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The Normal Person’s Guide to New Year’s Resolutions: Reading More

Advice from a librarian, a literary agent and more

Given the ubiquity of smartphones — and the fact that we’re essentially tethered to them at all times — it’s strange to think that we’re not reading enough. But as modern life has provided more and more distractions, we’re reading less and less books. Whether you want to actually read the classics or just kinda figure you should find a more honorable form of entertainment than mindlessly thumbing through Twitter on the shitter, here’s some expert advice on how to put down your phone and pick up a book.

David Gordon, author of The Serialist and Mystery Girl: The fact is, we’re as much of a text-based society as ever, but [it’s largely] reading tweets, blogs, texts, emails, memes, posts and ads. It’s a constant stream of words, or in the parlance of our times: Content. So when we say wish we read more, what we mean, I think, is that we wish we read more deeply, more widely and probably more slowly.

As a writer — sorry, content provider — I’m, of course, glad to hear it, since it’s my job to make that particular sausage, but I also have to say: I relate. One of the ironies of being a writer — and a professor — is that I’m either staring at a screen all day, too, or I’m reading my students’ work, or the books I assign for class. So the books I want to read — the new ones recommended by friends, or those that I’ve been meaning to read for a decade — are stacked up and waiting.

Still, I think it’s good to have these books around. This seems obvious, but by around I mean actually with you, close to hand: In your pocket, on the train, on the plane, in the dentist’s waiting room, by your bedside, and yes, in the bathroom — though as a writer I try not to picture that one too often. When I taught Proust to adults and they wondered how they would get through Swann’s Way in 10 weeks, I pointed out that it averaged out to around 50 pages a week. So if they read five pages in the morning on the way to work and five at night, then it was done — though most of them ended up reading much more at night, over lunch, in a beach chair or on the couch over the weekend.

That brings me to point two: Find books you’re into and ditch the boring ones. As a teacher, I have to assign something and everyone has to read it, even me, or there’s no class. But as a writer, I dread the idea of anybody thinking that my book is a chore or homework. Now, for a lot of people, Proust is a good example of something that goes right on the “no thanks” pile. That’s fine: For years, on the first day of every vacation, I’d read the first few pages, go, “Nah,” and pick up something else. Then one day I got hooked. So put together your wish list of great books you want to read someday, and whichever page one makes you want to read page two, keep going. You’ll actually be glad when the subway is (a little) slow, or your 3 p.m. coffee meeting shows up at 3:20. Another chapter!

Lan Samantha Chang, director, Iowa Writers’ Workshop: This is a wonderful moment to explore short stories. They’re compact, vivid wedges of human consciousness that offer the potential of enormous artistic range and experience. All of this in exchange for just a half-hour of your time.

John Szabo, City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library: Start with hot tea, and then get a library card! Your public library has thousands of books, including ebooks, available for free. Bestsellers, classics and titles on virtually any topic. Reading is more enjoyable when you know your books were free! Also, downloadable audiobooks are perfect for commutes — whether by car, bus, train or foot. And, yep, they’re free, too!

For Californians, the Los Angeles Public Library makes it easy — cards are free to California residents, and they unlock 24/7 access to our incredible collections and resources. In addition to checking out materials from our 73 libraries, cardholders can download titles for free onto phones, tablets or laptops, including an array of e-books as well as online magazine and newspaper subscriptions. You can even “read more” by listening to our thousands of audiobooks. And if you find that resolution to read more slipping a little, we also offer plenty of films and the latest in music.

Jill Marr, literary agent: As a literary agent, most of my time is spent reading unpublished manuscripts, so I don’t really have time for pleasure reading. But it’s important for me to keep up with trends, styles, etc., and the only way I can do that is by reading the books that everyone else is reading. So this year I’ve started doing all my pleasure reading on audio book. Some people would consider it cheating, but I downloaded the app to my phone and take my latest book with me wherever I go.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says you should always be reading several books at a time, including one audio book, because you can only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” so many times. It’s so true — now, instead of the radio, I listen to a book in my car, while I’m doing dishes, you name it. I’ve “read” six novels since June — six more than I would’ve enjoyed had I not found the gift of audio books.