A Guide to Making Reading Fiction Fun

What sucks the fun out of reading and what to do about it

When you read a good story, a lot happens. It activates your visual cortex as if you were actually seeing what the words describe. Your oxytocin levels spike, bringing on all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings. The nifty neurochemical is called the “love hormone” for a good reason. Whenever you do something that fosters feelings of empathy or bonding with someone elseelse — such as hugging them, giving birth to a child, or having an orgasm by their hand — your oxytocin levels rise. You feel all warm inside and like all’s right in the world. In other words, you get a mind-orgasm from a (good) story.

Or that’s how it should work.

Instead of reaching intellectual ecstasy, you end up irritated and bored as you read. You fantasize about clipping your toenails while staring at page 71 in Anna Karenina. This is worse than lousy sex since it takes much longer.

What went wrong? Why can’t you reach that intellectual climax? Probably one of these buzzkills.

Buzzkill #1: Taking Reading Too Seriously

Literature has earned a heavyweight reputation these days. Teachers, intellectual snobs, and self-help gurus all go into raptures about it. Reading will make you smarter, kinder, socially savvy and increase your vocabulary! You basically become this perfect person who’s not only intelligent but empathetic and psychologically astute to boot!

The problem with hype is that it’s hard to live up to.

You open up a book — one of those famous ones like Moby-Dick or Infinite Jest — and by page 25, you’re getting antsy. You don’t feel smarter yet. In fact, you feel dumber. You’ve already forgotten the definitions of the dozen words you looked up. You’re really not feeling all that socially savvy, being cooped up in your room reading … alone. You’re not even learning any useful facts (unless you consider facts about 19th-century whaling industry useful, which you do not). This feels like work. You think, “F this. I already have a soul-sucking job with a sadistic boss. Why would I want to torture myself further?” You slam the book shut and watch a 2-minute clip about cats on YouTube. Now, that’s better.

Reading literature can expand your vocabulary, shed light on the human condition, and improve your overall knowledge … but that’s not why you should read. You should read because there are some great stories out there that’ll give you a bit of a euphoric boost. A good tale transports you into a different world, different time, even a different person. You leave the limitations of your reality and live many — dozens, hundreds, even thousands! — lives. Books immerse you in worlds and people in a way that moves just can’t. With books, you’ll know what they’re thinking and feeling. Pretty cool if you ask me.

Stop thinking about literature as serious business. That mindset turns something that could be fun into a tedious chore. Think of stories as an adventure where you get a 100-for-1 deal on your life.

Buzzkill #2: Choosing the Wrong Novel

We now live in an age of unprecedented literary abundance. Hankering for a centuries-old tome? You can download that for free in any format. Feeling up for an edgy modern read? That’s a click away! Or maybe you’re jonesing for a trashy-good novel too embarrassing to admit that you read? Your Kindle will keep your secret as you ride the subway. The world is our literary oyster. That’s not always a good thing.

Unless you’re being forced to read The Scarlet Letter by a sadistic English teacher, you must sift through roughly 130 million books to find one that’ll give you that zing. That’s a Sisyphean task, especially nowadays. You scroll through endless recommendations from Amazon and Goodreads, where ad-mongers try to lure you into buying their book with little regard to whether it’s to your liking. You ask friends and family, most of them of suspect literary taste. At the last resort, you turn to a list of must-read books, most of which you’ve never heard of and seem suspiciously artsy-fartsy. This is how you end up with a to-read list full of books that you will probably hate.

Lest we drown in this literary bounty, we must find you the book that’ll give you that shot of euphoria … even if it’s trashy. Go to the library and borrow at least a dozen books that catch your eye (either from your list or from browsing their new-release shelves). I suggest the library so you can abandon the books without feeling any price-guilt over “wasting” something you bought. Plus, they have librarians who can help you find books if you find yourself stuck. (Really, they love this stuff. Why else would they work in a library?)

When you come home from the library with a bagful of books, pick one at random. Read about 20 to 30 pages. If the novel intrigues you enough that you want to read on, do that. If you’re yawning and thinking, “I should be cleaning my bathroom right now,” toss the book aside. Pick another book and repeat. You’re bound to find at something you like.

What this approach achieves is twofold: building up a habit of reading and ascertaining your reading preferences. Once you build up your reading endurance (more on that later) and suss out your taste, you’re much more well-equipped to deal with a world with more books than time.

Buzzkill #3: Neglecting Your Reading Endurance

We now read more than ever. Facebook posts from our friends and foes. Amusing (or shocking) tweets. Reddit posts about a cute video or the latest outrage. Maybe even a few articles here and there. Most of which come in byte-sized pieces with attention-grabbing headlines.

We might read a lot, but that doesn’t mean that we know how to last. Our link-baity reading has left our stamina woefully neglected. That’s bad news if you want to read literature.

