Get that reading habit back.

About a year or more ago, my son, newly turned 5 then, and I were talking about reading. Now, for a while I had limited my reading to online or on device. So as I tried to avoid preaching while extolling the virtues of reading, he said to me, “But Amma, I never see you reading a book.” He was right, in a sense. My reading had reduced drastically; from reading a book a week, I was down to one book in three months. His comment woke me up and told me I was letting my reduced attention span become worse by reading with the internet on all the time, or choosing to read shorter stuff, some days only headlines, without wanting to get to the details.

This had become a dangerous habit and it took me some time to get to a point where I could stick with a book. Thankfully, I’ve read a few this year, although far from the target I set for myself.

On an average, I meet at least one person in a week who tells me they just don’t have the time to read. A lot of them don’t use the time-to-read excuse anymore because it is really easy to counter. What is more tough to argue with is reduced attention spans. Everyone casually refers to their social ADD (though I wish they wouldn’t use that term. ADD is pretty darned debilitating.) and says they can’t stick to a book. No focus and reduced attention spans? That I totally get.

So from my own experience of getting back to reading, I wondered why we stop reading and what it takes us to get back. To answer both those questions, I knew I had to ask myself why we started reading. I began to read because I was thirsty to explore the knowledge I had been given in school. I became a reader because the first book I was presented with my name inscribed on it was Oliver Twist, a Ladybird Kids Classic, Abridged Version. The book was utterly and truly beautiful. The typeface, the illustration, the colours, the way the book felt (glossy and hardbacked), the ridge on either side of the spine. And my mother’s beautiful penmanship inscribing the first few pages. Just beautiful. I am pretty sure I had books before that but none that felt so distinctly mine. Before that, all books were shared and were mostly books from which my parents would read to us. It was with this book at 8 years or so, that I obsessively started reading and hoarding. The world of Oliver Twist offered words for emotions I couldn’t identify. I met people I would never meet in this lifetime. I saw clothes, streets and names that I hadn’t seen till then. After that, school was an obstacle bang in the way of my reading life. Soon, I was done with pulp fiction by the time I was 15; I started reading literary fiction, rarely going back to paperbacks or what are now called “bestsellers”.

Reading left me with a high like a good, hard swim; like the morning after a night of great sex, like the high of nice little joint — these are all transformative experiences for me. There’s a physical difference, not just a change, in my environment within and without. You see, the joys of reading are insidious, subtle. There’s no instant gratification; there is no place for you to sound smart and seek validation as you comment publicly on anything, and no joy that comes with being thought of as wry and clever. The joys of reading are slow and stealthy. They don’t quite appear till you’re half way through the book and by then it would be a shame to abandon reading. And then it flowers, the joy of reading a good book. It starts from your eyes and enters all the way to your overtired brain, spreads to your forehead like a happy allergy, all the way down your neck and then rapidly, like a fever, dripping till the ends of your extremeties. And then, suddenly, like a wave in a glass aquarium, all of the gushing is contained. Reading doesn’t make you jump for joy or dance with madness (it does but you don’t do it because you are too busy reading). When this joy is suddenly contained at the tips of your fingers and the points of your toes, it lashes back; joy and rapture come back in waves all over you, right back to your head and eyes, even as you read more that’s giving you joy. This back and forth of waves causes you to fall in love with characters without whom you’re legitimately lonely for a day or two after you’ve finished the book. It causes a covetousness for words that leave you richer, and yet, bereft. It causes a greed and inquisitiveness for the writer; who is she? does he wear pyjamas to bed or sleep in the nude? does she always look perfect or does she have bad eyesight? All kinds of relationships are built with a book when you’re in its throes. Watch and you’ll see.

It’s easy to give up reading because it is what you do when you have spare time. Once formal education is done with, very few people set aside especial time to read. Of course, then, reading suffers. It’s also an easy habit to get out of, and the highs, like I said earlier, are slow. None of the instant gratification of being online.

If you’ve given up reading, or have never read, and are trying to get back on track, start with a book of short stories. They help you get your attention’s impetuous flights back under control and keep you focused on reading for short periods of time; much like focusing on small tasks in order to achieve the bigger task of a work day.

Set aside time to read. Don’t think you’ll read on the bus, or when you’re in the loo, or when you wait for someone. Those times are easy to demolish by other distraction. Set aside 15 minutes to half an hour, to begin with, to read. It really helps if you can do it at the same time every day. I try to read before bed, and for about an hour after I send my kids to school.

Always carry a book. Always. And no time to do it like now because ebooks.

Keep a book list, preferably in one place. And if you like to see proof of your achievement, tick them off every time you finish reading the ones on your list. I email myself new book recommendations or the ones that I wish to read.

Needless to say, turn notifications off and be mindful. Because even if you turn them off, you tend to check your phone because you get all fidgety and jittery without it. So, mindfulness will help you come back to reading before you go down the twitter rabbit hole till 2 a.m.

