Reading for Livability
There are so many important non-fiction books out there to support the kind of social change needed on the planet today but many of us find it hard to get through them.
If you love reading your non-fiction books and happily pick them up already, enjoy that.
But if that’s not working for you and you’re just not picking up those books, or you have something you want to read and are feeling stuck, try one of these three joyful strategies for cracking open the text.
But before we go there, consider the radical notion that maybe you don’t need to read the book at all. Maybe you just need the idea of the book. I’m grateful to adrienne maree brown for this wisdom in her influential work on shaping change and pleasure activism:
“You can also just like the idea of this book. I often like an idea that I don’t have time or energy to fully engage.” — adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy
Brown puts words to something I have long sensed. Even as an avid reader, sometimes I just don’t end up reading the book I got from the library or the text a colleague recommended. I feel that way about Paul Hawken’s Drawdown. I have read several books on climate change and I have had this one on my shelf for years; it makes me feel better, but I have never even read a word of it. I think it is the idea of the book that I need for now.
If that’s the case, why beat yourself up about it? Why not KonMari it instead? Does it spark joy sitting there on your shelf? If not, consider thanking the book for showing you you don’t have time or energy to engage fully with those ideas right now and let it go. If yes, then enjoy one of these three strategies to get you reading happily:
If you want to develop a reading habit or find more pleasure in books, I suggest dipping in and dipping out at random.
Scan the books on your shelf or the stack from the library and pick the one that stands out to you. Open the book to any random page and read that page. This may draw you into reading from the beginning of that chapter or finishing the chapter. Or maybe that one page or a few sentences was all you needed. That’s enough.
Enjoy this practice once in a while or as a daily practice.
Akin to listening to the entire album of a favorite song, use this strategy to honor the author’s larger vision and give yourself a more directed line of inquiry.
I invented this strategy during the early days of the pandemic when I was mid-way through a six-month journey and had only a few slim volumes with me on the trip. Time and space both felt fuzzy and uncertain, and I wanted to feel like I was doing something meaningful each day. I decided that if I read anything at all, I could call the day a win. In my suitcase, I had three treasured texts with me, Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, a collection of Thoreau’s essays, and Mary Oliver’s memoir Up Stream. I had dipped into each at random many times over the years, reading and re-reading my favorite parts. This time, I chose to read every word. I let myself pick up one text each morning and read as much as I wanted; a word, a sentence, one page or one hundred. The only rule: no skipping.
I read completely linearly, including every single word from the preface to back matter, but only as much as I wanted each time. I found it deeply satisfying to read methodically, savoring and sensing and stopping exactly when it was enough. In a time of great uncertainty, the clarity of following one word after another was a relief. I didn’t have to make any choices, and I could enjoy the work as the author offered it to me.
To get started, select a few texts and place them in intentionally in a special place on the shelf or a bedside table, perhaps. Consider amplifying the pleasure by making a reading altar, place a plant nearby, or stack the books vertically with a special object on top like a stone or a treasured trinket.
Now listen to yourself. Notice any textures of sensation in your body from head to toe and sense what wants to be known. Open one book to the very first page and start reading. Keep tuning in with sensation as you read. Sense how much you really want to read and trust that whether it is one sentence or three, it is exactly right. Read as long as feels good to you, then stop and put the book back on your reading altar and give yourself a pat on the back. Smile. You did it. Take the win!
I use the linear pleasure strategy to read through books that I’ve read parts of many times over the years but never actually followed through on completely. It is deeply satisfying, can be very grounding, and will offer you delightful surprises. It works for poetry too!
Sometimes we really need to read all of a book, get the key ideas and a few more salient details.
If you are reading because you feel you SHOULD or you HAVE TO for work or school or you have a large volume of reading you want to work through — then I recommend playing with skimming strategically. I also use this strategy when a book is not well-written but has information that I want. It is useful if you’re digging into research on a subject and want to get the lay of the land by working through several volumes before going deeper. I have done this with such topics as personal finance, climate change, the science of habit formation, and positive psychology.
Whether it is a long list of reference texts or one library book, set yourself up for making a few notes as you read. I use a favorite pencil and keep a notebook and a stack of post-it notes nearby.
Begin reading with the author’s outline in mind. Seek their overarching purpose. Some folks call this the author’s project. What is their major goal for the book, the chapter, the paragraph? Then seek the supporting information for the point they are making, focusing on the bits that apply to your interests or the question you have.
Introductions to books are super helpful summaries and can direct you to the particular chapters where you’ll want to spend a bit more time. And conclusions of chapters serve as a comfortable place to review key points and see where they lead next.
As I read, I annotate things in the margins of books I own, noting in particular key definitions (DEF in the margins), useful summaries (SUM), and I underline key bits that matter to me. I use post-it notes to mark important sections.
Beyond that, the key is to let the rest go! Don’t read every word.
Read to comprehend rather than savor the text.
Don’t worry about those sentences you breezed past or skipped outright.
Don’t make it a matter of morality or integrity.
Dig in, get the key points, spend more time with the parts that matter to you and get out.
One final invitation
Know your own learning style and play with it. I’m a note taker, I rarely go back and read the notes, but I need the physical action of writing some things down in order to learn. You may need something else, do what feels good and helps the ideas land for you.
I play with pulling out key sentences and points and using my hand lettering skills to create playful, artsy summary cards. The process is the point. I don’t use them beyond making them, but I love the way writing and drawing and repeating words helps me take them in. Create word clouds with free online tool if you prefer digital word play.
And don’t forget audio books if you learn by listening. I especially like to put them on while I walk. I discover different things while listening than I do while reading.
Play with active reflection on a text by savoring a particular phrase while moving. Benedictine monks do this in their Lectio Divina practice. This involves solo reflection on a passage from the bible usually while walking and seeing what resonates in a passage and taking it into your life. For a great secular translation of this practice, check out The Artist’s Rules: Nurturing your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. In Judaism, communities reflect on significant passages from the Torah each week by reading the passage aloud and discussing it. What reading practices do your own wisdom traditions offer? How might you put them to work in secular life as well?
Enjoy the process, play with it and adapt it until you find what works for you and feels good.
Then let the rest go.