How to Choose a Book

Lots of people wish they could read more. In fact, one survey found that out of all the activities people wished they did more of, “reading” came second (after exercise).

In spite of this, however, most people don’t read very much. A recent survey found that one in four Americans hasn’t read a single book within the last year, and the Washington Post reports that only 19 percent of Americans read for pleasure on any given day in 2017 (compared to 28 percent in 2004).

So, if you’re one of the 81% of Americans who wish they read more (or if you belong to the corresponding percentage in another country), what can you do to transition from wishing you read more to actually reading more?

Knowing what to read

In my experience, when I’m not reading as much as I would like, it’s usually because I don’t have anything to read.

Oh, I have access to plenty of books. I own a LOT of books (as anyone who’s ever visited my home can attest to). I also live around the corner from a library, and I have the Kindle app on my phone and tablet.

But sometimes, I just can’t seem to find a book that captures my interest. I start a nonfiction book, but it feels too dry. I try a novel, but it’s just not doing anything for me. I flounder around for a while, drifting between my shelves and the library website, until I finally give up and land on the couch scrolling through social media on my phone…again.

It’s not that I can’t find a book to read. It’s that I can’t find the right book.

What are you looking for?

This week, I’m working through a New York Times challenge called “Be a Better Reader in 7 Days.” The first day’s task is to “Choose the Right Book,” and to help me complete this goal, the challenge provides a list of questions to help me narrow my focus:

Do you want to read for enjoyment or for knowledge?

First of all, learning and knowledge are not mutually exclusive! Learning is fun!

But okay, I’ll play along. This week, I want to read for enjoyment. Reading used to be my favorite activity, but sometime between assigned college reading and starting my job, I lost the habit of reading for pleasure. And honestly, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, it sometimes feels like I lost part of myself during that time, too. I’d like to get back to that version of myself, if I can.

Do you want to stretch yourself in some way?

Does stretching myself to put the book down at bedtime count? No? Then I guess the answer is no. My brain is still pretty fried from college, and I’m trying to give it a chance to rest before I start work again this fall.

Are you looking for escapism? (There’s nothing wrong with that!)

I rarely read ONLY for escapism. Sure, I want my book to pull me in, to hold my attention. I want my book (especially if it’s fiction) to be vivid enough that I feel like I’m living it, like I can almost see and smell and hear and taste everything the author describes.

At the same time, though, I want the books I read to draw me into a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the real world. I want to come away from my book understanding human nature a little better. When I finish a book, I want to be a little more empathetic, a little more imaginative.

Sometimes, I read to escape. But that’s never the whole story.

This week, I just want to enjoy a good book with well-written plot, entertaining characters, and beautiful language. I don’t feel a pressing need to “escape,” but neither do I particularly mind if I do.

Are you curious about a book that has been atop the best-seller list for months?

No; see previous explanation about not really caring about what other people are reading.

Honestly, I haven’t had the time for the last several months to keep up with things like “bestsellers” and “popularity.”

Still stuck?

Here are some of my favorite strategies for finding books:

  • Modern Mrs. Darcy. This blog has so many book recommendations. So many. Check it out; you won’t regret it!
  • What Should I Read Next. This podcast, hosted by Anne Bogel (the writer behind the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog), is a booklover’s dream come true. Guests tell Anne three books they love, one book they don’t, and what they’re reading right now and she suggests three books they might like to read next.
  • Keep a to-read list. I keep mine on my library’s eBook website (hosted by Overdrive). Most of the books come from Anne’s blog and podcast, but I also save book recommendations from friends and books that catch my eye on the library website. Whenever I need a new book to read, I just go through my list and see what’s available from the library.
  • Libraries aren’t just for paperbacks. My library has an extensive eBook and audiobook collection, and unless your library is super small, I’m guessing it does too. Search for your library on Overdrive or ask a librarian what kind of digital options your library offers! eBooks make it easy to check out books when you don’t have time to actually visit the library.

The New York Times “Be a Better Reader” challenge provides several more strategies for choosing a book; you can sign up for the challenge here.

Pick a book

This week, I’m reading All Clear, by Connie Willis. (This book is a sequel to her novel Blackout, which I read last month.) I love all Willis’s time travel novels; the plots are complex and tightly woven, the characters are unique and entertaining, and the historical backgrounds are so well-researched I always learn something new almost without realizing it.

Willis’s novels are easy to read and engaging, but they also have substance—which is just what I’m looking for this week.

If you’re following the New York Times challenge with me, tell me: what book did you choose for this week? (You can sign up for the challenge here, or just follow along with my blog posts—I’m planning to post every day of the challenge.)

Whether you’re doing the “Be a Better Reader” challenge or not, I’d love to know: what are you reading right now? Leave me a note in the comments!

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