You Can Read Better Despite a Low Attention Span

When I tell people that I’m a slow reader, I imagine they assume I’m not smart or well read. None of this is true. In fact, I was a fast and voracious reader until college. After that, my reading of fiction took a nose dive and the type of reading I did changed. Instead of reading stories, I was reading non-fiction and scientific journals. When college ended and I first picked up a novel, I found reading extremely difficult.

I wondered if my brain was broken, as it jumped all over the page. I set aside my well-loved classics, and read young adult fiction. Not because it was lesser, but rather, the fast pace of the plots, constant action and simple sentence structure allowed me to read faster. I actually think this is part of the popularity of YA for adults. Lots of story to keep a TV, Internet and cellphone-trained mind focused; Michael Bay on paper has its benefits. The problem was: I didn’t actually like most of those books so eventually I stopped reading all together.

I’d discovered the first truth in reading and comprehension. It was a truth I would understand more fully when selling reading programs to families of kids who were either slow readers or had ADD. Often when you read something and the words make no sense, it’s because you are reading too slowly for your brain to process the ideas behind the words. If you’ve ever helped a kid sound out a word, you’ll understand this idea. If the word is really hard and takes too long to sound out, the kid will often have no idea what the word meant after spending all their energy trying to make it sound right. So, if you are reading each individual word independently and slowly, then the words don’t link up right in our brains and bam… a paragraph goes by and you have no idea what you read. This goes for everyday people, people who sub-vocalize and yes, people with ADD.

Here are the tools I used to enjoy fiction again

Read every day – Reading is like a muscle and the more you read the better reader you will be. This is why many attorneys or new grads suddenly struggle with fiction. They are just out of practice after years of reading detailed non-fiction which is a very different type of reading. The best way to fix this is to read a lot of fiction, but reading six hours on Saturday will have a much smaller effect than reading an hour a day. It is the constant flexing both of the reading skill and the skill of focusing that will improve your comprehension and ability to stay sitting with a book in hand.

Start small – So you want to read an hour a day but you haven’t read fiction for weeks or maybe months. Setting that timer for an hour may be a quick road to failure. When I began running, I used a program that took me from walking to running in tiny increments. In my opinion, becoming a better reader is best approached the same way. Start with ten minutes if you have to, then move it to 15 when that feels easy and like a daily habit. Then 20 and so on. Starting small also goes with the material you choose. If you are only able to focus for 15 minutes a day, Middlesex is going to feel like drudgery and it may take months to feel that first taste of success. This is one of the reasons, Literary Roadhouse focuses on short stories. They are complex and interesting for seasoned readers of literary fiction, while being accessible and non-threatening for people who haven’t read literary fiction for a long time if at all.

Finish what you read – Abandoning books works well for seasoned readers but if you have a hard time focusing, you may find great books… boring. Eventually abandoning an irritating book will be fine, but at first… choose shorter books and finish them. Train your brain to look forward to the end of a good book. When I read Orlando, the first two chapters were pure torture, the language was hard. I had to read much of it aloud but about halfway through my head adjusted to the word jazz on the page and I had one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. Had I set the book down during the first two chapters, my life would be less rich for it.

Quiet but not too quiet – Mama was right. Our brains can’t focus well will lots of noise, but she was too strict. If a room is too quiet, I often find my brain jumping all over the place and antsy. We have trained our brains to focus on many things at once. It needs stimulation or it just bounces. ADD makes that even more pronounced. Same with folks who play a lot of videos games or watch a lot of TV. So while you need quiet, you also need something to keep your brain humming. My solution is to play music without lyrics, classical concerto’s, movie scores and the like. Hans Zimmerman is great for reading. So is Chopin, Tchaikovsky and the rest. Find suites that aren’t overly intense (cello concertos are for the win) and you may find it easier to focus on the page.

Read aloud – Yep, remember what I said about the first time I read Orlando by Virginia Woolf? This is how I solved the problem of language that is too difficult to read fast enough to process. By reading aloud, I am allowing more parts of my brain to do some heavy lifting. In addition, for some pieces, I can enjoy the musicality of language better. There is a reason many people say that poetry must be read aloud. For some books, there is nothing better.

Train your eyes – Stop looking back… no seriously! Try this for a moment, time yourself reading a page. Then time yourself again while putting paper over the lines you’ve already read. We spend a lot of time re-reading without actually realizing it. It’s fine to go back if you need to, but train yourself to make it a choice rather than letting your subconscious drive your eyes around all willy nilly.

Audio Books – Audio books are still books. I hate this idea that they are somehow less than “reading.” They actually take longer to finish and they are great for drives to work or a good walk. I love audiobooks, but in addition to fun, they are a great tool if you are out of the habit of reading. Audiobooks get you used to absorbing stories that aren’t attached to a screen. I find that when I listen to a lot of audiobooks, I actually pick up paper books more often. So don’t belittle or feel embarrassed, audio books rule and no one can tell me otherwise.

Acceptance – There is nothing wrong with being a slower reader. Sure, we may see friends or Booktubers reading 5 books a week, but are they better? No. What is best is learning to enjoy reading and embracing a long lost love of the story. I am glad that I slowed down. Between Middle school and my 20’s I’d read Anna Karenina at least six times. I read it fast and enjoyed the story more than anything else to that point. Then I read it years later, as a slower reader and found that the book changed. The language felt richer and I saw things in the story I hadn’t seen earlier just because I had more time with the book. Just as Mortimer J Adler teaches in his opus, How to Read A Book, there are different types and levels of reading. The truly great reader can perform at all levels and will read differently depending on the type of reading they are doing. Your goal should never be just to read more or faster… the goal in my opinion should be to read better.

4 comments on You Can Read Better Despite a Low Attention Span

  1. The "train your eyes" advice is something I need to take to heart! I love rereading and analyzing passages. Everytime I start a new kindle book, it tells me how long it takes most readers to get through that book. I double it and know that’s how long it will take me. I’m an analytic reader, I suppose. Sometimes I’ll copy by hand my favorite passages, so that I remember those passages better. Sometimes. I need to really love the book and author to do this.
    And you’ll be happy to hear I am giving audiobooks a go. I’m starting with Amy Poehler for obvious reasons (my queen.)

    1. Maya Goode says:

      I am an analytic reader too. It was drilled into me during college, but I left college unable to go back and forth between the types of reading. The problem isn’t taking time for marginalia. The problem is reading a thriller the same way you would read a classic and the same way you would read a text book. That’s why I love How To Read a Book so much. I’m still studying it, but it’s been really helpful in teaching me the different types of reading so I can make a conscious choice instead of just struggling with my default.

    2. Maya Goode says:

      All that said, when I speak of training your eyes I am actually speaking of subconscious eye wondering not note taking or analyzing. Most slow readers and people with comprehension issues do it pretty badly, but it is the first thing a speed reading class works to eliminate. Regardless of how controversial speed reading is, this one thing generally helps people a lot.

      1. By the way, I tried the classical music/background noise trick over the weekend. Such a great tip! I read so much better.

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