How to read more books

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Your reading goals don’t have to be quantity- or duration-based. It’s the words and pages, and the knowledge and pleasure you derive from books, that count. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Studies have shown that, chiefly because of the stimulation and the tranquility that it at once brings about, reading books can go a long way in improving readers’ mental, emotional, and physical health — in fact, it’s even been said to lead to longer lives. So if your New Year’s resolutions are to get more sleep, to increase your self-esteem, to ward off stress, and to be more empathetic toward other people, you probably need to keep only one resolution: to read more books.

“The only advice,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader,” “that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason …” But should you find that neither instincts nor reason prove particularly collaborative, perhaps you’d do well to heed the handful of tips dispensed here on how to become a more prolific book reader and, by extension, a generally healthier human being.

1. Set goals

Set reading goals for the entire year, for each month, for each week, or even for every day. On Goodreads, for example, you can set a challenge for yourself to read a certain number of books within the year, and the site will let you know whether or not you’re on track to complete it. And using an app like Bookout, you can set the number of hours you want to read during a month and be reminded to read every day.

Your goals don’t even have to be quantity- or duration-based. It’s the words and pages, and the knowledge and pleasure you derive from them, that count. So dare yourself to spend the summer tackling the doorstopper that is David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” or feel free to go through a succession of thin books like those from the Penguin Little Black Classics and Great Ideas series. Go on a Nick Joaquin binge-read, or endeavor to read all titles you can get your hands on about Marcos and martial law. Indulge in some good poetry. Reread a favorite book or two.

Whatever your reading goals are, make sure that they’re clear and manageable. The last thing you want is to be forced into speed-reading and compromising your comprehension and enjoyment just for the sake of reaching the finish line — a Pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

2. Never be without a book

Realize that reading is a necessity rather than a luxury. “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read,” says Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “One does not love breathing.” To make a habit out of reading, to ascribe an almost physiological importance to it, you need to have a book on your person at all times.

In the morning, as you sip your coffee, why not take a sip of what Woolf calls “the divine specific” by reading a few pages of a book during breakfast? At night, lull yourself to a good night’s sleep by reading some more. And in the interim, read whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself: on your commute, on your office break, on your errand at the bank. If actual print books turn out to be a bit cumbersome for you to lug around, carry e-books instead. A Kindle or a Kobo lends itself well to portable reading. There’s also the e-reader that you already own and always have in your pocket: your smartphone.

Having a book with you at all times has the added advantage of giving you an air of virtue. As Lemony Snicket once wrote, “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Having a hard time deciding what to read next is a better problem to have than having nothing more to read at all. Photo by ALDRIN CALIMLIM

3. Buy cheap

To read more books, you naturally need to own or otherwise have access to a considerable number of books. In a country where the public library system has long been found wanting, this often means purchasing books from bookstores. Fortunately, you need not be in possession of a lot of money to begin with; you just need to find a lot of books that can be bought with what little money you have.

To that end, you can go to the big bookstore chains, National Book Store and Fully Booked, during their limited-time sales on brand new titles. Of course, you can always turn to the aptly named Booksale, which presents itself year round as a treasure trove of affordable secondhand and remaindered books. It also pays to keep abreast of the offerings of independent booksellers who have put up clicks-and-mortar shops, where each inexpensive book is sold to whoever calls first dibs on it. And if it’s e-books you’re after, you can subscribe to BookBub to find deals on bestselling e-books from the likes of Amazon and iBooks, or you can just download free e-books of classic works in the public domain from sites such as Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg.

The Japanese have a word that refers to the piling up of books without their being read at all: tsundoku. Do not allow your books to fall into this sorry state of disuse and neglect. Bear in mind that you’re acquiring books with the intention of reading them, be it over the course of one year or an entire lifetime. Granted, being in possession of so many books can result in somewhat difficult choices as to which ones to pick. But then again, having a hard time deciding what to read next is a better problem to have than having nothing more to read at all.

4. Stick to one

With the numerous books you have close at hand, it might be tempting to put one book down in favor of another, and another, and another. Before you know it, you’ve been multitasking between books or — to put it in less favorable but no more technical terms — committing book polygamy.

Reading multiple books at once gives an illusion of accomplishing multiple things over an apparently short period. But it’s just that: an illusion. In truth, switching between books is disruptive and counterproductive. For one thing, it’s liable to break the books’ disparate narratives into a farrago of fillers and fragments. For another, it runs the risk of turning an otherwise focused activity into a somewhat chaotic chore.

If you feel the need to put a book on hold because neither the plot nor the prose has given you enough reason to continue (or because either has given you enough reason not to), then by all means abandon it altogether and move on to the next, potentially more engaging title on your to-read pile. It’s just as acceptable to give up on William Faulkner for the complexities in his writing as it is to quit Stephenie Meyer for the lack thereof in hers.

The emotional conditions, the social environments, and other circumstances in which the book is read can have just as significant an impact on your engagement with it. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

5. Get in the zone

In some instances, it’s through no fault of the author’s own that you’re finding it hard to connect with a certain book. It’s not him or her; it’s you.

How well you get along with — and how likely you are to finish — a book is not only dictated by the quality and the integrity of what’s between its covers. The emotional conditions, the social environments, and other circumstances in which it’s read can have just as significant an impact on your engagement with the book. It’s imperative, then, to be in the right state of mind for you to experience the right book at the right time. More often than not, it’s simply a matter of location, location, location. So find your best reading spot and commit to it. It could be that nook by the window in your bedroom, the seldom occupied bench in your neighborhood park, or any of the al fresco tables at your favorite coffee shop.

And if the ambient noise becomes too loud for comfort and concentration, plug in your earbuds and play an apt, preferably instrumental soundtrack to what you’re reading, e.g. the actual score for “Carol” for when you’re reading the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film is based, or music by El Ten Eleven for when you’re progressing through a nonfiction book about subjects such as typography, industrial design, or urban planning. A subscription to Spotify or Apple Music is worth it for this purpose alone.

6. Hands off the internet

No distraction to reading — or any worthwhile activity, for that matter — is greater than the internet. And in all likelihood, no piece of advice on reading more books is more effective than to keep off it, specifically its sinister subset, social media. You may have your nose in a book, but one look at your computer or one notification alert from your smartphone is all it takes to divert your attention for several seconds at best and for hours on end at worst.

So try not to read in close proximity to internet-connected devices, or switch to airplane mode if you’re reading an e-book on your smartphone or tablet. If you frequently need to look up the definitions of unfamiliar words and names, use an actual dictionary or at least a dictionary app with offline support. Better yet, resist the urge to consult Google or Wikipedia and draw from context clues instead to glean information pertinent to what you’re reading.

Far removed from the one Alice fell into, that’s a rabbit hole you’d be ill-advised to enter.