Absolutely ages ago, I asked on Instagram for questions regarding reading and books. This may seem an unusual topic to dedicate a whole Q&A to on here, but I actually get tons of questions about my reading habits, so I wanted to collate everything into one post for those of you who might be interested. As many of you asked similar questions, I won't be naming anyone in this post, for which I hope you can forgive me.
For those of you who don't know (at least *some* of you must be new, right?) I did my degree and Master's in English literature, and reading is one of favourite things to do and always has been since I was very little. I'm currently on a mission to read all the unread books on my shelves by the end of 2019; I'm not actually going to achieve this because it's around 150 books and I do have other things to do (sadly), but basically I'm reading a lot at the moment. Because I'm now out of university, this post is going to be mostly dedicated to recreational reading.
When do you read in the day and how many hours a day do you read for?
It would probably be more accurate to ask when I read in a week, because I tend to have a bit more of a weekly routine than a daily one. Obviously I have my current goal of three books a week, so a few afternoons a week I will schedule in reading time, and that can be up to eight hours of straight reading, though it is usually more like five to six. Like I said at the beginning of the year, I wanted to schedule in time to do more things I love, plus all this reading time is something I will hopefully transition to ~writing~ time once I've finished my unread books challenge. I try and get up early and do most of my work before lunch hours so that I can dedicate these afternoons to books, but obviously some weeks that just doesn't work, in which case I do read less that day/week. If I don't have an afternoon to dedicate to reading I do usually read for at least half an hour, often before bed. On weekends I am usually busy with other more sociable plans (unfortunately I haven't convinced everyone that we should all sit in silence reading together), but there are those blissful weekends when I lay around and read in which case I usually make good progress. Ultimately I'm not sure exactly how many hours I spend reading a week, but it must be at least around fifteen if I reach my three books goal, if not more?
How do you read lots of books in a short space of time?
Before I get into this one, I want to emphasise that you should never force yourself to read quickly if it doesn't feel right to you. Never let anyone make you feel bad for reading fewer books more slowly, because everyone reads and enjoys books at different paces, and it doesn't make you a better or worse reader. There's two reasons why I try to read lots of books in a short space of time, the first being that it helps me to read more. As a goal-orientated person, having lots of books to read within a certain time frame demands that I make the time to do something I love, otherwise I easily let it fall to the wayside. Once I've finished my challenge this year, I think I will still endeavour to read two books a week, because it feels natural to me and will basically just keep me reading. The other reason is simply that there's so much I want to read and I'm impatient to read it all. I remember worrying as a little girl that I wouldn't get time to read all the good books (…I definitely still worry about this). This comes from a lifelong habit of reading, so if that isn't you then don't worry, reading is wonderful in whatever form you do it, and if you are happy with your pace then don't let anyone make you feel otherwise!
Anyway, back to the question… I've had a long hard think about this one, because although I would consider myself a fast reader generally (I think through sheer practice because I was reading voraciously from an early age and then had to speed through things throughout my years in education), there are a few things I do which help me keep it fast. I usually have mini goals along the way, so I will read in fifty page increments. In an average book, I can get through fifty pages in around an hour (thirty pages if I'm taking intense university-style notes), so I will usually work towards 100/150/200 pages as I go along and this helps keep me motivated, especially if it's a long book. I also think sitting down for a few dedicated hours in a week is probably more conducive to getting through a book than reading for half an hour here and there. It will help you get through a more hefty chunk and your concentration (and hopefully the storyline of the book!) will help you get through more than you would otherwise. And of course finally there's what we've already mentioned; scheduling time and having goals.
Why do you write notes and what do you write your notes on now that you are no longer at university? Do you still read as critically as you did before?
I write notes on all my books for a few reasons. I really wanted to be one of those people who annotated their books, because I think it immortalises a little piece of you when you do that (how you thought, what you thought was noteworthy), but ultimately I didn't want to influence any future readers of my copies (I find annotations distracting and prevent me from forming my own opinions). So instead I thought I would write my thoughts in a selection of dedicated notebooks so that if me or one of my descendants wants to know what I thought about a book they can go back and find it. Stuff like that is the kind of thing I would love to have of someone's who I knew and loved. I also take notes so that I can write more detailed reviews and talk about the books I read in a more comprehensive way here and on my channel; even just writing the notes helps me to remember, I don't have to read them necessarily. Although, after a couple of years I have a really bad memory for plot points and details in books; I don't know why this is but I suspect it just comes through reading a lot and not having the space to keep it all, so the notebooks help me preserve that information. And finally, it's a habit leftover from university that prompts me to think about what I'm reading and slow down a little bit (sometimes stopping to think can be a good thing!)
