I’ve been accused of always having my nose in a book. Reading is like breathing. There is nothing wrong with reading to escape and relax, but does our reading also provide us with some mental stimulation and education?
These suggestions to make personal reading more meaningful are a combination of some things I do, and some things that I wish I would do. I figure that any that I can manage to implement are better than nothing.
1. Keep a record of what you read
I actually manage to do this. I have a spreadsheet that tallies each year on a separate sheet of the notebook. I track the title, author, number of pages, genre, when I read it, how I rate it, who owns it (maybe I borrowed it, or got it at the library), and whether I consider it to be an “escape” or “purposeful.”
Mysteries, technothrillers, and historical fiction are my favorite kinds of books. I usually allow the historical fiction to be considered purposeful, since I very often learn some history through the story. This is a pretty subjective rating, but the point is to guard against reading only as a diversion rather than continuing my life-long learning in some way through this medium
2. Make a plan for what you want to read
This doesn’t have to be as formal as it sounds. Some years, I simply track the escape vs purposeful reading, and try to keep the escape reading to no more than 2/3 of the total. Of course, this too, is extremely subjective... set your own goals. I base these totals on the number of pages read, not the number of titles.
Sometimes I manage to be more directed with the plan. I might say, “I want to read three books about the history and culture of the area where I will be hiking this year.” Or, “I want to read two more books about the American Revolution.” You will have your own areas of interest for learning.
In my dreams, is a goal of finding that list of books we were supposed to have read in high school to be considered well-rounded. Remember that daunting list of 100 or so titles that didn’t sound interesting at all? Well, I’ve learned that most of the classics are classic because they really are good, not boring at all. When that list turns up (I know I have it in a file somewhere), I plan to set a goal to read all of those books. I know that, even at this stage of my life, I’ve not read them all.
So, with a plan, your reading will have some balance– both the fun side and the educational. I was housemates with a young man during grad school who was extremely disciplined about this. He would read for an hour after dinner each night. The first half hour was from a non-fiction book to better himself, and the second half-hour was some lighter reading just for fun.
3. Note new vocabulary words
This is something that I have been doing for most of my adult life. Every time I encounter a new word I write it down, the book it came from and the page number (so that I can look up the context again if needed). Then I go to my unabridged dictionary (and the internet, now), and find out what that word means and enter it on a file card.
Sadly, I used to do more with this than I currently do. When computers were friendlier to programmers, I built a database of all these words and their meanings, and developed a quiz. Every so often I would run a few randomly chosen words through the quiz program to help me remember what they meant. I found this really enjoyable, and a lot more meaningful than if I had just looked them up once and forgotten them. But no computer I have now will run this simple program, and I haven’t built a new version.
4. Write down key concepts
When reading books that are purposeful, it can be very helpful to make some notes as you go. The young man mentioned above did this all the time. I only manage to do it occasionally. He kept a legal pad with his two current books, and he always made brief notes as he read. This was not at the level you would use when taking notes for a class, but just some key things that he wanted to take away from that book.
5. Make notes of things you may want to find later
Since I do a lot of writing, this is very important to me. I often read something that makes me think of something else, kicks in an idea for a story, is a great quote to use, etc. Then, when I want to find that later, if I haven't written it down I am lucky if I remember what book it was in, but may have no clue where. Reading the whole book again isn’t worth it, unless it was a truly great idea. And it’s really frustrating when I think I remember where I saw it, but then can’t find the reference. I’m trying to train myself to do better with this, since I “lose” a lot of good ideas simply for lack of a notebook and pen near my book.
6. Implementing the plan
A very simple and inexpensive method is to just keep a small spiral notebook and pen with your current book(s). When I can manage to do this it helps me stay on track a lot. I need to be smacked alongside the head to remember to write down the title of the book, not just a word and a page number. But, generally, I end up with at least a few notes, which is better than no notes.
I suppose this would be called a reading journal. Some people might enjoy being more formal about this, with a page for each book, notes, and even their thoughts or feelings about the book.
We easily wander through life without paying much attention to more than getting through the current day. This kind of reading plan may be too structured of an idea for you. I’m not trying to criticize anyone here. But, I would simply suggest that by paying a little bit of attention to what passes in front of our eyes, we can raise our level of knowledge, have conversation starting material, improve our self-image, and have a good time too.