Most novels take you at least a few hours to read. Those are the exciting ones that are easy on the prose and the brain (read: trashy fun books). The rest of them take even more time. Weeks. Maybe months. Especially those fussy literary ones that send you running to the dictionary every other page.

These books require some reading endurance. You need to maintain focus over the weeks or months it takes to read the story. You have to remember plot details, character features, and all that crap as you’re taking in new information. Plus, there’s that whole delayed gratification thing since the climax happens at the end. So you have to wait all that time to get to it! If this sounds like mental gymnastics, it’s because it is.

If you haven’t developed the aforementioned skills, reading will suck something terrible. You can’t follow the plot. You keep mixing up characters. Distractions make you lose track, and you have to start all over again. No wonder that mental orgasm keeps eluding you.

So, how do you increase your staying power? The answer is simple but not easy: gradual leveling up. The progression goes something like this. First, you read short and gripping novels that move fast with straightforward prose. Today’s YA literature and shorter contemporary thrillers are good bets. Consider The Hunger Games, Ready Player One, The Martian. These books will get you used to the longer-format reading while maintaining a good suspense level. Then you level up to the longer and more complicated but still exciting books. Contemporary mysteries and thrillers come in handy here. Consider Gone Girl, Shutter Island, and the like. Once you’ve mastered the reading long-form thing, you can move onto subtler novels that deemphasize plot and emphasize the more cerebral aspects of writing. The shorter classics and literary fiction will do the job. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, and so on. Only now can you graduate to the long and cerebral novels … if you want to. There are incredible novels at every reading level, so there’s no shame in staying on level 2 or 3.

Buzzkill #4: Weak Visualization or Empathy

When you read, you’re not just seeing the words. You’re conjuring mental images, the story playing out in your mind’s eye. Your brain acts as if you were literally looking at the characters and their environs as the story unfolds. Not just that, but you’re also feeling what the characters are emoting. Or, at least, this is how it’s supposed to work.

Visualization and empathy are central parts of the reading experience. They transport you into a new reality outside of your limited one. They drive home the message that the author is conveying. Without these skills, you just can’t see or feel the story. This turns reading into a real drag.

Since visualization and empathy involve the brain (and therefore neural connections), you can develop these skills. Heck, they might even help in other areas of your life such as your spatial intelligence and your ability to navigate interpersonal relationships. But how?

To improve your visualization skills, read novels set in fantastical worlds using simple yet descriptive language. This forces you to imagine things that you’ve never seen in real life. Some books to consider: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit. When you come across a particularly vivid passage, stop for a moment. Imagine. Think about what the thing being described looks like. Try to “see” it using different perspectives. Don’t worry if you can’t visualize things in high-definition. Picturing what’s being described in flashes qualifies as vivid imagination. What you see in your mind’s eye doesn’t need to be a movie. It just needs to be yours.

To ratchet up your empathy, try books with protagonists very different from you. Are you a bit straitlaced and proper? Give a book about a crazy artist a go. Are you a commitment-phobe? Try a book about a young woman who just wants to get hitched. Here comes the tricky part. When you read about these very strange, very different people, don’t think: “I would never do that. That is so stupid.” Instead, think: “How does this make sense based on their worldview?” A crucial part of empathy is resisting the temptation to judge based on our values and worldview. It’s hard, I know, but compassion really helps you understand why everyone else is an idiot (or why you’re an idiot).

Buzzkill #5: Not Engaging With the Story

Reading sure looks boring and passive from the outside. You sit there alone, flipping through the pages slowly (or pressing a button on an e-reader). You remain silent throughout. When you’re done, you close the book and put it aside. The end of the story. Or is it?

Reading shouldn’t be a passive and solitary activity that doesn’t engage you or anyone else. It should be far more. It should inspire you to think more, feel more, and interact more. How to do that is the question.

One way is to become a more active reader. Start to wonder why the author does certain things. Like: Oooh, there’s a dragon! I wonder if that means the Dragon Queen will come soon. Or: Oh my God! I can’t believe he did that! I wonder what made them do that. What will happen to them now? And so on.

Another way is to reflect when you’re done. You think about what happened and what the ending means. What the author is trying to tell us. To figure out all of this, you can — gasp! — discuss this with others. You can join a book club. You can read the same book as a friend. Or, you can go online and post on one of the many forums for book lovers. (The subreddit for books is a good starting place.)

An unexamined story isn’t worth reading. Or, more precisely, you can’t fully enjoy an unexamined book. It’s hard to get a mental high from something you didn’t quite understand, just as sex just isn’t as much fun with someone you dislike.

So, there you have it. Five buzzkills for any aspiring literati. Enjoying (as opposed to plowing through) literature takes work. The effort you put in will be well worth it. You get a shot of intellectual ecstasy for your trouble.

If you like my writing on books and literature, check out my other articles on the subject: