October 9, 2009

Reading strategies for time-pressed grownups

One night over dinner, one of our friends confided that he had been reading A Tale of Two Cities since last spring. He is determined to slug his way through this classic and others he believes will be more meaningful to him as an adult. Keep in mind, this man has four young children and a demanding job that keeps him at the office much longer than he would like. I admire his tenacity, but another part of me feels nothing but compassion for him. As much as I like Dickens—how could he do that to himself? He deserves to read such works when he is not so tired. Heaven knows Dickens deserves to be read with a mind that’s ready and alert. Classics aren’t always that ponderous, but there are more nourishing reading options for time-pressed adults who want books to be part of their lives.

Here are four strategies for remaining well-read throughout a busy, responsible life.

1. Snack on non-fiction. Who says you have to read the whole book? You’ve been listening to your Mama too long if you think that’s a must. Here’s a good rule of thumb: fiction needs to be read entirely; non-fiction does not. When I review any book, I always read the whole thing. The rest of the time, I move through non-fiction books like I consume news, picking and choosing what I want from each book. I read the introduction and preface for context, followed by the table of contents and index. From that, I choose chapters to read based on the topics that sound most interesting. The number of books published today (fiction and non-fiction) is staggering. So many books, so little time. How many things can you find to be interested in and learn something about? Find ways to snack at the buffet. An interested person is an interesting person.

2. Read children’s literature. You probably think I am saying this because I’m a children’s librarian. Not so. I say it because children’s literature isn’t just for kids. And because children’s books are shorter. The average juvenile fiction book is roughly 250 pages. The market is broader than ever before, covering topics that are both meaningful and entertaining. Children’s books aren’t what they used to be—in a good way. Of course, not every book is for grownups. But you’ll be surprised how many books will resonate with you. I have been totally blown away by serious children’s books like Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli or Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate. Richard Peck makes me laugh out loud. (My husband, too.) I haven’t even begun to speak of picture books, which are now published as collaborations between the most brilliant artists and authors in the world. They are treats for the eyes, heart, and mind. Go to the new book section in the children’s department of your library. You’ll see what I mean. Once again, I say: it’s okay. No one will think you are a simpleton just because you are reading a children’s book. Besides, who cares what someone else thinks? Picture books and juvenile fiction can be just the right tonic for very weary people who really need what’s inside. I’m very, very serious about this. You just don’t know what you are missing.

3. Read poetry. The very word is an affront to some people. I sincerely hope and pray that some English teacher in your past hasn’t ruined this art form for you. Poetry is made for time-pressed people. A whole book in a few lines. What’s not to like? Don’t approach poetry like you did when you were in school. You don’t have to get every metaphor and simile to appreciate it and have it improve your life. Liberate yourself. What do you think the poem is about? Pick up a poetry collection. If you don’t like your first choice, keep searching. Spend some time with one poem every night. Make it part of an evening ritual when you are slowing down, taking time to reflect on your life. You might even decide to memorize a line or two.

4. Know when to put a book down. I belong to a book discussion group. What I love about reading with a group is exposure to unlikely or difficult books. I like learning from the insight other people bring. Being part of the group also pushes me to finish one way or another. Even so, I don’t hesitate to lay one down after I’ve given it a good effort. If it doesn’t grab me in the first 100 pages, it is a goner. Sometimes I decide that a book’s negative messages aren’t good for me. That’s my prerogative. It’s yours, too. On the other hand, some authors make it worthwhile to press beyond your threshold to the end. The journey is worth it. Set your limit and don’t let some arbitrary need to finish make reading a chore. Nothing good can come from that.

5. Include audio books. I don’t care who you are, if you’ve got a job, you’ve only got so much time to sit and read. Think of all the time you spend in traffic or running errands, frustrated and captive. You can recapture some of that time with audio books. My 45-minute commute to work two days a week is like a ride on a magic carpet when I’m listening to an audio book. If you’ve ever felt wistful about all the books you are missing because you are too busy to read, audio books can help you live more and read more.



For a beautiful little treatise on the pleasures and benefits of reading, try The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to Get More Books in Your Life and More Life from Your Books, by Steve Leveen, co-founder of Levenger, a catalog of gadgets for serious readers. This gem of a book is definitely not an infomercial. I keep several copies to give recent graduates as an inspiring reminder that learning isn’t over when school ends.

1 comment:

michela said...

Great tips!

I totally agree with your comments on kids books. We have a one-year-old boy so I've been reading the books that he might like to read when he's older. His Dark Materials (trilogy by Philip Pullman), The Graveyard Book (by Neil Gaiman) and Airman (Eoin Colfer) are great books for adults or kids/teenagers that I've read recently.

They're quick, easy to read and a lot of fun. I usually read them in between reading heavier, "literary" fiction or work-related non-fiction.