How to become a voracious reader
Since my last post on balancing writing, editing, and learning, I’ve been trying to read more. The problem is, despite the tradition of writers being “voracious” readers, I’m not one. I should revel in reading, staying up late at night to immerse myself in books, but I don’t. Why?
Of course, I do read, both fiction and non-fiction. I often listen to fiction while I bike to work. My fiction tastes are low-brow, mostly consisting of the larger-than-life spy/CIA/military genre fiction (with protagonists like Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, Dewey Andreas, Evan Smoak, etc.). I listen to fiction as an escape, to be immersed in story while biking with partial attention.
However, when I sit down to read, I’m fully alert mentally, so I am eager to be more intellectually engaged. As such, I read non-fiction. Ideally, I like to read an author who asks the same questions I’m interested in. I want to see a mind thinking, but I don’t want a stream of conscious or text full of tangents. I want the narrator to take me down the mental path he or she is exploring. In short, I want to read a modern-day Montaigne, someone essaying forth and chasing ideas and working through answers.
It’s hard to find authors who write like that. When I was in college, I read a lot of literary essays and fell in love with the personal essay style that authors like Joseph Epstein, David Foster Wallace, and Phillip Lopate mastered. But now, when I read literary nonfiction, I’m usually bored by the slow setup, the over-abundance of personal details, the arduous painting of a mostly uninteresting scene and eventual story. The ideas tend to be unexciting, contain too much memoir, and I find myself quickly looking for another genre.
The books that appealed to me in college don’t appeal to me today. I’m now a working professional and family provider, and I’m more cautious about the demands on my time. I have little patience for topics that don’t seem relevant. It could take hours or weeks to sit down and read a book from cover to cover. I assess the ROI of any endeavor. Will it give me new awareness or skills, or at least satiate a deep curiosity about something? If not, I might not have the time.
Now more than the author’s style, I choose books by relevant topics. As a technical writer, tech-comm-related books are relevant, but they’re typically either beginner or reference. Both put me to sleep. Philosophy appeals to me, but the higher-level, abstract questions they ask (what exists? how can we know it? is there free will?) don’t always resonate with me.
At the end of the day, the topic probably doesn’t matter much. All topics, if examined deeply enough, reach down into the same roots. It’s the analytical mind that’s interesting, regardless of the content.
So why am I not reading more? Reading for reading’s sake can be a chore, especially if it’s the wrong text. My problem is that I sometimes read without purpose. I need to more firmly ground my reading by searching for answers to my own questions.
Answering questions is at the heart of both writing and reading. In most non-fiction texts, an author begins with a question. Some authors make the question explicit, while others begin with the answer directly. Identifying the question the author is trying to answer is the first step toward engaging with texts.
Once the question is identified, the reader decides if it’s relevant. If so, the reader figuratively gets in the passenger seat while the author drives toward the answer. A skilled author takes you on the journey to find the answer, showing you the roads traveled, the detours, the vistas, and other scenery along the way. You don’t want the author to drive aimlessly or circuitously, but you also don’t expect a straight shot.
In the end, difficult questions rarely have clear-cut answers, so the author usually finds some partial answer that yields some satisfaction.
If it’s the case that we get engaged in reading by asking relevant questions, then the key to becoming a voracious reader is to become a voracious thinker and questioner. When we’re actively thinking and asking questions, we start reading more because we’re engaged with a particular topic that we want to learn about.
What questions are we asking even before we seek out the text to read? What are we genuinely curious about? Curiosity is the first step to reading because it gives a purpose. We seek out texts because we’re looking for answers or thoughts on a topic; we’re not just reading for reading’s sake.
Granted, there are plenty of bookworms who are happy to figuratively hitchhike in many different author’s cars, going every which direction, without much care where they end up. There’s value in that — books often make us aware of subjects we previously didn’t even know to ask about.
But my life doesn’t seem to move in that rhythm. I need something more to ground me in a more directed way. Like Pythagoras, the first philosopher, dwelling in a cave and living and devoting his life to enquiry, or Thoreau living deliberately in the woods, I want to lead more of an examined life.
Undeniably, it’s hard to sustain that kind of extended focus and even to find substantial sources to read. And yet, what else can drive voracious reading habits?
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.