Read like a Bookseller: Eight Tips for Getting More from Reading and Books

Last month, Scott Renshaw invited me to share thoughts about New Year’s Resolutions with City Weekly readers. I’m not qualified to make resolutions for others but I can share some suggestions and thoughts about getting more from books and reading. Here are eight ways to improve one’s relationships with books.

1. Ask the most impressive persons you know which books are most influential in their lives and read those books. This is not only fun, it is powerful and of great intellectual value. A person’s identity is assembled from experiences and impressions. Readers can pick influence from the whole pantheon of human wisdom. When you ask an esteemed friend for reading advice, the question itself is a compliment that shows your respect and admiration. Since you choose which friends, your aspirations are self-directed. You’ll learn about important books and deepen friendships.


2. Read every day. We live in busy times, so build reading into your daily schedule. Reading is as important to mental health as nutrition and exercise are to the body. Use brief interludes between tasks to read if you can’t afford more dedicated time. I seldom read for more than an hour at a spell. I guess I’m a bit hyper-active. I stagger house work and errands with reading. Reading from a book before bed is better for sleep than electronic activities.


3. Browse in physical bookstores where serendipity can thwart your preferences. Maybe you think you fully understand your taste. Maybe you know what you need. Maybe you navigate by habit and are unaware of the joy and potential in the fields outside your imagination. There are books you’ll love and books that will change your thoughts. You don’t necessarily know them yet. Habits overwhelm perception early in life. A fleet mind must resist such intellectual ossification. To the degree you can muster, read away from your ordinary taste. You don’t ever know what you’re missing. Browsing itself - evaluating and choosing - can be exhilarating.


4. Keep reading when you become confused. Readers often tell how many pages they read before giving up on a book. “If it doesn’t grab me within a few pages, I just quit reading.” And I wonder, how can a reader project an entire book from a few pages?

Observing my own reading, I noticed that it was easiest for me to enter books written by authors with cultural backgrounds similar to my own. But I also noticed that cultural similarity had little bearing on my final impressions of books. If one hangs upside down long enough, the brain will flip the visual image to render it right-side-up. The eye takes a few minutes to adjust to extreme changes in light. One can only smell a new odor for a while before it becomes indiscernible. We apparently have biological needs for equilibrium. When reading, there is a period of accommodation that is required, like learning to dance with a partner. It will take longer when the culture of the author is distant from that of the reader. Reading a book by an author from your time and place will always be easier than reading one from a 300-year-old foreign culture. But the mind will adapt and reading something without full ken won’t hurt you at all. The greatest magic of books is that they cross the chasms of time and culture.


5. Read hard books out loud. Sometimes one’s comprehension suffers because of distraction. Stories’ lines or ideas may not come together until the end of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Reading requires a bit of faith – faith in the author and faith in one’s own ability to read into other minds and new worlds. It is easier to control the voice than the mind and with your actions you can lead your mind. Read out loud.

I subscribe to the Buddhist list of senses which number six. The mind is counted as a sense because of the way the brain correlates diverse information with stored knowledge and perceptions. If seeing only a finger and inferring a whole human isn’t perception, I don’t know what to call it. When I see a copy of Moby Dick, Melville’s voice and narrative surge within me. When one reads silently, one engages the eyes and the mind. When one adds the voice and sound, it doubles the number of engaged senses. I read Gravity’s Rainbow out loud. Also Joyce and Pound.


6. Look up words you don’t understand. Admittedly, this is hard for me when I have reading momentum. I try to stretch my memory by going for the dictionary every other unknown word but obviously, with some loss of comprehension. Except when I forget, and I do, I go back to be sure. It’s fun to learn new words. I especially like to examine etymologies to deepen understanding and help secure memory.


7. Speed up when your mind wanders. Most of us lead busy lives - that is a social condition of our era, possibly a failure. Busyness and distraction are common reasons persons struggle to read. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when distracted or when a book doesn’t seem to be working for you, read faster. Read as fast as you can. When one is relaxed, thought wanders. Your brain is a curious dog; when jogging, there’s no time to sniff. Speed forces the mind to be alert.


8. Permit what you read to influence your beliefs.  Reading should influence the reader. Let the authors’ ideas permeate your experience. This is the power of books. As you add the ideas of great thinkers to your experiences, you add complexity and nuance to the self. A smart and large menu of possibilities enables you to think, feel, and live better, to navigate the complexities of life with grace. No invention enables deeper more complex entry into the mind of another person than a book. It’s said that no one lives up to one’s own potential. Why limit the heights of your dreams, your understanding, and your pleasure?

For what it’s worth, as a child, I remember valuing the power of knowledge found in books more than the enjoyment of stories. As an adult, I value both.