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what I write notes on because I think it must be a very personal thing; it surely must depend on what interests you. Generally I'm looking out for the same things I looked out for when studying literature, though on a smaller and less detailed scale; issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, religion, nature/ecology and science, relationships between the parent/child, relationships in general, depictions of nonlife or nonhuman life, how power works in the novel, instances of violence. What is the philosophy of the book (humanist/marxist/eco)? What is it saying but also what is it not saying, on purpose or otherwise? To me, these are the things that make a text interesting. In most works there are usually a few key points, pivotal moments where everything changes, so I will usually note those. I will also note anything significant about the style of writing, the character development, the form, the genre or the historical period to which the novel might refer (and how this relates to when it was written) and of course how these things might relate to the themes. Sometimes I will take down whole quotes that I either like or think are interesting, and obviously recurring imagery or vocab can be notable, too. Naturally all of these things don't occur in one typical book, but that's a broad overview of things I might write notes on. Ultimately, each book has its own guiding themes and thoughts, so I let the book lead me when it comes to notes.
What's your favourite genre?
I will read pretty much any genre, but a good number of my favourite books are works of speculative fiction (an umbrella term inclusive of fantasy and science fiction). I think speculative fiction in its very nature sets out to ask questions of the world we live in by changing fundamental elements, and I find that the genre is especially ready to tackle difficult topics and explore concepts in a prolonged and nuanced way, which are things I look for in a book. However, I enjoy lots of genres, and there are constant surprises for me as to which ones stick in my memory. Some of my other favourites from the last year include a reimagined Western (In the Distance by Hernan Diaz) and a retelling of King Lear set on an Iowan farm (A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley), and the two of them cross and blend genre boundaries in interesting ways.
What was the first book series you became obsessed with?
Although I was an avid reader before I read them, it would have to be His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I reread them a few years back and was still impressed (and of course he is now bringing out a whole new prequel series, too). The fantasy trilogy interrogates religion and philosophy across a multiverse, but it also looks at love and relationships and coming of age. Highly recommend it to this day, and it definitely showed me what literature could do and where it could take you.
Do you have a favourite book of all time?
I definitely could not choose a favourite book! I will do a post on some of my top picks, but it's a bit of a tricky one because there are a few supposed favourites that I read many years ago and I'd like to reread now I'm a bit older (and hopefully wiser). After I've finished all my unread books I would like to incorporate some of the novels I read as a teenager into my reading list so I can re-evaluate them and hopefully enjoy them all over again.
Best holiday reads?
For a holiday read I would always go for something relatively easy style-wise and nothing too long (so no Marlon James or James Joyce), but other than that I generally just keep reading what I usually would. I'd recommend something like His Dark Materials or the Broken Earth trilogy because they are action-packed but also worthy reads that will suck you in. I read The Idiot in St Lucia and was cackling on my sunbed, and I also think a solid American novel with good character development can be a good holiday read, so think A Thousand Acres or World's Fair. I'll be letting you guys know what I'm taking on my summer holidays in upcoming videos I'm sure.
Do you mix up storylines in your head reading multiple books at once?
In order to maximise my progress with a book, I tend to only read one at a time. I find it's the easiest way for me to get through a number of books quickly otherwise I’m spreading myself too thin. Having said that I always have a Kindle book; something I'm reading when I'm on the go. And a few weeks back I was stuck in the middle of some long ones and was reading a few at once. When that happens I don't tend to mix up the storylines but I often see interesting connections between them and I think in that instance it can actually be quite a productive way to think about books, especially if you read things that are vaguely similar at the same time. But generally I am a one book kind of girl.
How do you get back into reading after falling out of the habit? Do you ever get into a reading slump yourself?
Although I always have a book on the go (I would feel weird if I didn't), there are times when a few weeks have gone by without me picking it up, and I know for many of you that can easily turn into months and years. And honestly, I totally understand; reading is something that requires that little bit of extra brainpower than your average TV show (though maybe not as much as watching Westworld), and often we are tired and just want to zone out. Plus it is time heavy, and when we're busy it can be the last thing on our minds. Throughout my undergrad years most of my recreational reading was happening in the summertime. And that's probably my first tip; if you are taking some time off at any point in the near future, it can be a really good way to kickstart your reading again and remind you that you enjoy it. Be it a holiday, a long weekend, or even a few days when you're not feeling well, the best thing to do is to read something you are going to really enjoy (discard anything you don't), and get in a few hours. Hopefully when your routine returns to normal you'll feel more incentivised to pick up your book more regularly.
And then there's that bit I keep banging on about: make the time. Maybe you're going to read every Tuesday evening, or every Sunday afternoon. Always have a book by your bed or in your living room or in your bag so you can see it and are reminded to read it. And only read things you like, especially if you're prone to slumps! Give up on things you don't like and donate them, it's not worth the many hours you have to put into a book.
