how to read

This is for those of you who know how to read words, but are struggling to read a book.  As in sit down with a book, and just read it.  With intention and focus and enjoyment.

A couple days ago the public library phoned me to tell me it was closing.  It was probably my most unregulated emotional moment so far, as our springtime of isolation has been revealing her depths.

I had an ugly little breakdown as I realized it would probably be months before I can borrow a book.  I put down the phone and I cry to the boy, 'The library has closed it's doors!  But what will I read?!'

The boy doesn't answer but pointedly casts his eyes around the room, taking in probably a thousand books or more, before returning to his (text heavy) video game.  It's all fine for him maybe, as somebody reads to him out loud everyday as part of his homeschool and before bed, and is a reluctant reader beyond that, but if I told him that Fortnite and Roblox were shut down and he'd have to just play the video games he only has for his Nintendo 64, he would lose his eleven year old mind.

I am a person who doesn't describe herself as someone who reads a lot, although I do.  Since I started tracking in 2013, I've jotted down more than nine hundred titles.  That's just the ones I remembered to record.

I do read a lot, but when I talk about reading, I speak of myself as Bookish.  Like an identity.  I don't just read books, I am books.  They are a part of my being, the same way my bones and flesh are.  (But not, like, literally.)

There are many fine arguments as to why people should read books.  Fiction and non-fiction, lengthy books, electronic or the more tactile form, the act of reading is generally agreed to be good.  A search of the Internet will throw up any number of elegant reasons, some of them even animated on YouTube.

There are arguments against reading as well, though many of them are located at earlier historical points.  Reading about why people believed in the past that reading was a terrible idea is one of, I think, the best arguments for why we should read as much as possible, all the time.

So, being Bookish, it may surprise you to learn that reading a book is, for me, a complex, sometimes difficult task.  I know there is a perception that bookish people just are. We just sit and read effortlessly, that it's a easy as slipping on ice, we just fall onto it. Except instead of cracking a tailbone, we lay upon our couches sipping hot beverages, all cozy and smug.

I think this image of literary escapism is one of the reasons so many people tell me they wish they could read more.  It seem warm and peaceful, an idyllic mental holiday.

Sorry, definitely not true for me.  That's just tea packaging propaganda.  Sure, there were times in my life when it was easy to read, practically a compulsion.  That's a common prepubescent vocation, I think, as our desire for life experience is far greater than any that the people around us are willing to let us explore without supervision.  But once out of the Sweet Valley High phase, well, things just don't go as smoothly.  

For me, reading is work. It is pleasant work, mostly, but a certain level of effort is required.  I have mentioned before that I also have ADHD.  I am easily distractible.  I have a hard time sitting still.  I have a difficult time remembering what I just read.  I spend hours every week searching for the book I just put down... somewhere.  And despite this, or because of this, I definitely want to read.

I am also a recent ADHD diagnosis, which means that I have had these forty some years to wonder why the hell I am the way I am and, more importantly, develop highly personal and effective strategies.  Reading is something that I have a structured approach to but is also integral to the management of my ADHD. You'll see what I mean below.

This is how I read:

1. A non-negotiable part of my daily routine involves reading.  I have built in reading times, including for half an hour or in the morning while I have coffee (actually, this is an active brain time for me where I also dump all my creative ideas as well as read but I will talk about that later).  I also read before bed to help me sleep as it helps minimize the endless rolling of thoughts that would otherwise keep me awake all night.

I also bring along a book with me in case I have any waiting times during the day. This also helps me manage my time in that my ADHDness loses track of time often and I end up arriving late to places, except that I'm looking forward to having a few moments just me and my book, so I leave ridiculously early so I can have that time.  That means I'm at most of my appointments just on time.

2. I follow my energy, or as my daughter would say, the vibe. In the early mornings I like to sit and read but in the late morning, especially if I'm reading out loud to someone else, I like to pace.  Also, if I'm high energy, I put a lot of drama in my voices and exclaimations.  If I'm reading to just myself, I will still read out loud, even perform, to make that noise and focus myself with the stimulation.  Sound a little crazy?  Maybe, but it's also fun and keeps me on task.

I'll add here that when I was a child, I used to ride my bike and even drive an off road quad while reading.  I do not recommend this, but my need for movement to help me focus is what is key here. A rocking chair may do it for someone else. Or walking a track that they don't need to pay attention to.  Reading in the car if it doesn't give you motion sickness (not while you are the driver though).  Treadmills could work for someone else but they are too weird for me.  I need to vary my pace and not be worried about tripping on that grippy rubber bottom.

