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Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers (theatlantic.com)
122 points by jseliger 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

Reading for me goes through cycles. For months, I would not feel like reading at all, except for the daily dose of WSJ.com or HN and Reddit programming. Then, all the sudden I happen to discover a book from those online sources and spend most of my free time to read it. Sometimes, I went back to finish books I abandoned ages ago if they happen to coincide with what interest me at the moment. For example, I started to learn playing piano with some of Bach’s easy classical pieces (1st prelude in WTC book 1, minuet, etc...). It strikes me that I have a book discovered from HN called Godel, Escher, Bach from 2009. I stopped reading after the 1s chapter back then. Now, I can’t seem to put it down and am on chapter 5. I think knowing a bit about music and appreciating Bach make this book approachable for me again. The other example is Enterprise integration patterns. I got it in 2006 but never finished it. Now, I start reading it again with a lot of interest after getting involved in a project at work with a lot of teams tangled with integration issues.

I think that aligns with their third point on motivation.

I go through periods of intensive reading, then downtimes. These both span for months.

Problem is a lot of it is dreck.

Some books draw out a story for 1100 pages then stuff all the cool stuff in the last 200 pages. It feels dishonest.

A lot of classics aren't.

A lot of pulp is captivating and fast paced.

I tried reading infinite jest - I had to return it.

I finished fear an loathing in las vegas in a day.

It's a crap shoot.

The key is to just put it down and move on to another book if you’re not enjoying it. Many people have a completist attitude towards reading - they continue to slog through to the end of a book once they’ve started, even if they don’t like it. They’ll make slow progress, and it blocks them from picking up a new book.

Cut your losses early - your total reading throughput will be much higher, and most nonfiction books aren’t worth reading all the way to the end anyway.

A trick if I decide that a book is not worth my time: I open Wikipedia and read the summary.

However once it happened that I changed my mind and continued the book because I found a part of the summary interesting. Usually I take care not to read a lot about a book before starting, because it would be a pity if I learnt about an explanation before figuring it out by myself. So it is a real switch for me, and then I read Wikipedia slowly, ready to stop midsentence if I want to resume the book.

Interesting. I’m actually heartily in favor of the “completionist” mindset. I adopted it from playing videogames. With videogames at times I would end up hopping from game to game to game, never really finishing many of them. And in a weird sense it felt less fun and it definitely felt less worthwhile. I couldn’t have more than surface level conversations about the content and I never felt like my opinions were holistic enough of that content either.

Now I only play one game at a time and I really try to finish it unless it straight up is just not fun for me. I’ve slogged through parts of games where I’ve become bored after X number of hours and ultimately been much happier for it as I witnessed everything the game had to offer (especially with regards to story). Final Fantasy XV comes to mind here. The gameplay had become tired after 30 hours or whatever but getting the whole story arc (for all its flaws) was extremely worth it.

I’ve carried this over to books. Unless I’m really not interested I will stick with the slow parts and generally I’ve been happy with the results. The Stand by Stephen King comes to mind here. It’s like 1,200 pages of tiny font and is pretty slow in the middle but has some stupendous moments and is really an epic tale I’m happy to have under my belt. I do have to pair this with a conscious “required” reading time, e.g. an hour before bed so that I’m always hitting a minimum rate so I don’t slow to a snails-pace and read a book a quarter or something.

Probably because for you just the act of completing something is _fun_.

Personally I'm reading or playing a video game because of the entertainment it provides. If it's not interesting or doesn't hold my attention, it's not worth slogging through it. Life's too short.

That's one big plus of digital entertainment: I can refund what I don't like in a single click, I don't feel like I _have_ to finish it nor I have to justify my reasons to anybody.

Though I have to admit I've bought for the second time some video games or books I had previously refunded, because I finally understood what's the correct mindset to have to enjoy them fully.

I used to power through books I didn't like, just to finish them in case they were redeemed somehow. Then I realized, too many books too little time. I dropped Neal Stephenson's Anathem because of this, although I have read every other one of his books and cover to cover. It just didn't click and I didn't fancy re-reading it when it did finally click.

I did this with the much lauded sci-fi “Three body problem”. First half was good, then it took a dive for me and haven’t picked up up 3/4s of the way through.

Books aren’t about enjoyment. They’re about suffering and talking about Montaigne at a party. That’s why I forced myself to read 800 pages of Babur complaining about melons.

You live only once.