What do you do if you fall asleep every time you start reading?
I feel like reading has sent everyone to sleep at some point (partially a good thing if you find it tricky to sleep!) It happened to me less often when I was reading at a desk for uni, but now it does happen to me far more often as I'm reading in comfortable spots round the house. If I'm really struggling and my eyes are closing, I just take a twenty minute nap in the middle of my reading session. I'm not sure if that's normal, but it helps enormously; when I pick my book up again after I can read for hours and hours. The only thing is being disciplined at getting up from your cat nap.
How do you decide what to read on Kindle and IRL?
I don't feel like I have any hard and fast rules on this one, but generally I don’t pick hard or long reads for the Kindle. If I’m using it I’m usually on the go so I want something I can follow over time and is not too heavy. Having said that I’m currently in the middle of the supremely science-y Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy which is packed with quantum physics so like I said that's not really a concrete rule.
Do you ever give up on books?
On a rare occasion, I do give up on a book. I gave up on White Teeth because I had so many issues with it and I was in the middle of my MA and just couldn’t bear to waste anymore time on it. I gave up on Flights because I found it completely unbearable to read and it was slowing me down. But I’m generally really bad at giving up on books because I’m too much of a stickler and I feel like it taunts me forever afterwards. Plus there are multiple books I’ve got halfway through and completely changed my mind about so I’m always wary of putting one down. I need to get better at this though, because ultimately we don’t have time for bad books.
Do you have any favourite booktubers?
To be honest I don’t watch a lot of book videos on YouTube (so far the people I have stumbled across haven’t really shared my taste in books), but there are a few book accounts I follow on Instagram who I love. I haven’t fully delved into ‘bookstagram’ so I imagine I’m missing out some great accounts but here is a list of my faves:
How do you use the five star system on Goodreads?
I used to be a lot harsher in my ratings on Goodreads but I’m trying to use more than just the 3 star button these days to differentiate between books a little better. Basically if I’m rating something a 3.5 in my head I’m pushing it up to a 4 on Goodreads as opposed to keeping it down to a 3. But here’s my general system if you want to be able to interpret my Goodreads and get a heads up for my book videos and reviews:
1 star - unreadable, probably didn’t finish it, abhorrent in some way
2 star - it was at least readable but had serious flaws
3 star - it was a decent to good read (most books fall into this category - could be pretty good with a few major flaws, could be only passable but very readable etc etc)
4 star - it was good and interested me
5 star - it was amazing, (almost) perfect
Do you feel like studying literature changed your tastes? And what guides your choices now that you are no longer doing a university program?
I feel like studying literature refined my tastes and made me more critical of what I read. I don’t think that being more critical has ruined my experience of reading, though, because I enjoy analysing books and taking more out of them. Also, studying literature definitely broadened my horizons and introduced me to loads of books and authors I probably never would have read otherwise.
In terms of picking current books, I follow bookstagrammers, keep an eye on longlists for the major literary prizes, browse Goodreads lists, read reviews in newspapers, follow writers on Twitter, and I have a longgggg list of authors and books I want to read that I’ve compiled over the years. So there’s lots to pick from! There’s not much I wouldn’t consider reading, so there’s a bit of everything in there.
Do you feel pressured to be reading something you don't?
I am mostly interested in contemporary novels, so I imagine many people would consider me a bit unversed in the classics (though to be honest I’ve got through my fair share and will be reading more always), but I’ve never been bothered by that. I like what I like and I'm happy to stick to that.
Are there common elements in all your favourite books?
Like I said above, my favourite books have all made me think about something, and have explored difficult questions and pushed boundaries. And my favourites always have the best, most complex characters.
Do you read poetry?
From time to time I read poetry but it’s not my preferred form of literature, mostly because I find it difficult to consume. Should I read the whole poetry book in one sitting, or a poem a day (suddenly the latter seems like a good idea)? I think that’s just a habit thing because I grew up reading novels. Nobody can deny there’s some great poetry out there though.
Does your whole family like to read as much as you do?
Yes! I’m eternally grateful to my mum for always reading and having books around the house. I basically thought we went on holiday in order to read books. Nowadays I probably read the most but we are generally ~readers~.
Do you read nonfiction?
I’m so keen to get back into my nonfiction. I obviously read a lot throughout my university career, though it was my MA that really pushed me intellectually and gave me a whole host of writers and journals to follow up on and read more from. It’s something I’m going to include more of once I’ve finished these unread books. There's a huge amount of topics I'm interested in all across the humanities and sciences, so I'm really missing that element in my reading at the moment.
That's it for now! I'm planning to do posts dedicated to life-changing reads, favourite books within a certain genre, and of course my normal monthly roundups and shelf tours, so if you asked about these things don't worry they will be covered soon.