Short attention spans are a twenty-first century malady. It’s to the point where people who aren’t couch potatoes or always on the internet are having a harder time concentrating or commiting to long-term projects. So much of our culture’s based around instant gratification. Youtube will show you the best part of the movie so you don’t have to sit through the whole thing. We’ve come to regard patience as a chore. The world of literature has been most affected by this problem, as seen with the close of Borders and the general decline of interest in books.
Of course, some writers are taking short attention spans into consideration, and writing books with shorter chapters, easier sentences, and arbitrary action, but this is hardly a solution. Instead, if you want to get the most of what literature has to offer, you’ll have to find a way to physically sit down and read, and not be too distracted. So here’s some of my pointers on how you can finish a book in a week. Why a week? A week is a good goal to set. Some days you’ll be busy, other days you won’t. Also, a book’s content will very likely affect you the most if you don’t lag while reading it.
1) If you have to, force yourself to read for ten minutes.
It’s very hard to get the mind to switch modes, especially if you’re on the go a lot or if you’re the type who does a lot of social networking. Getting into books can be challenging if you feel there’s other things you could or should be doing, and things like Twitter and Facebook are constant temptations. That’s why I’d say you will often have to force yourself to read–at first. If you sit down for ten minutes, in that time, your mind will transition from haste-mode to contemplation. When this happens, it’s a great relief.
2) Try to read on a full stomach.
It can be almost impossible to read if you’re hungry, unless you’re a passionate starving artist type. The mind needs vitamins and protein to operate properly. There have been times when I’ve tried to read while hungry and I’ll go through one or two entire chapters, then realize I can’t remember what I just read. If this is a problem for you, just try reading after a meal.
3) Try exercising first.
If you’re in college or in a book club where you’re assigned to finish a book by a certain date, and then you dawdle and have to finish it at the last minute, you might get the idea that the best thing to do is just mainline coffee and stay up all night or get up early in the morning to read and read. The thing to watch out for while reading huge amounts is atrophy and restlessness. Sometimes it can be impossible to concentrate just because it feels like your body has to do something. So if you have a long night of reading ahead of you, try taking a walk first or go to the gym. Most colleges have gyms.
4) If all else fails, try reading while doing something else.
It’s so very easy to be distracted from reading, but I’ve found if I’m doing two things at once, I can often push the rest of the world out of my thoughts. Some people can read with the tv on but I’ve recently found this difficult. I used to be able to read and listen to music, but it’s come to the point where lyrics to a song will insert themselves into the pages of the book, which can be a nuisance if I’m reading classic literature and some banal pop love song invades the prose. I’m often able to get a lot of reading done simple tasks like cooking or downloading stuff online. It’s easy for me when I can tell myself I’m reading until the soup warms up or the file is complete. Similarly, the time when I get the most reading completed now is when I manage to go to the gym. Try using some repetitive equipment like an exercycle or elliptical while reading. If not for the exercycle, I don’t know if I ever would have had the patience to read all of The Wings of the Dove.
5) Switch up your reading material.
Okay, I’ve already listed all of the bodily issues I can think of, so let me point out a mental one: the mind can’t handle much monotony. Or at least, mine can’t. I can’t speak for everyone. This happens to me even with masterpieces of literature. I love the writing of Henry James but I couldn’t possibly read two James novels in a row. In fact, after finishing one of James’ longer books, I’ll try to find something that’s the opposite. I’ll read a space opera or something postmodern like a Murakami novel. Also, switching up your reading material will help you regard each book as things-in-themselves. If you’re someone who reads nothing but vampire romances, I’m sure somewhere in the back of your mind you’re comparing this tale of unrequited occult love with the last one you read.
6) If you’ve done all of the things on the list and still can’t finish a book, set a schedule.
When you’re setting a schedule for a book, you sometimes have to make counterintuitive choices. It might seem at first that the best thing to do is look at the page count and divide that by seven, but that can lead to issues. For example, I have a harder time getting into a book than I do finishing one, so if I have to finish a book by a certain date, I’ll set myself a small amount of pages for the first few days, then a lot for the end of the week. By the last third of the book, if the author’s any good, there’ll be so much suspense that it’s hard to stop reading. I’ll frequently read the last hundred pages of a book in a day, while it might take me five days to get through the first hundred.
7) If all else fails, pick a different book.
It’s very possible that what you’re reading just isn’t good, or that the book just isn’t for you. Spend some time trying to discover what you’re taste in books is. There’s thousands upon thousands of books out there. Oftentimes, the books that you’re friends or bookstores or Oprah recommend simply won’t be something you’ll enjoy. Don’t give up on literature just for that reason. Very frequently the best books aren’t the ones in the limelight but are the ones in the dusty corners where no one goes. Start going to your local library and checking out things that appeal to you, even if you’ve never heard of the author or title. It was by this method that I discovered the work of Raymond Queneau, Cynthia Ozick, Iris Murdoch and William Gaddis–authors I now can’t picture living without.
I hope this guide was helpful.