Everybody knows that if you ask me how to become a better writer I only have one really good solid piece of advice that I can guarantee will work: read. Read a lot. Of course, this suggestion is often met with groans, sighs, and most notably, with excuses. Here are some of the more pervasive excuses (and my solutions):
Excuse #1: Books are too expensive!
Hey, the public library is still free! You can literally go to the library and get any book you want, and they’ll trust you to leave with it, read it at your leisure, and bring it back to them unscathed, even though they have no reason to trust you at all! And now using the public library is easier than ever. Not only can you renew books online and keep them for longer (which is great if you’re like me and you get more books than you can possibly read in three weeks), but you don’t even have to go to the library at all to GET books. Most libraries have delivery services now. You go online, pick out what you want, and someone will bring them to your house and leave them on your doorstep FOR FREE!
Money excuse busted.
Excuse #2: Reading is boring!
I agree, being forced to read books that are over 100 years old by frazzled middle aged high school teachers who basically hate you for existing is boring. Of course, I realize this isn’t everyone’s experience with reading (it wasn’t my experience for the most part), but I do strongly believe that a lot of people are taught to dislike reading early on because of the way books are presented in schools. It’s not usually the fault of the teachers, either. There are many books that are outdated, and yet are still required reading. While there are many classics that I love and admire and am grateful for having been required to read, if I were able to actually choose books to teach to public high school students, the books I’d choose would be very different from what’s on standard high school approved reading lists. Common required reading, while important in its own right, is often hard for high school-aged kids to digest and relate to, and when it comes to kids empathy is everything. This is not a result of any lack of intelligence on the part of teenagers–it’s just part of how our culture and climate has changed. Books that were contemporary when they came out are now dated and some are downright irrelevant in the eyes of teenagers. Wouldn’t it be better to offer kids books that will engage them and make them think, rather than what we (the academic elite) think they should read? Often people think reading is boring because they haven’t been exposed to books they’d actually like to read. I always tell students to tell me what their favorite movies and TV shows are, and based on that, I give book recommendations. All it takes is one great book to transform you into a voracious reader. So, yes, some reading is boring, but until you’ve read every single book in the world and not one has held your interest, you can’t really say reading is boring.
Bored excuse busted.
Excuse #3: Reading makes me tired.
Reading is exercise for the eyes and the mind. It does take work. People don’t realize that you’re physically exerting when you read, even though it looks like you’re just sitting there staring at something. Reading should make you tired to a certain degree, though. If you’re getting tired from reading then you’re exercising your brain, which is awesome. If you’re at all conscious about how exercise aids your health, giving your brain a workout should be right up there with trimming your waist and building your guns on your list of goals. If you find that reading makes you tired, try doing it when you’re in a public place (say in a park, on your lunch break at work, or at the pool) or try reading before bed instead of watching TV or surfing the web. The latter two can make it more difficult to get to sleep, but if you’re one of those people who is sent to dreamland after a few pages of reading, then hey, you can save yourself a buttload of money on Ambien, chamomile tea, and lavender oils by using reading as a sleeping aid.
Sleepyhead excuse busted.
Excuse #4: I want to read, but I have no time!
Really? You have no time to read? In the words of Liv Tyler’s character, Corey, in the movie Empire Records, there are 24 usable hours in a day, thank you. I understand the allure of using time as an excuse (not just for reading, but for doing anything that takes work and doesn’t pay, like exercising, seeing a doctor, and visiting family), because I find myself succumbing to it too sometimes. It’s tempting to say “I don’t have time to do XYZ, because I’m sooooo busy all the time,” then then to collapse on the couch and watch eight episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix in a row, but come on. That’s such a lame excuse. You can find time to do anything you really want to do, even if you’re a traveling cardio surgeon salesman clown. If you’re using lack of time as an excuse for anything, the underlying implication is that you don’t want to make time to do whatever thing it is that you don’t have time for. No one is suggesting that you sit down and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in its entirety in an hour. The wonderful thing about reading is that you can read a little here, read a little there, put it down when you need to, and pick up where you left off. If you really want to read more you could, say, give up one TV show you don’t really care about but watch because it’s on and read for a half an hour instead. You can keep a book in your car, purse, backpack, or whatever else you use to carry your stuff, and read a few pages whenever you’re waiting in line somewhere instead of playing Angry Birds on your phone. Read during your lunch break, on the treadmill, while you have your morning coffee, or dare I say it?–when you’re in the bathroom. Hey, it worked for George Costanza.
You can find time to read if it’s something you really want to include in your life. It’s all a matter of making choices and priorities. Do you really need to re-watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta when there’s a perfectly good book on your nightstand? I’m not suggesting that you give up other things you love to spend all your time reading. I completely value mindless TV time and I really believe there’s nothing at all wrong with getting invested in a few really enjoyable shows. It’s when quantity trumps quality that it becomes time to evaluate how you’re spending your free time, and when you do that, you can consider finding ways to let books in.
Too busy excuse busted.
Excuse #5: Books take way too long to read
Ah, the need for instant gratification. I get it. If I didn’t, I would never eat brownies. Is it easier to dedicate one or two hours to a TV show or movie, or to exercising, or to any other number of activities that are as much of an investment as the time you have to put into a book? Sure it is. But if you’re interested in becoming a better writer and you want to read more, no one is saying you have to only read full length novels. There is an entire world full of incredible short stories, essays, and poetry. There are entire collections of those things, actually. There’s even sub-genres of short story fiction called flash fiction and micro fiction in which stories are shorter than short–sometimes no more than 50-100 words. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of investing in an entire novel, try reading some shorter pieces, especially if you’re working on your own writing project. Sometimes those short pieces can inspire bursts of inspiration that would otherwise be stifled.
Too long excuse busted.
So there are five common excuses for why people don’t read, and my solutions to the problems. If you don’t go read something now, there’s nothing I can do for you but grieve.