Maintaining Good Reading Habits

by Bill Watson

readingReading well is not easy. Many of us recognize the value of being well-read but few of us really know how to become well-read. Becoming well-read requires that we read books that are not necessarily of immediate interest to us. Many readers, particularly those who are not naturally inclined to reading deep books, focus on low-grade literature that is of dubious value. By low-grade, I mean here the kind of literature that relies almost entirely on evoking and provoking our immediate passions. These books are like roller-coasters or pop music, they assault our raw senses but rarely challenge the way we think about the world, about ourselves. Books that actually change us tend to be less immediately appealing to the novice reader. So it is important to think about how to keep reading interesting while still reading books that are important and influential.

Many years ago, I adopted the following strategy in an effort to maintain a healthy level of ongoing reading. It starts with reading three books at a time. Each of these three books should fit into one of the following categories:

  1. The first book should be a book you are required to read, meaning a book that has been assigned to you. For those of you who are not in school, you can drop this tip and focus on the next two.
  2. The second should be a book you feel you probably should read. Here I tend to focus on classics that have been influential over the years like Pilgrims Progress, Augustines Confessions, Darwins Origin of Species, etc. If you are in a particular field of study, you might read a book that has been influential in your field. If you do not know what to read here, take a look at the titles in the Great Books Series from Britannica or talk to someone who has read widely in classic literature.
  3. The third book should be a book you simply enjoy reading. It doesnt matter what this book is about really. You might read Harry Potter, for instance. Or, like me, you might prefer biographies or classics of fiction. The key here is that you thoroughly enjoy reading this kind of book.

Whenever I finish a book in one of these three categories, I simply start another one without waiting until I finish the other two. It may seem like a lot of work to keep three books going at all times, but by reading the three kinds of books listed above you will be better able to keep yourself from reading burn out. The key to this plan, for me, is really the third book. By always having an interesting book on hand, I have been able to keep my interest in reading itself from waning.

I find that the more interested I am in reading qua reading, the more likely I am to continue reading even those things I do not find immediately interesting. Ideally, of course, you will be interested in all three of the book types that you happen to be reading at any given time, but good reading sometimes requires that we read things that we would not normally just pick up for interests sake.

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