“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” — Fran Lebowitz
Writing is not the only thing I do. I have a non-profit consulting practice, a business and a band. To write and do all the other things well, I have to read well to keep the ideas fresh and bountiful. So the one constant in my daily life that binds this wide-ranging assortment of tasks is a book — a tangible, sometimes worn, usually brand-new tome or paperback I keep close to my person at all times.
It was not always this way. While I grew up loving Nancy Drew and the Sweet Valley Twins, Highs, and Sagas, there was a long hiatus in my reading journey when I graduated from high school. Sure, I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Stardust in my early 20s, but I was no longer reading as religiously as I did when I was much younger. I guess it was that precarious phase of self-discovery, of hopping from one job to another and ending up with jobs that were all-consuming that made my twenties too confusing for reading. In hindsight, if I had perhaps carved out more time for more books, that decade would have been much easier for me to navigate. Lesson learned.
The early 30s were even worse. I had learned to embrace travel as a vocation and was too engrossed with the next big trip. I was traveling and working a lot too and did not think I needed anything else. I did manage a young adult indulgence in Eleanor and Park at grad school, just to veer my mind away sometimes from the human rights, sovereignty, and negotiation cases I was constantly poring over.
As I now approach my forties and start to feel the early signs of aging, I have decided to read with more intention. My brain’s bandwidth and storage capacity are limited so I try to nourish it with only the essential nutrients. I no longer go for wildcard book recommendations. There are only enough hours in a day. I have to pick up books that matter, that will strike me to the core and will make me want to become a better person.
Here are a few things I have learned through trial and error that have made reading more pleasurable and memorable:
Set an annual reading goal
I make a commitment to read a certain number of books in a year, much like a New Year’s resolution. I began this tradition a couple of years ago. I highly recommend starting small, say one book a month, especially for non-readers about to convert. You may want your book selection to match what you intend to accomplish for that year. For example, if you are traveling to Manila or Bali, it might help to pick up Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. If you are starting a business, Ray Dalio’s Principles and Peter Thiel’s Zero To One could broaden your horizons.
Do not attempt to read tomes like the colossal War and Peace on a whim. This is the easiest way to despise reading.
The Goodreads app has an annual reading challenge that helps with accountability. It will tell you how far or near you are from reaching your goal. If you are easy prey to gamification like I am, you might find it useful.
You have to carve out time for reading every day. If you must, set the alarm for an optimal time in your schedule and treat it like an appointment. Fifteen minutes to an hour should be enough.
I treat reading time as a form of self-care. I do it early in the morning when it is quiet and no one is awake to bother me. Complete and uninterrupted focus helps me breeze through a book in no time.
Other possible times of day for reading include lunch breaks, gym workouts (I used to read on the elliptical) and just before going to bed, though the latter lends itself well to dozing off.
Use a highlighter and flags
I used highlighters in school, but not so much those tiny Post-It flags. I realize now how helpful they both are for books I intend to refer back to, maybe for beautiful language or a useful passage. I am not a re-reader, so this helps with going back to a few select parts without having to read the entire book again.
The mere process of highlighting also helps me retain the actual highlighted text. My brain seems to remember those well.
I love quotes, and as a writer, a good quote for emphasis is a vital tool. But going over highlighted text and flags would be a futile exercise if I can no longer recall which book the quote belonged to. Even if I do manage to remember the book, looking for one quote by browsing through multiple pages would be a time-wasting activity.
What I find helpful is the Evernote app, where I keep a notebook for quotes. They are segregated according to themes: love, life, growth, success, wellness, learning, writing, and so on. So whenever a line jumps out at me, I take the time to type it. This would be much easier on a Kindle through Evernote Clipper, but I prefer actual books.
Reading also triggers a lot of old memories and story ideas. I take down notes on Evernote, and also on good old index cards, which are easy to shuffle when trying to come up with an outline for a story, or maybe even a book.
Google is your best friend
I love reading about people from all walks of life (i.e. the military, world leaders, foodies, and athletes) or historic events (i.e. a tennis match, a spy standoff, and World War II) that transport me into different realms, real or otherwise. So despite its tendency to lead me down the proverbial rabbit hole, I use Google or Siri to look for the reference of details mentioned in the book. I search for relevant people and places. When Selwyn Raab was describing the Cosa Nostra in his seminal masterpiece, Five Families, the murder of the Gambino family crime boss at Sparks Steak House made more graphic sense through news reports that documented the crime. It makes the reading experience more visceral.
Buy that book
If you see a good book that you like and do plan to read it, just buy it, especially when you are traveling. Like travel, it is the gift that keeps on giving. It is never a wasteful purchase. I know many of us are guilty of stacking mile-high piles of books, but in a way, this is helpful. The more I see books that remain untouched, the more I am forced to read them. I also know exactly what I spend on, whereas shopping for books on Amazon could lead to overspending on books that do not get read. I must say though, traveling with a Kindle is a beautiful thing.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” — James Baldwin