Something many of us are told when we are young, fussy eaters is that if you try that broccoli more than 3 times then you’ll end up liking the flavour. My response to this was a moody and cynical one from the word go; why would I want to keep trying something I didn’t like? Isn’t it easier to just not like it and move on. With broccoli, that is exactly what I did.
Books are slightly different though. You don’t have to read a book 3 or 4 times to get it necessarily, but you can very easily get stuck in a rut – reading the same author, recommendations, or even genre over and over again. I certainly did. For most of my teens and early twenties I pretty much read only crime fiction or academic texts. My interest in fiction waned massively during University due to the demands of the course and it was only after I started working full time that I actually had the time to really start reading for pleasure again. Through Uni I did read the odd book but it was limited to either short and snappy pulp fiction or summer bestsellers – shamefully I got extremely excited by the release of Dan Brown’s Inferno. It was this type of fast-paced, crime/thriller book that was my bread and butter. Easy to read, hard to put down.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. I am happy to see more people reading, even if it’s limited to 50 Shades of Grey or a dime-a-dozen James Patterson rather than seeing people not reading at all. No matter the quality of the prose, books enlighten the minds of all people. It opens mankind up to more eclectic thinking. I truly, and passionately, believe that by reading books from a young age you will become a better and more rounded person because of it.
Why to vary your reading habits
I was happy and content to continue reading nothing but crime fiction. There was enough stylistic variety within it for me not to get bored. Reading Ian Rankin and following that up by Dennis Lehane and then Raymond Chandler offered three extremely different settings, tones, characters and styles but it still felt somewhat limiting. I decided to take what I thought was something of a leap by going for a legal thriller by John Grisham, only to find that A Time to Kill was really still, at its root, a crime fiction novel. It was excellent, and exposed me to thrills of the legal side to crime rather than just the classic cat and mouse scenario, but it felt nowhere near as big a difference as I thought it would.
It was around this time that my partner stumbled across a www.pinterest.com article that featured a Reading Challenge. It caught my interest and I decided to have a go at it. 50 different categories that would essentially force you to change up your reading habits. Some of the least interesting categories gave me some of the most interesting books and some of the most interesting categories gave me the most underwhelming reads.
Some I loved but didn’t think I would:
- The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (A book over 500 pages)
- Docherty, William McIlvanney (A book set in your home town)
- We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (A book that became a movie)
- Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut (A book with a number in the title)
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (A book written by someone under 30)
Some that just didn’t live up to expectation:
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (A book with a one word title)
- On The Road, Jack Kerouac (A book based on a true story)
- Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens (A memoir)
- Storm Front, Jim Butcher (A book with magic)
- 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Goldstein (A book you own but have never read)
I am happy to say that, while there were books I did not enjoy reading, I am glad that I did read and finish each one of them. Some of them were classics or modern classics, but there was suddenly a huge influx of new styles of writing and genres which were opened up to me. I started to appreciate not only the storytelling in books, but also the way a story can be built, that prose can roll slowly and beautifully from author to reader, how it can caress you into a sense of ease rather than mere frantic anticipation of the next twist or turn. Books started to speak to me in a more understanding and liberal way. I learnt not only about important literary characters and figures but about myself. I realised that I have more in common with Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar than I had with Kenzie or Genaro, the main protagonists in Dennis Lehane’s trusty crime fiction. It was nothing short of a revelation.
How to vary your reading habits
At this point I could easily just type out a long list of ways to get into the habit of changing how and what you reach for in the bookshop or library, but that would feel like a disservice. For me, it was more about taking that step to realising why each way has its own, unique benefits.
OK, bear with me on this one. All of us, I’m sure, have been given recommendations in the past. We’ve probably taken the book as a recommendation and quite possibly enjoyed it – perhaps it has even become a trusted favourite, but can you honestly say that it has broadened your reading horizons? For me, it never really did. For many years, all of the recommendations I received were for new authors, not new genres and this meant that I did not really get as much as I maybe should have out of recommendations. The key to changing this came at university where I met and discussed books with far more people, which meant I was hearing great things about books and authors well outside of my comfort zone.
It was hard at first to take the leap into these unexplored waters but I eventually snuck my way out of that shell of comfort and read pieces that allowed me to explore more types of literature than I have ever dreamed of enjoying. The advice here really is to try and ask new people who you know do not read similar books to you for recommendations. The question ‘what is your favourite book?’ will become your best friend. Ask enough people and it will be a short time before you start turning the pages of a vastly different and hopefully new experience. Why not just ask a bookseller in your favourite shop? That way you will almost definitely build a better relationship with the people you buy your books from and find something that could enchant you in unimaginable ways.
If you’re reading this blog you are on social media and you’re one deep step into using it to expand your variety of reading. Reviews were once the domain of specialised reviewers and journalists in national and local media outlets, but now everyone, you and I included, can review a book. Of course it may not be quite as literate or as educated a critique of those from the professionals but it does allow more books to be reviewed more frequently and by people you may know and trust.
It’s not only reviews that social media offers though. Just post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media platform that you’re looking for a new book and you are likely to have a swarm of incoming recommendations from any and all friends. Take these recommendations on and quite often you will find an exceptional book. As a bonus you instantly know that you have someone who you can then discuss this book with at any length you please.
There are now countless websites and pages out there dedicated to listing some of the numbers of books that you ‘should’ read next. Obviously, you have to remember that quite often these will be surreptitiously paid for by publishers as a way of advertising a new author or edition and therefore will not always be the most honest of recommendations. I for one often use these sites for inspiration more than anything. Certainly, the lists which look at classics, both modern and centuries old, have been excellent steps to discovering some of the best novels of all time. However, they are not going to be sure-fire classics in your own opinion. For example, in my list above, both Lolita and On The Road I found to be utterly underwhelming. That is not to say that they are not fantastic literary achievements, but as a book to be read they lack a certain something. So yes, lists are great, but look at them with a degree of scepticism – classics and recommended new books are not always what they appear to be.
I am sure that there are many, many more options for encouraging variety in your reading but these are some of the most successful ways I have found to get myself out of reading slumps. Hopefully it gives you some ideas and some motivation to go out and discover the much wider world of literature.
What are your favourite ways to start reading new things?