Kathryn our Campaigns Manager (a keen reader) and Beth our Marketing and Communications Officer (more of a holiday reader) talk about feeling the pressure to read more in the new year, finding your reading focus and how quality over quantity is the best method.
Beth [B]: Earlier this month we were talking about New Year’s resolutions after you sent me an article from the Guardian about people setting reading targets for the new year. I remember saying that I was impressed how that works for some people, but for someone like me who doesn’t read as often (and tends to feel guilty about it), setting targets doesn’t necessarily work and can also mean you don’t properly process the books you are reading. Now it’s nearly the end of January and I’m feeling the pressure even more to have reached some kind of milestone.
Kathryn [K]: Definitely. Setting targets can be helpful for many people, but for me it becomes more about the goal. You can find yourself saying at the end of the year “I’m just going to read shorter books to try and reach that goal” – your reading can end up becoming focused on reaching that number, rather than enjoying the books.
[B]: Exactly, I don’t think that would work for me, especially working at The Reading Agency where our mission is about reading for pleasure!
[K]: Reading should be about enjoyment. If you’re setting yourself a goal, you have to consider that if you have a busy week, or you’re reading a longer book, it’s going to take you more time to read. Worrying about getting off track can take the enjoyment out of it and then you can miss out on the benefits of reading, such as to your mental wellbeing.
[B]: Definitely. I’m reading Stolen Focus by Johann Hari at the moment and although I’m only a little way in there’s so much I’m already learning. The book talks about ‘flow states’ as an intense period of concentration. The kind where you find yourself saying “I can’t believe two hours have passed”. I realised that I don’t often get that with reading because I get distracted easily. You know when you have to reread a paragraph over and over again? It’s so frustrating.
When I sit down to read, it feels like using binoculars. It’s like when you start focusing the binoculars you can almost see the view you’re looking at, but it’s blurry and the detail isn’t visible. Then you keep fiddling with the focus and you can see the trees more and then finally you can see exactly what you’re looking at. It’s like that when I start reading. Often, I’m trying to tune out my internal monologue of “oh look I’m reading, well done me” which means I’m not actually taking anything in! It just takes time to reach that state where the distractions quiet and you can focus on the book.
[K]: After a busy day it takes time to calm your brain and go from reading the words to processing the words.
[B]: Yes, and I completely admire the people that can get straight into focused reading and reach their targets. I wish I could.
You’re a keen reader, how many books did you read last year? Mine was probably about 3!
[K]: I think it was about 40 which is less than what I read the year before. But when I look at that I think “I know I read fewer books, but there were times in the year when I read less because of things happening in my life, or because I was stressed which meant I had less time and mental space to read.”
It’s all about being kind to yourself. Personally, if I put a number on it then it puts pressure on my reading. It’s about what’s realistic for you. We all have different things going on in our lives; for some people reading two books a year might be a big achievement for them or it might be 10 books, and some people might read 100 books or even more. It’s all so individual and it’s important to not compare yourself to other people. Everyone reads at different speeds, and everyone has different things going on. If you feel happy with what you’ve done, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone else has done and how many books they’ve read!
[B]: Think about the quality of the enjoyment of the book – even if you hated the book! What’s important is how deeply you engaged with it.
I’ve found I’ve had to start thinking about reading much more since working at The Reading Agency, it’s not really something that I spent a lot of time considering before. I realised that there were a few books I read last year that I talked to other people about while reading them, and I found that I remembered and enjoyed those books much more than ones I didn’t discuss with friends. You know when you zoom through something and then you’ve got absolutely no idea what happened?
[K]: I do that all the time if I read quickly, I often just completely forget the book.
[B]: Exactly, so after chatting to people about the book and the characters and recommending it, I remembered it more and enjoyed it much more. It wasn’t just me absorbing what the author had written, I was also coming up with my own ideas and sharing them with others, which I think helps fully realise those thoughts in your brain.
[K]: That’s a big reason why a lot of people join book clubs; because it helps them to think about their reading more and it gives them that shared experience. We did some research in 2020 that found that 71% of people enjoy reading more because of their book club. It takes reading from a very solitary activity to a communal one and helps you to think deeper about the content.
[B]: With reading groups there can also be a goal as you need to read the book by a certain time. But those timelines are often longer and more flexible and they work for that group dynamic. I know for a fact my mum’s reading group chat and drink wine more than they talk about the books!
Ultimately, it might look very impressive to see your mate from school or work logging 200 books on Goodreads, but if that causes you to feel guilty or stressed then I think that’s the opposite of what reading should be doing for you.
[K]: We had a really good book on the World Book Night list a few years ago called The Kindness Method and it’s all about being kind to yourself with your goals. It mentions New Year’s resolutions, saying that lots of people push themselves too hard and too fast with their resolutions. For example, if you want to get fit and go to the gym, don’t go from zero to five times a week. It’s unrealistic and you’re not going to be able to keep it up. Maybe start with once a week and build it up or try things like getting off the bus a stop early and walking the rest of the way. Similarly, if you don’t read that often and then you say “I’m going to read a book a week” it’s probably not going to be realistic for you.
[B]: I’m going to keep going on about Stolen Focus, but in it they talk about exactly that. To find enjoyment in concentration and regain your focus you should set yourself goals that are reachable, that push you, but not too far. Otherwise, that focus will be broken, and you’ll give up! It’s got to be a bit hard, but mostly enjoyable. I know I’m not about to start going to the gym five times a week right now…
[K]: I think with reading it can also be about finding the right thing. If you push yourself to read the books that everyone’s reading, or a lot of people might think “I should read the classics”, and actually you don’t enjoy those books, then you’re not going to enjoy the whole experience and it can put you off.
[B]: Yeah, you’ve been put through reading the classics in school, no need to do that in your personal life if you don’t like them!
[K]: Exactly, so whether it’s highbrow literary fiction, or rom-coms, or non-fiction, or maybe you prefer audio books, just find what works for you and don’t compare yourself to other people.
[B]: I think that’s it: don’t compare yourself, set yourself a reachable but easy target (if you want to set a target at all), focus on your enjoyment and try to figure out the types of books that you love. I’m going to give that a go!
Let us know how you feel about setting reading resolutions by tweeting us on Twitter @Reading_Groups