It is a crapshoot. I’m fortunate in that my mother is a prolific reader. I am too, but she makes me look illiterate. She consumes a ridiculous number of books a year. Lots of it is crap. Some isn’t, and she’s always recommended those ones to me, keeping in mind my own interests.

Over the years I’ve met a few others who I trust to recommend books. But most people, even professional reviewers, just don’t work for me.

That said, I’ve only read a handful of books that I’ve finished and thought, “I wish I hadn’t read that.” I can usually get something out of it, whether it’s a classic, pulp, overrated, whatever. It took me many attempts to make it through Dune by Frank Herbert. Part of it I attribute to being a child for my first attempts, but part of it is the style. It’s dry, slow, and political. It’s now one my short list of favorite books. On the other hand, William Gibson’s Neuromancer has gotten about as many attempts from me, but that one I’ve never finished.

Interestingly (to me anyway), I generally find the books recommended by random HN posters worthy reads, both fiction and non-fiction.

You should try Greg Egan's books, if you like SF at all. I think a good introduction would be Schild's Ladder or Axiomatic, but my personal favorite is the Clockwork Rocket trilogy and Dichromatic.

The latter two are conceptually related. If you know about metric signatures, you'll be able to tell how. If not, well, you will.

Correction: Dichronauts, not Dichromatic. (DuckDuckGo is smart enough to find the right book; Google kinda-sorta is -- it's the first image search result but doesn't otherwise appear in the first page of results, at least for me; Amazon's search isn't.)

Right, of course. I blame gboard.

Seconding Greg Egan. I'd highly recommend Permutation City and Diaspora by him. The books explore mind uploading from lots of interesting angles.

Thanks for the suggestion. Very appreciated!

I've devoured everything William Gibson's... up to a point. I really, really liked the first trilogy. The second one was also entertaining, although not as _*punk_ as the first one. I kind of enjoyed "Pattern Recognition" (mostly because it was the first in the "almost viable" trilogy. But "Spook Country" was, for me, unreadable. I don't think I made it past the 2nd chapter.

Can't quite put my finger on it; but I think it is that his style changed to what I'd call hyper-realism: He would go on taking 3 pages to describe a room. Seriously, for me the book unbearable boring.

After a while, in my opinion, he just wrote the ~same novel, again and again. There's always the tough young woman. And the wimpy guy, typically a druggie. And often, the Case equivalent.

But I still like them well enough.

I had this sad realisation with the last Iain M Banks book I read - Hydrogen Sonata. It was a good book, but I felt like I'd seen its skeleton at least three or four times before.

It's pretty common for creators -- authors, artists, bands, etc -- to become formulaic. To some extent, it's just pandering to their estimated audience. Also, they've typically been working on their first few works for years. And then, if they become popular, they're under pressure to produce more and more, faster and faster.

In my opinion, it works best to just write series. You can just use mostly the same characters. Matthew Stover did that well with the Caine series. I gather that he'd been working on it for at least a few years, and had been told that it was unpublishable. So he cut out a first book, and focused on action. Then another, when it sold well enough. And then, years later, after his Star Wars gig, he published the last two. They're basically a metaplot, and collection of back stories, that probably look a lot like the initial project.

I thought the Hydrogen Sonata was probably Banks’s weakest Culture novel.

“Sometimes civilizations decide to Sublime! Other folks take their stuff. One ship takes it upon itself to help a younger race not get boxed out of the spoils, fails, and gets depressed. The end”

Most of his other Culture books had more stuff going combined with characters I cared about.

There are so many true classics, and so many non-fiction classics, and so many great pulp and genre, that just sticking to awarded works, respected top-X lists, gives you enough books to last 2-3 lifetimes of reading 2 books per week (that's still less than 10K books in total).

Plus following the thread of an author you like gives you easily 3-10 books of them, and 10-20 books of similar style you know you enjoy of those who inspired them/succeeded them.

It's hardly a "crap shot", except if you buy random books...

I find a similar thing happens with a lot of the non-fiction I've read (or tried to read): it's something that could have been a really good few-dozen-page essay, but as a couple hundred page book it's just protracted and repetitive.

As a result, for certain topics I can never bring myself to actually start reading. I have several books that have been on my shelf in this state for years now.

I recommend Infinite Jest on Audible. There are advantages to it being an audiobook, one being that since you aren't holding the pages, you won't see it coming when a chapter ends. This prevents you from rushing to complete sections, rather, you just go along for a ride while the story is told, not knowing where/when it'll end up.

