There’s plenty of advice out there to help you read more – but what about how to get more from what you read? Here’s how
Pursue ‘targeted serendipity’
Pick each new book at random, and you’ll end up with plenty of duds. But if you stick religiously to the same authors or genres, or rely on Amazon’s recommendation engine, which makes suggestions based on past purchases, you’ll never expand your horizons. Choose a middle path: use a recommendation site such as Whichbook, which filters books based on numerous sliding scales – “funny/serious”, “optimistic/bleak”, “no sex/lots of sex” – without knowing which specific titles you’ve previously read.
Stick to print
Quite apart from the romanticism in the smell and feel of “real” books, there’s some persuasive psychological research to suggest that we grasp their content of paper books better and faster than ebooks’. This could be because we subconsciously use physical cues to store information: whether something’s on the left or right page; how many pages are under your right thumb, still to be read, etc.
In one British study, children who read only on screens were three times less likely to say they greatly enjoyed reading. It’s also been argued that the blue light emitted by tablets may seriously interfere with sleep and health.
Read first, talk later
The web offers countless opportunities to join a worldwide, 24-hour book group, such as Readmill, an e-reader platform that lets readers have conversations in the margins. But there’s much to be said for more limited devices – paper books, say, or basic Amazon Kindles – that make it harder for your attention to wander.
As the new media thinker Clay Shirky, no Luddite, puts it: “Tell me later who else liked it. Show them to me, introduce them to me, whatever – not right now. Right now I’m reading.” Make reading and discussing two distinct activities.
Keep it literary
Last year, a controversial but well-designed study at the New School for Social Research in New York, found that reading literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro) enhanced the capacity for empathy, and that the same didn’t apply to popular fiction or non-fiction. One hunch is that literary fiction leaves more to the reader’s imagination, forcing you to work harder to enter the emotional worlds of others. “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer,” explained one researcher. “In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”
Split your time: have a few books on the go
While you’re best advised not to try to read 20 books at once, there are definitely advantages to choosing three or four at once. Have a mix of fiction and non-fiction on the go, each suited to different moods and contexts. Even bad books can help – by sending you back to the good ones. “When you’re not feeling the book in front of you, pick up something else,” writes one blogger, Leigh Kramer, an advocate of the multi-book approach. “This will either make you want to go back to your original choice or press forward with one of your other options.”