In the preceding two sections of this Ramp Up Your Reading essay, More and Faster and Do It Better, we’ve seen how important priorities are to the reading life. Firstly in the matter of making reading itself a priority, and then when looking at your reading priorities themselves, as a way to focus what time you have available to its best possible use. Having the goal to simply read more is never enough to sustain the sort of passion necessary in a lifetime’s worth of reading, because it must never be about the mere running of one’s eyes over the page. Books offer a near infinite variety of experiences — what you the reader must decide is, which experiences are you after?
Specialists and Generalists
It seems simple enough to decide to just read what you like and be done with it. For those of us with full schedules, so precious is the little time we have for reading that the notion of actively searching for books on something other than our chosen interests seems itself a waste of time. In those situations I’d fully concur. But for those of us pushing the fifty books a year, or book-a-week, mark, challenging ourselves to step outside our comfort zones can be a great way to enrich our reading experience.
I’ve often wondered about the fundamentally different approaches of two broad camps of reader, the Specialists and the Generalists. Their habits and prejudices are obvious from the labels I’ve given them. Generalists seem interested in a lot of subjects, perhaps with a few they have a real passion for, and tend to read all over the map. They also tend to read more. Specialists overwhelmingly read one kind of thing. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the time, or because that one overwhelming passion of theirs is so much a part of their outlook and brain chemistry that they are disinterested in everything else, or, just maybe, it’s because they are comfortable.
Don’t be a comfortable Specialist.
My own opinion is that anyone who makes the effort to read up around the annual fifty book mark or more should not merely be rereading the same book every week. Baring the real need for a specialized program of study (and, I’d argue, even in such cases), the human imagination demands a variety of stimuli. Life is short, reading time is precious, and to spend it sliding through the same old reading ruts again and again is the equivalent of a bread and water — or perhaps in some cases a cotton candy and soda — diet for your brain.
Challenge Yourself — And Others
It is easy enough to pick up a book that looks interesting, or that is on a topic you have some tangential interest in, or is recommended by a friend. It is much harder to want to read something on a subject you know nothing about or an area you find distinctly challenging. But stretching yourself in such a way is exercise for your mind. The rewards are many and difficult to quantify: the satisfaction of accomplishment, the discovery of new interests, and the stimulation and cross-fertilization that comes from learning one more piece of the puzzle that is our existence. These things transcend mere entertainment and inform who we are as people at the most fundamental level — and they certainly go beyond merely being satisfied with one’s self for having read a lot, or retaining bits of cocktail party trivia to impress one’s friends.
So go ahead and issue a challenge — either to yourself or in tandem with a friend. I’ve recently created such a Five Book Challenge with a friend of mine, in which we each pick five books for the other to read over the course of the next year. Our intentions are to expose each other to books we may not normally have gotten to on our own, and to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the smoothly working cogs of one another’s complacency. It’s easy to avoid the sorts of things that demand more of your focus, concentration, and care over the course of a reading year — having a friend to act as witness and adviser is the sort of encouragement that helps you break out of the groove we all find ourselves stuck in from time to time.
But a personal challenge to one’s self is just as valid — though I find it works best if it is in an area in which you have some natural interests. Want to know more about a certain subject? Pick five or ten books on it and challenge yourself to read them over the course of a year. Pick a variety of books that explore the subject from different angles — perhaps a few novels, some journalism, an autobiography, some general history, a monograph, etc. — and set them physically aside where you can see them together. Inspect them, read the intros and the dust jacket flaps, dip into them here and there. Look at the shape of the whole project in your mind: it’s this framework you’ll be fleshing out over a year’s time. Reading in such a way, focusing on a subject over a finite period and thinking about it as a whole, is a great way to teach yourself something new.
Which book are you likely to remember more, the one you read and put back on the shelf, or the one you and your friends have all read and had the occasional conversation about? Talking about any subject is a great way to learn it — which is why teachers often benefit from lectures even more than their students — and writing can serve the same purpose. Just as the act of taking notes can aid the memory, the act of reviewing a book can aid in understanding.
Reading a book for review is a different process than reading it for pleasure (and the act of writing a good review is one I’ve touched on elsewhere but is, alas, to involved for the scope of this essay). It is a more active form of engagement with the text, and forces a more critical perspective on the reader. Whether the notes made are mental or physical, the act of planning the review and then putting it down on the page heightens the reviewer’s understanding and retention of the material. At the very least, reviewing a book forces the reader to pay attention and concentrate, but reviewing can also lead to whole new insights and levels of understanding. Any writer familiar with the phenomenon of ‘thinking with one’s fingers’ will recognize the truth of this.
There are numerous opportunities for book reviewers out there in the form of ezines, blogsites, and even print magazines. Whether you aim to shoot for one of those, or to create your own review site like those on John’s massive list of online book reviewers, the effort is worthwhile if you are serious about books and are looking for something to take your reading to the next level. A further benefit of online reviews is that they can function as conversation starters — bringing in the opinions and insights of readers from around the globe into a discussion of your book.
More and Better Reading
Deciding to get serious about reading, deciding that you want more, deciding you want to break away from complacency — these are things no article can persuade of a reader. Those who do want to ramp things up for themselves already know it in their bones, and knew it before they ever set eyes on this essay. But simply recognizing it is a different thing than taking that declarative leap into asserting it as a real priority in one’s life, and I hope if this article has served any purpose it has been to nudge a few readers further along the path of committed reading.
As for the particulars — the list keeping, the challenges, the goal setting — all of it is secondary to the passion. The fire is either there, or it isn’t. But fire can be stoked. Tending the flame, feeding it, and maybe letting it get a bit out-of-control at times is not for everyone — but for those of us that burn, we know full well there is no greater consumption than that which comes from a life of reading.
BILL WARD is a regular contributor to blogs such as BlackGate.com and Flash Fiction Chronicles. He is the review editor for Black Gate Magazine, and his own work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as science fiction and fantasy tabletop game publications. He maintains a blog on all things genre at www.billwardwriter.com