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An illustration of a pile of books against a pink background. Shanée Benjamin for Vox

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How to fall back in love with reading

Even when your brain feels like mush.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I doubt you need to be told you should be reading more. There’s a good chance you struggle to make time for reading, and it feels like just another obligation, like hitting your daily step goal, or drinking more water.

You’re not alone. In early 2021, nearly a quarter of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they hadn’t read any books at all the previous year. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll revealed that even those who were reading books were reading fewer than ever.

“So many people tell me that they used to be a reader and then they just fell out of it,” Lynn Lobash, the New York Public Library’s associate director of reader services, told me, recounting conversations from the past few years. “It’s hard to get back into a practice once you’ve lost it.”

Because, look, it’s not easy! Books require sustained attention, something few of us have (and some of us have lost altogether) in these pandemic-riddled, anxiety-inducing times. Given some free time, you’ve probably got a million other things you could be doing: shows to binge, movies to half-watch, browser tabs to skim. Even if you loved to read as a child, when adulthood hits, reading can go out the window, relegated to beach reading on vacations and maybe a couple of books crammed into the corners of life.

Even if you do manage to pick up a book, you might feel lingering guilt if it isn’t an important book, or at least an improving one. “There is no such thing as the correct book to read,” Allison Escoto reminded me over Zoom, a bookcase looming behind her. Escoto is the head librarian and education director at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. The canon of “important books” — what they are, and who gets to choose them — has been in a vibrant state of reexamination and expansion in recent years, she reminded me, and that means the “notion of the correct book, or the right book, or the acceptable book is itself under scrutiny.”

In fact, numerous studies seem to suggest that when it comes to the psychological benefits of reading, just doing it might matter as much or more than the content. Researchers have found that people who spend a few hours per week reading books live longer than those who don’t read, or who read only articles in periodicals; the sustained act of cognition that books demand seems to be the deciding factor. Other research finds a vast array of social-cognitive benefits that come with reading, particularly reading fiction, aiding the brain’s development in understanding others and imagining the world.

Some studies have suggested that reading fiction can increase empathy. But a perhaps even more surprising finding comes from researchers who discovered a short-term decrease in the need for “cognitive closure” in the minds of readers of fiction. In brief, the researchers write, those with a high need for cognitive closure “need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion,” and thus, when confronted with confusing circumstances, tend to seize on fast explanations and hang on to them. That generally means they’re more susceptible to things like conspiracy theories and poor information, and they become less rational in their thinking. Reading fiction, though, studies have found, tends to retrain the brain to stay open, comfortable with ambiguity, and able to sort through information more carefully.

These all sound like great reasons to develop a practice of reading. But how? The key, as with most everything in life, is to build a habit of reading. What you’re trying to do is practice sustained attention. Like any habit, the trick is in figuring out what works for you.

There’s a bit of willpower involved, of course. “The hardest part about reading is actually picking the book up,” Lobash says, and we both laugh knowingly. To start reading, you have to sit down and pick up a book, or cue up an audiobook in your headphones. You’ll never become a reader by wishing you read more, listening exclusively to podcasts, or sitting next to a book while you scroll Instagram. (Even buying books doesn’t make you a reader, as I have, unfortunately, found out.)

If money is tight (or even if it isn’t), libraries are stellar resources, with easy systems in place to borrow not just physical books but ebooks and audiobooks (through apps like Libby and Overdrive) — often without even having to go to the library. And there are ways to train yourself to read. “I always have a book next to wherever I put my phone,” Escoto tells me. “So if I have the urge to check my phone for another useless doomscrolling session, I physically can see the book there. Nine times out of 10, I will choose the book, because I know what’s in store for me if I get on my phone.”

That kind of physical proximity, making it easy for yourself to read, is a great way to get back into the habit. Years ago, I had a colleague who would purchase cheap paperback copies of lengthy books he needed to read, and then he’d physically rip them down the spine and carry pieces of the book with him. I was horrified the first time I saw him do it, but I eventually came to realize it was his way of making sure that the heft or width of a book wouldn’t be a barrier to reading it.

Like Escoto, I prefer a paper book to an electronic one (and research suggests we remember what we read on paper better than ebooks). Sometimes, though, I’ll purchase the electronic version just so I can tap open the app on long commutes and read it on whatever device is at hand. Not ideal, but it gets the job done. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Another obvious barrier is time, and this is where audiobooks can be a godsend. “That is reading!” Escoto says. Audiobooks are great for occupying the mind while you’re commuting, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or lifting at the gym. “Investigate other formats that are more comfortable for you so that it doesn’t feel like I have to sit here and read,” she says. And if you save particularly exciting or juicy books for particular activities — logging miles on the treadmill, for instance — then you train yourself to crave both activities.

Sometimes the best way to make sure you read is to lean into whatever personality quirks you know you have, and make use of them. In the summer of 2020 — you remember that summer — I felt like I was both grasping for sanity and desperate to walk away from screens. I could barely sit still, let alone read a few pages without subconsciously picking up my phone. Yet I needed to read, because I was writing a book, and that required me to plow through dozens of books for research.

So I exploited my love of tasks and assignments. I made myself syllabi, determining which books I would read during which weeks. I’d count the number of chapters or pages in each book, divide them as evenly as possible into daily reading, and schedule those into my task list. Then I’d pair the day’s reading with my hammock or, later, a trip to the local beer garden.

That’s just the way that worked for me. Others might decide to read while sipping morning coffee. Or, as Escoto points out, making reading a communal event can be helpful, whether through virtual or in-person reading groups (like Vox’s Book Club), or just picking a book to read with a friend.

Whatever you need to do to reestablish a reading habit is a net benefit, and that should extend to what you read, too. That might require divorcing yourself from the notion that books have to be important or educational to be legitimate. “Just give yourself permission to read whatever you’re interested in reading,” Escoto says.

If that doesn’t ring any bells, your Netflix queue might be a clue. “If someone came into a library, and I said, I don’t know, I don’t really like to read, it feels like a chore, I would ask them, ‘Well, what do you like to watch?’” Lobash says. “I think using other media is a really good doorway to finding something that you will like to read.”

An algorithm or a Google search might help you here, but both Lobash and Escoto emphatically remind me that librarians are probably your best resource. “A lot of what’s involved in librarianship is recommending books, and part of how we do that as professionals is to suss out what the person’s interested in,” Escoto says. Lobash echoes this, saying that librarians “know all the right questions to ask.” Plenty of adults come to the library with their children, she says, but it’s rarer for them to come for themselves — and they’re a resource that’s just waiting to be tapped. Booksellers at your local bookstore can fill the same function, too.

And if you’re really stuck, but yearning to get back to your youthful reading bliss, maybe just revisit your old favorites, Escoto says. There’s no shame in rereading the books that made you fall in love with reading in the first place. If the science is right, then recreating that sustained attention is really what you’re after, at least as much as the stories themselves. Regaining the practice of reading is a little like hiking or playing an instrument or picking up painting: It takes some work to get in the groove, but once you do, the results are beautiful and immensely satisfying.

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