+1, and you don't have to worry about having three bookmarks placed correctly :-)

Same situation, and actually Infinite Jest also started a half a year long drought that was only broken by the Three Body Problem trilogy.

Agree with the cut your losses strategy.

I was never in to reading as a kid, and it drove my dad crazy as I am wired personality-wise like him. Reading would become too hard after 3-4 paragraphs and I just thought I was always lazy. I found out I had a print-related disability when I was an adult, specifically severe convergence insufficiency, after I was diagnosed with a rare disease.

I use screen readers now for immersive reading, specifically Voice Dream Reader (iOS|Android) and Kurzweil 3000 (Windows|Mac|Web). I finally got in to reading habitually after reading some history books. It can still be physically painful for me to read, but it is worthwhile.

>a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.

Aye, my mother regularly took us to the biggest public library within driving distance. Every few weeks. And we didn't just grab and go, we would spend some time browsing the stacks.

As her mother did before her. It was inexpensive entertainment for those that weren't well off.

I developed very wide interests in everything imaginable, just from stumbling upon really good books.

Mind you though, I didn't develop an appreciation for fiction for a long time. To some, "readers" are those who are always reading fiction.

Aside from having literally a room or two full of books at home, the regular trip to the library was literally a highlight of my childhood. Piling up the books to take back, and then running around and choosing a new stack to take out, it was a great time.

It's literally free entertainment for children that lets them effectively supervise themselves, and god knows as a parent one can use entertainment for young children.

Plus its an actual constructive skill.

We live in the time with the most access to the most information available and almost no one wants it. I'm constantly blown away that the default position isn't: "Why isn't the human race just constantly reading?".

Even with all of the content of the Internet, I often still look for a book when I'm digging into a new topic and need to be shown the basics A-Z. It's just too hard to get a complete picture from the tiny snippets people organized for free online. Books paid someone to write something with a specific audience in mind. Often, for things like gardening or pottery, a recent book isn't necessarily more relevant than an old book. Libraries are amazing for things like this.

This just brought a big ass smile to my face! Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my dad rolling out of the local library with a six foot tall stack of hardcovers... if I recall the library had a checked out limit of a dozen titles and he took full advantage, so I’d have to help him carry them out to the car :)

> Aye, my mother regularly took us to the biggest public library within driving distance. Every few weeks. And we didn't just grab and go, we would spend some time browsing the stacks.

I have very fond memories of spending time at the library growing up. My mom is an avid reader. I just never picked it up. I remember as a kid thumbing through mostly reference books to imagine up projects I didn't have the money or resources to carry out. Maybe I just never got into fiction and reference books were only as-needed?

My kindle helped me fall in love with reading books. Plus, not having to worry about physical books (heavy, easy to damage), being able to borrow books from the library electronically, and control font size and lighting easily has turned me into a convert, and I couldn't be happier.

Same for me. Kindle makes it easy to read during travels.

I absolutely love reading. I can't make it through four seasons of TV (my most recent failure is Battlestar Galactica '04) and I can't seem to get myself to suffer through repeated failure at video gaming for more then thirty minutes at a time, but I absolutely love books. My trio of hobbies are coding, writing, and reading and it's a really happy and productive combination!

I prefer fiction, generally hard science fiction and high fantasy (less so the latter), but occasionally if I come across a truly exceptional historical fiction book I'll and that to my TBR list as well (Shogun, Silence, and Pillars of the Earth, for example). I also prefer longer books, since if I'm sitting down to read something I really want a lot of detail and meat there. Even irrelevant details are welcomed, I almost just enjoy the act of reading. When it comes to selecting books, I value some kind of novelty of uniqueness above almost anything else, but it also has to have a sense of craftsmanship.

I must confess I'm addicted to buying physical books, as well. I have quite a few books on Kindle, and do read them, but whenever feasible (and it isn't always) I prefer to buy books from Amazon. Specifically, Mass Market Paperbacks, which I find to be the perfect form factor (and cheaper than Kindle books, too).

Just finished Shogun myself! I went through stages of “I am done with this book” every few hundred pages, but then would realize I was actually interested and would pick it up again. I think I repeated that cycle three or four times before finishing it! Definitely glad I did and will be for sure picking up the other books in the series.

I find having a good supply of books to read comforting!

I love the Japanese word Tsundoku. So perfect!

I suspect your downvote (not from me) came from your calling Shogun 'truly exceptional historical fiction'.

