

  • Create a future book journal. When you hear about a book that interests you, jot down the title. Then you’ve got a place to search when you’re trying to decide what to read next.

  • Challenge yourself to read outside your comfort zone. Is there a genre you have avoided? Have you never picked up a graphic novel, for example, or a war diary? Investigate BookRiot’s “Read Harder” campaign, which will help you identify your weak spots.

  • Read for breadth — as widely as possible — but when you find a writer you love, binge his or her books.

You can dive even deeper into the reading community:

  • For even more reviews, criticism and discussion, visit literary websites — The Millions, Kirkus Review, BookRiot, Bookforum — and book blogs, from The New Yorker’s to The Guardian’s. Many authors also maintain websites and blogs, and some of them write quite frankly about the process of writing and the challenges they face. There are blogs for every kind of book fan: romance novel lovers, crime and mystery fans, historical novel buffs and many more.

  • Explore the world of book and author podcasts and radio shows. Listening to writers talk about or read from their works can add another layer to the books you’re reading. Some good shows include NPR’s Fresh Air, Lit Up, The New Yorker: Fiction, So Many Damn Books, The Guardian Books Podcast, The Maris Review, Asian American Writers’ Workshop Radio, Between the Covers, Book Fight, Literary Disco and, of course, The Book Review Podcast from The New York Times. You don’t need to stay current on a podcast, of course; you can simply search for interviews of authors you’re interested in.

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