3. If I want to read but I'm getting distracted, I add stimulus.  First, I do read out loud in outrageous ways.  It isn't too long before I settle down into after that. I'll also take my bookmark and go through line by line.  I take notes of characters as I go, or details that might be important.  In other words, I add a task for myself that is centered on the reading.  I may tap my fingers or play with a fidget but I prefer a stim that is directly related to the text.

I will also take myself out to a more stimulating environment with background noise.  Coffee shop or some nature area with running water or chirpy birds. Or turn on a radio station loud enough that I can hear it, but not actual words.  This is a tricky one because ambient noises can also distract, and my inability to filter out irrelevant noises, especially conversations can make this work well or terribly. The worst place is actually the library, as it's too quiet that I can hear every shuffle, cough and whispered question.  All of that grabs my attention and away from my book.  So I find a nice burble that is not too loud but still filters out the tiny unpredicted sounds.  Some people use headphones and a repetitive beat, trance music, or something they enjoy but doesn't demand excessive attention.  Familiar old television shows, white noise machines, or your spouse talking also works well for some.

4. I also follow my mood.  I am reading four or five books at any particular time.  I do enjoy a variety of genres and non-fiction all over the place as I am a total book slut.  But I do swap my books around throughout the day.  In the mornings I like to tackle my big heavy non fictions, with historical or pathological topics.  They tend to be heavy hardcovers that sit supported in my lap while I hold my coffee. Before bed, I read lighter topics that are entertaining but don't suck me in so bad that I can't sleep.  Children's adventure fiction is my choice here, although if it's been a hard day, it might be Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes.  I have also been known to have a small stack beside me of books that I read a couple of pages of each, rotating the order through if I am having a hard time focusing but still want to sit and read.  The switching books allows for small dopamine surges that works kind of like channel surfing or checking my social media.

5. Oh, social media.  So this is genuinely a problem.  ADHD and social media is the most dangerous combination.  I am managing a lot of it by setting timers and restrictions.  For instance, ten minutes of reading, set down book, pick up phone for five minutes, and then ten more minutes of reading.  For anyone who thinks I just stay idle for hours reading, you'd be very surprised how often I get up and move around.  I just build in the phone checks or wanders in the kitchen for snacks instead of trying to stop it.  Boundaries not barriers.

6. Speaking of ADHD, there are a couple of specific issues we have.  The above suggestions might be helpful for any neurology, at least to try and see if it helps.  But ADHD has two key issues in particular.  First is dyslexia is quite common and a complication that does not apply to me.  I can not address this, but if anyone has resources they like to share, please comment!  I have dyscalculia, which has it's own set of trials and tribulations, but it doesn't affect my reading.

Another issue is that many people with ADHD are bombarded by ideas, things they should be doing, things they want to do, and random, intrusive thoughts that are nearly impossible to shut off. What I do is keep a piece of paper beside me with a pen and I write it down as it occurs to me, then back to my book.  I do not make this paper a to-do list, which is a whole other set of problems for people who lack the ability to prioritize and have 'pick up medication' on the same list as 'paint the basement'. Oh nos.  On this paper I put the date on top and then I scribble down or draw whatever occurs to me.  I may, if I think there is something important later, scan the list and see what it was (pick up milk?  feed the dog?) but mostly I tuck it into a folder I keep (eventually) and never expect to look at it again.  If I am every stuck for ideas when I sit down to work, I may go back and scan a few sheets because they are chalk full of random fun stuff that usually gets me working on something.

The above list is not complete obviously, and addresses mainly the adult who is trying to read for pleasure. For required reading such as school work or legal documents, or encouraging your kids to read, there are many resources written about it online and in... books!

Additionally, I do not have a visual imagination, so I can not address how people picture it.  I do experience stories with imaginary textures or moods or sort of murky feels, but that is definitely a neurodiverse dark alley that we don't need to talk about right now.

Good luck to everyone who are now confronting their home libraries and vowing to tackle some of the books they've been meaning to read.  Unless you Marie Kondo'd your books away, then, well, you just get judgement and heads shakes from me.

Let us know if there is things that you do that help you focus and enjoy your reading time.

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