Okay yeah that's fair! I was wondering about that. Honestly, thank you for pointing that out. I'm aware it's not really accurate, but more of a western fairy tale, what I more meant by exceptional was unique and with some kind of enjoyment value. If I want to read a history book I can, so as long as I keep in mind that Shogun isn't accurate it should be fine right? (:

That is a potential reason.

What is certain is your passive-aggressive shot at another users reading choices that doesn’t contribute much value.

If I finish a book a week, I will read only a few thousand books in my lifetime, about a tenth of a percent of the contents of the greatest libraries of our time. The trick is to know which books to read. - Carl Sagan, 'Cosmos' (1980)

... from https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup

I used to read constantly for fun and interest.

Then I entered "higher education" which involves a large amount of "required reading." Although I was able to complete the "required reading" and coursework, I no longer enjoyed reading the way I had before. Reading had become an unpleasant chore.

Now I seem to lack the motivation and attention span for "recreational" reading and when I try it I just don't enjoy it. Reading non-fiction for interest is a bit better, but it still feels too much like drudgery to be enjoyable.

From 2007 to 2017, I read zero books. Before that, I only read self help books. I didn't find any use for fiction or novels for that matter. Self help books were actionable to me.

But then I stopped. The most I did during that decade was read Wikipedia entries or cliff notes. But one day I stumbled upon the alchemist. The book came to me at a moment I truly needed it, and it offered me some answers. Little after I read another fiction, Life of Pi. These are simple books with profound messages that can easily lure you back into reading. I ended reading more than 20 books that year.

Today, I can't imagine myself not reading. Books are where smart people take their time to clearly and precisely formulate their ideas. And the great advantage is that when you forget what's in a book, you can read it again.

The author talks about picking up a book as an alternative to your phone or watching TV as a post dinner activity. If anything, modern life has consolidated activities from specialised ‘things’ like radios, phones, books, TV to computing devices. I’ve been reading on my iPad and phone for years now. This makes me wonder what the impact is to kids - since they learn so much by watching you.

If you pick up a book, you arouse their curiosity to do the same. If you pick up a phone and launch an epub reader - not so much.

I have a similar concern with my daughter; I have a Kindle and have had for years, have more or less ceased reading physical books, and do most of my reading before sleeping - so while I read daily, my daughter sees very little of it and almost never something that looks like a book!

Interesting point. These days 99% of my reading is on a screen. I don't have kids to be influenced by this but it makes modern reading pretty much invisible to young kids.

I'm a life long reader. Finished the majority of the classics section one might find in an american library. I find it hard to get a steady stream of quality narrative with engaging ideas, so I tend to find a good author and read everything I can find they've written. I'm also one of those can't-sleep-more-than-4-hours-a-day people, so I spend time reading books then.

If your're reading non-fiction, then you're probably learning something.

If your're reading fiction, then it is most likely just entertainment. So, its equivalent to watching a fiction movie or tv show, or whatnot.

I find it odd thats its encouraged and considered good to just read, regardless of content. What you're reading is critical.

You can read 'Harry Potter' and divert and entertain yourself, or read 'A Brief History of Time', and do the same, but also learn a bit.

The act of reading is a skill that needs maintenance. It doesn't matter much whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

Harry Potter is a bit of an unfair example as it's intended as a children's book, they still need to build up the skill.

But more importantly, good fiction (and other art) _teaches about the human condition_. I have learned a lot from Vonnegut and Pratchett even though everything I read by them was fiction.

I bet a lot of people have learned about life and being human from Harry Potter as well

(I haven't read it)

I couldn't disagree more. Good fiction is more than just entertainment, and you learn as much from it than from a good non-fiction book. Some aestheticians have talked about how you learn from art the same way you learn from more obvious sources. Some non-fiction books are great, but there are a lot of non-fiction books that are just entertainment.

It's not the shelf of the bookshop on which you find it that tells you if you can learn something from it.

Not a great example. Harry Potter is a book for children. If you are reading Zola, it's still fiction, but it's deeper.

Reading any of "The Classics" is much more than entertainment, it is living another life with a depth you'll never achieve on you own. Very worth one's time to push mature ideas and contemplation into your head.

I used to read a lot and then stopped. There are things that I find more interesting these days, and I've already read the most important books about the subjects I've been interested in. There comes a point where the diminishing returns are too small.

There would have to be a tectonic shift in understanding to get me interested in reading another book.

What if the tectonic shift is inside one of those books you'll never read?

What if the tectonic shift is in a place you'll never visit?

What if the tectonic shift is in a television show you'll never watch?