Everything becomes better about you, by the way, when you go back to reading. Your mind is stiller, and you might ask why is the mind being still a good thing. I assure you, a still mind is a creative mind. The things you think about become better and bigger. No longer are you worried too much about the small things that you occupy yourself with, and you know they’re small things. You ponder larger questions, superimpose them on your life, or the lives of others, discover the sameness of humanity and soon, you start to actually think harder, in a more real way. You will eventually end up being and sounding smarter but that’s hardly a priority in the scheme of things. I mean who wants to sound smarter when you could be mooning over Psmith?

Sumana Mukherjee tweeted this link on how reading is the only transcendental experience left in the world that we inhabit today. And I couldn’t agree more with this splendid piece. 

This is a list that helped me ease back into my reading. I have added a few that I didn’t read during this time but ones I think will totally do the trick. The trick, then, is to get back into the habit, because that’s what it is. Once your brain is rewired to making this a habit, then the sailing is usually smooth.

1. Bhima: Lone Warrior by M T Vasudevan Nair. 
This book is a translation of the Malayalam Randamoozham . I recommend it heartily for various reasons but mostly because it is the familiar. You know most of the references and stories, you know all the characters, you know the eventual fate of the characters. What you don’t know is what the alternative perspectives give you. Other reasons to read this book are: Terribly easy read and yet with the gravitas of a complex novel; a story that’s engaging emotionally and intellectually; story telling that is a masterclass in the craft.

2. Any of the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling.
I went back to think of why it was so difficult to get back to reading and what it is that will keep someone engaged. I realised it was pure, sparkling, gripping joy that kept me reading. And trying to start with a difficult book that you’ve heard so much about is the wrong way to derive that joy. Start with firing the emotions that you felt as a kid when you read books that grip you. Harry Potter does that wonderfully. Once you can sit down and read for an extended period of time, read tougher, nicer, meatier, more meaningful books.

3. My Name is Radha by Saadat Hasan Ali Manto.
In actuality, you can pick up any book by Manto and find yourself back to reading. Manto writes with a sort of insight that defies the simplicity he presents his work with. This anthology is essential Manto; between its pages are many women, Bollywood, Bombay, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar, pimps, prayers and poignancy. None of them decipherable, none of them so different from you and me.

4. Roots by Alex Haley
This is a book that finds its place in almost any book list for which you ask me a response. Non-fiction, terrifically written and deeply, intensely moving, Roots changed my world view forever. It changed the way I looked at human beings, our politics and our innate natures. It reads really, really easy for a non-fiction book.

5. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
This book gave rise to one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. A monster so insidious and lethal that it kind of terrifies you how much you resemble him. Martin Amis’s prose is, for the lack of a better word, just plain stunning. His writing unafraid and while some might think this book is ambitious, I assure you it isn’t. It’s worth every 15 minutes that you spend in the first week of your return to reading.

Here on, I am just going to give name and type without commentary. These are all easy books to read and yet meaningful, rich and gripping. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

6. Fascinations by William Boyd (Short story)
7. Blue Beard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood (SS)
8. Girls at War by Chinua Achibe (SS)
9. Kiss, Kiss by Roald Dahl (SS)
10. Burning your Boats by Angela Carter (SS)
11. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (SS)
12. Open by Andre Agassi 
13. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
14. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
15. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
16. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
17. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
18. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
19. The Fig Tree by Aubrey Menen
20. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan (yes, there are people who haven’t read it!)
21. The Boy Who Talked to Trees by Yashwant Chittal
22. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (SS)
23. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
24. Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. The Psmith Omnibus by PG Wodehouse. 

5 thoughts on “Get that reading habit back.

  1. essentialme

    This is such a nice list! Have read less than half of them!
    I prefer Jeeves and Blandings Castle over Psmith though. But haven't tried Psmith yet.
    Also, one set I keep going back to for easy reading is the “No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall-Smith. Have heard his Sunday Philosophy Club is also good.

    -Vaidya

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Vinitha Dileep

    Great list, Sandhya. Right now I am reading Harry Potter series to ease back into the habit of reading. As you said it is the lack of attention span which can be achieved if we try to concentrate. I have been trying to read some other books but not able to concentrate, I am blaming only me for that. Harry Potter series works like a charm to bring back the reading spectacles on. 🙂 And yeah, great list you got there.

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  3. trees

    You have not mentioned 'join a lending library'. You can't often buy all the books you would like to read or download them. So if you are a member of a library, you will not only get the books you want to read but also find other gems while hunting through the musty shelves. I have been an avid reader all my life (I am 53) and am deeply saddened by the lack of interest young people show in the written word. Reading is a magical journey that transforms everything about us.

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  4. Shailaja V

    Such a heartwarming post, Sandhya. Something I needed terribly and deeply today. Thank you. Adding your suggestions to my reading list. Love the way you’ve described what reading means to you. I think it’s the same for most readers who fell in love with reading at an early age.

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