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When How You Read Changes

A photograph of Elizabeth Fremantle's Queen's Gambit and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl lying on a shawl in the sun

I’ve come a fair way since the days when I had to have absolute silence around me to read, and having travel sickness. In the past year I started being able to read on buses (for a short time and as long as I didn’t look up much) and just recently I’ve come to find solutions to other problems, namely keeping my attention on the book.

As much as I can’t not place some of the blame on myself, it would be correct to say that since social media and phones and so forth have been contributing to our world-wide attention span problems I’ve often had issues with reading, especially when it comes to longer books and that delayed satisfaction of completion that naturally accompanies them. If I’ve had all I can take of the internet in a day, I can read. And if a book is very good, I can read, which is of course something to think about in this respect – our fast-paced lives are not the only reason.

I’ve come to find that I’m at my reading best when reading first thing in the morning, before I’ve done anything that will get my brain heading in a different direction. If I can, breakfast then book, or book then breakfast is the best way to read. On the days when this happens, I consider any extra reading to be a bonus. (Interestingly, despite this and despite multiple reading slumps lately, I’m currently on track to make my average of 50 books in a year for this year.)

Lots of studies have found that keeping the parts of your day not related to screens away from screens provides the best chance for getting things done. As I’m not a big TV watcher, I can sit in front of a TV and read a lot, but I do find it good to stay away from the computer. I often sit in a particular seat in another room where I can have a drink on a table. In the summer, reading outside is wonderful – I believe it’s the reason my Julys are always full of books – lots of sun, warm weather, and to be outside is to be ever further from the computer. The only downside is that a computer or other device is useful for looking things up you may not understand, and so there can be anxiety if I come across something in a book that I feel needs explaining before I continue. Do I go to the computer and potentially lose some time in research (admittedly often very worth while), or do I try and remember for later what I want to look up? The latter is fine… until you’ve a small list of things to remember. I also find I don’t concentrate so well once I’ve something noted to research.

This brings me to note-taking, which can of course help with items of research – taking notes is great but it can pull you away from your reading flow. I also find that once I start taking note of a good quote or two, it’s all too easy to pinpoint further quotes of worth.

In terms of noise, I can now read with a bit of noise. There’s a bit more traffic where I currently live compared to my previous home – the first time I attempted to read with the windows open I soon came to the conclusion that as nice as the place was, reading was going to be difficult. But I kept at it; a few weeks later I found I’d blocked out the noise.

Whilst I can read on buses, even when there’s quite a few people on there, I find trains impossible. And those ‘quiet’ carriages are often the most loud. I’m not sure what the difference is – a bus is more bumpy, there are more stops and there’s more bustle.

When I need to relax I ironically find chores a better escape; mindless activities. I’m also not too great in a library; I browse and then bring the books home.

Writing this, it seemed my reading life has become more limited, however until quite recently most of the above would have been off the table to the extent that they wouldn’t even warrant a mention. I reckon that whilst it’s happening slowly, I’m moving in the right direction.

How do you read best, and what are your limitations?


Andrew Blackman

June 20, 2018, 7:16 pm

Interesting post, Charlie! It’s good to hear how your reading habits have changed. Noise doesn’t bother me – if a book is good, I can block it out and enter that world, no matter what else is happening. But I can’t read on a bus or any transport really. I keep audiobooks on hand for long journeys 😀


June 20, 2018, 9:23 pm

I used to read up to five books a month. Now I am lucky if I read one a month. A partial reason may be that I’m blogging about more movies per post than I used to, which has taken up a large chunk from the time I used to allocate to reading.

I can’t read on any mode of transportation. Also, I tried to listen to a novel on audio and couldn’t get pass the first paragraph; my mind immediately wandered; I haven’t tried that mode since. I read and understand best when I actively read on a screen or the page of a print book. I can’t read on the computer anything longer than a few articles (blog posts, reviews, and news). I can’t concentrate if people are talking in the background while I’m reading, and can’t have the TV on while reading either. It takes complete isolation and lack of interruptions, which my mother is extremely fond of, for me to immerse in a book world. Nowadays I’m finding it more and more difficult to do, but when I find the right set of conditions, the reading experience is unparalleled.

April Munday

June 20, 2018, 10:47 pm

I can read on trains. I was a commuter for too long not to be able to do that. I still can’t read in cars, but I can read (just about) on coaches.

If I read in the garden, I often end up falling asleep, but I do like being out there. I do have a favourite chair for reading, but I can fall asleep there as well. I cant’ read with the TV on and sometimes I can’t read with music in the background.

I agree with you about the shortened attention span, but I also wonder about what it is that holds my attention. I’d love to have the ability to pay attention and concentrate that I had as a teenager.


June 26, 2018, 7:10 pm

Charlie, I read pretty much every night, before bed, for about half an hour, but of course this isn’t always great for complicated, heavy reads. I would love to read in the morning, but unless it a lazy weekend morning, I don’t get up early enough to do this. Recently I started treating myself to an hour or so of reading in the garden, with this lovely weather we have been having, as soon as get home from work – It really helped me tackle a book for my church’s book club which really required my full attention.

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 26, 2018, 10:42 pm

I read best when I’m in transit — if I’m in any one location, there’s a part of me that thinks “hey stop you should be doing something else that’s more productive!” but if I’m on public transportation or on a flight or whatever, there really isn’t anything productive I can be doing. There’s just the books. And that lets me turn off my brain slightly (or turn down the volume at least) and focus on whatever I’m reading. It’s a lovely experience.



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