What if the tectonic shift is in a friend you'll never meet?

What if the tectonic shift is in a meditation you'll never do?

What if, what if, what if...

> There would have to be a tectonic shift in understanding to get me interested in reading another book.

Maybe I misunderstood this. I thought you meant that you would need a mindset change before you would be willing to consider reading another book. In that case, suggesting that you may never get that shift without reading is a bit of irony (a Catch-22 if you will).

However, if you meant that you wouldn't read a book unless you knew there were some kind of major insight on it for you, then: 1) my statement probably did come off as trite to the point of deserving sarcasm, and 2) I feel bad that your mind is so closed to considering new opportunities.

You're still being condescending. Re-read your last line.

My point is that opportunities are everywhere and never stop coming, and so one must invariably pick and choose where they'll look. It generally makes for a calmer life to not get too worked up over FOMO, because it's incredibly rare to miss out on anything really important in the grand scheme of one's life.

I used to read a lot, until I entered middle school. You see, in middle school, we had to read 4 books a year from a whitelist and write a report about them and such.

This meant I no longer felt motivated to read a book not on that list; after all, if I read a book from that list instead, I'd be killing two birds with one stone. Reading a book not on the list just seemed like a waste of time. Of course, I decided which books to read by randomly stumbling upon them, not by picking them from some list, so I was rarely motivated to read books that were on the list either. Not to mention that reading was now homework, where I'd need to think about how to write the report and which excerpts to use at all times.

The result was that I just stopped reading for the most part. It sucked all the fun out of it.

Not sure how old you are, but at some point you will probably be happier and more successful if you take ownership of your life decisions.

> They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.

Is there some hidden irony in the pointlessness of this paragraph?

Humor from the unexpected juxtaposition of an expository style usually used to describe something rare and unfamiliar with the commonness of the thing being described (plus the implication that reading is becoming unfortunately less common today - or at least acknowledging the fear that it may be so).

I found it cute. :)

Thanks. I sometimes miss those cues and don't know if I should take things at face value.

I've read 50 books this year after reading only 30 last year. I want to really crank then out in these next few months.

It is so important to me to keep reading and keep improving.

I am a voracious reader and have been since I was a boy. Travel books, historical fiction, science, biography, history, westerns, sci-fi, detective/suspense, I read them all. I am very fortunate to live in a city with a well-funded (and well used) library system so I have access to just about anything I read or hear about that sounds interesting. It is time well spent.

I always found it extremely hard to read anything at length. I could read just fine, but my mind would start to wander, and then I'd have to re-read a page 3-5 times unless I was extremely focused.

I was later (as an adult) diagnosed with ADHD.

Audiobooks work much better for me, as I can do other things at the same time, but I still get the information passively.

In primary school I read anything and everything but my favorite was science fiction. After finishing school, I didn't read as much and noticed something: my creativity seemed less and I wasn't coming up with many big 'next step' ideas. After starting to read regularly again, it came back.

With mobile devices if you count reading articles etc most people are gonna be life long readers

I've never read a book.

At least not a non-technical, fictional one. At school I'd just dig up a summary. Didn't stop me from getting a job at a FANG.

Whenever I read, I feel like I'm wasting my time. It's slow, boring and feels superficial. Just something arbitrary someone wrote. I can't focus and get no value from it.

i wonder if your tendency to cut corners is reflected in your code (assuming you're a developer) if you've never read an RFC or grinded through technical documentation. Do you enjoy reading other people's code?

>Didn't stop me from getting a job at a FANG.

probably stopping you from being a top developer at a FAANG

Second this. Being a good developer means lots of reading. In the old days that was usually manuals, these days it's far more likely to be whatever Google coughs up, but I'd sure be a lot slower if I couldn't see what others said about whatever unfamiliar territory I'm trying to navigate.

To read, perchance to dream.

Human creativity is unleashed in fiction, where anything is possible, yet still bound by its humanity. That it didn't happen makes it no less human, and possibly more human in that it is completely driven by emotion and pure thought.

Just look at _From the Earth to the Moon_. Long before we knew we could make it to the Moon, we yearned for it. And I think it was that yearning that led us there.

You're only experiencing a limited fraction of your life, due to total blindness of your time and place in the human journey. Literature enables one to identify where they are in the sea of humanity in time. You're simply adrift, refusing to use aid to see and learn what others before you have said about where you are, in the ageless language of introspection essays.

What is the value of getting a job at a FANG?

High income.

Is that the end of the means or the means to an end?

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