Improve your reading life with these 12 habits and practices for the intentional reader. You’ll get more out of the books you read, and your appetite for literature will increase!
At first blush, reading appears to be a highly passive hobby. It’s restful, after all. And other than shifting in your chair and using your fingers to turn pages, it’s doesn’t require much movement.
But true book nerds can set the record straight! In fact, reading is a very lively activity, even if most of the movement and interaction occurs in the mind of the reader.
Now, of course there are different kinds of readers. There are casual readers, lazy readers, obligated readers, voracious readers.
I’ve been all of those at various times.
Although bad habits come and go, more and more I want to cultivate the habit of being an intentional reader. Reading is a lovely hobby, but it
can ought to be so much more than passive entertainment! So how do you get more out of your reading life? I’ve got a few practical suggestions you can apply today:
12 Ways to Improve Your Reading Life
1. Choose books to match the seasons
Do you have a book about summer vacation? Save it to read on a hot July day. Read dark and stormy books on a windswept night. For a spring morning, choose a memoir about new beginnings. This is a trick I’ve been doing since I was a kid. And thanks to it, my summers will forever be branded with nautical novels; autumns tinged with Gothic romances. Few things will immerse you more fully in a story than when the atmosphere of the book matches the atmosphere around you.
2. Make reading an experience (but not a complicated one)
When you actually have the time to read–in the evenings, say–do you ever find that you’re suddenly “too tired”? Mindless TV watching quickly becomes a compelling alternative. I struggled with this myself quite a bit, and I had to retrain myself to do other things with my evenings besides watching Netflix.
One thing that will help strengthen your reading resolve is if you make reading time feel special. Earlier in the day, think about what you get to read that night. When your work is done for the night, make yourself a cup of fancy tea (I recently got some Kusmi Tea to try!), and get a little snack. Put on cozy clothes, light a candle for atmosphere. These little rituals will train you to savour your reading time. The key is to keep them simple, so you can settle into your reading session within minutes.
3. Savour, don’t speed read
My husband and I have very different memories of reading Jane Eyre. For me, the novel was like exotic dark chocolate. It was one of the first Victorian classics I ever read. It fascinated me, changed me, and set me on course for a life-long love affair with British lit. But my husband groans when he thinks of the book! He had to read it from a required list–with a deadline–and the result was that he choked it down and didn’t enjoy it.
The way you read matters nearly as much as what you read. Read slowly enough to let the words bloom. For sure, you’ll still encounter books you simply don’t like. But reading at a more leisurely pace will give the book–and the author–a chance to win you over first.
4. Keep a commonplace book
The habit of keeping a commonplace book has been around for centuries, taught in institutions like Oxford and Harvard, and kept by real and fictional figures from John Milton to Sherlock Holmes. A commonplace book is simply a notebook where you record quotes, poems, prayers, and any other meaningful texts you come across that you’d like to save. It’s not so much for personal journaling, but for your own personal database of quotes and knowledge.
For the intentional reader, a commonplace book is the ideal vault for all those pithy or poignant quotes you find in the books you read. You can organise your book by topic, skipping pages when you need to start a new section. Google “commonplace book” and you’ll find plenty of inspiration. Here are some blog posts to get you started:
5. Read the introductions, forewards, and end notes
Don’t skip these. Reading these sidelines gives you a more rounded comprehension of the book. You’ll gain many fascinating details and get a fuller picture of the book, author, and the world the book was birthed into. A word of caution: Often, you’ll want to read the introductions and such after you read the main work. This is especially true with classics, where the author of the intro will likely ruin the novel’s plots for you during their discussion!
6. Record every title you finish
When each of my siblings started reading chapter books, my parents would add a new tab for them to our family reading record. Every month, we’d bring our stack of completed books to Mom and she’d write down the title, author, and month finished. I continued this practice on my own when I grew up, and I can’t tell you how many dozens of times I’ve referred to this reading log. I use it to give people book recommendations and to remember how the books I read each year mirror my own personal development. And I most definitely use it to compile book lists for this blog!
You can begin a reading record in a Google doc, Evernote, or in the back of your commonplace book, if you want a hard copy. In the years to come, you’ll love browsing back through your reading record and enjoying the flood of memories that brings.
7. When you’re done with a book, find someone to discuss it with
Before plunging into the next title on your list, give yourself a breather to digest what you just read. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to talk to someone about it! You can discuss it even if they haven’t read the book (just be sure to reciprocate and let them tell you about their latest read, too!). Talking through the book helps you internalize it, sift through your reactions, and consider angles you hadn’t noticed until you verbalized them.
And if you don’t have anyone to discuss with in person, you’re always welcome to share with our Tea and Ink Society forum(:
8. See what else the author wrote
You’d be surprised at how many little-known books are written by authors you think you know! I always like to check the author’s Amazon page or Wikipedia to see what I might’ve missed. I’ve discovered many hidden gems this way!
9. Re-read your favourites
Are you one of those people who return to their favourite volumes again and again, or are you always blazing new pages? I used to be in the latter camp. I dubbed books as “favourites,” but I felt like life was too short to read them multiple times. In the last few years my thinking has shifted, and I’m now blending a healthy dose of re-reads into my list each year. Part of the reason is that I’m reading more now, so I do have the time to re-read.
Re-reading a book is like deepening a friendship. It allow the books that you’ve identified as the best and most meaningful to shape your life and guide you through different seasons.
“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.” – C. S. Lewis, On Stories
10. Read outside your normal genres
It’s healthy for your reading life if you vary your literary diet from time to time. At least once a month, check out a book you wouldn’t normally read–a spy thriller, biography, travel narrative, philosophy book–whatever that is for you. One of these thought-provoking reads would be a good place to start!
11. Read old books
There will always be splashy new novels on the scene. Some live up to the hype, a lot don’t. Don’t always let yourself get carried away by shiny object syndrome. Pick old books that have stood the test of time. They’ll give you a context for other eras, cultures, and perspectives that the best contemporary authors have built on. C. S. Lewis says “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” That’s good advice(:
And if you don’t think you have time for classics? There are many excellent short classics to choose from, so start with one of those!
12. Keep a treasure trove of titles you want to dig into in the future
If you ever waste reading time because you can’t find a book to get excited about, this will cure you. Keep a running list of books you want to read. If the list starts getting super long, try dividing it into genres (or seasonal picks, like I recommended in #1 above). You can dip back into the barrel whenever you need a book to refresh you…just see what catches your eye. But do remember: You’ll probably never get to everything, and your list will always be growing. That’s okay. This isn’t a to-do list; it’s your buffet and you can pick what you like.
What are your favourite practices for a lively and intentional reading life?
If you believe the reading habit changes your life for the better, you might also resonate with my post on The Jane Austen Cure: Why Women Need Fiction to Replenish Their Souls.
For a lovely, short eBook on reading as a form of self care, check out The Literary Medicine Cabinet by Haley Stewart. She includes some excellent reading suggestions and lists, too!