How to Read More When Life is Busy
Confessions and advice from a high school English teacher
Books and books and books
If you love books, don’t become an English teacher. This may sound like counterintuitive advice, but it really isn’t. I promise.
How foolish I was. When I started my career, I was under the false impression that I’d be reading up a storm. I’d read the texts my students were reading and then have my own luxurious stash of books at home. I imagined devouring books like crazy and always being up on the latest the literary world had to offer.
Not even close.
My fantasy was to be the female version of Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. Instead, I’m more like a harried clerk, shuffling through papers and wondering where I went wrong in my life.
Instead of inspiring a love of literature, I’m running six ways to Sunday with planning, grading, and completing data-oriented tasks that contribute nothing to my reading aspirations.
This is not to mention that many of my students hate reading. Sadly, most of them don’t read the assigned books, at least not in their entirety. We live in a “byte-sized” society now. Snapchat and Twitter are their preferred reading. The world is changing — and not for the better in this regard.
When I have time, I’ll reread the books I’m teaching. I’ve been teaching some of them for sixteen years. When the pressure’s on, I’ll simply explicate key passages and forgo the rereading of some of literature’s most important works. I don’t love this shortcut, but you do what you have to do sometimes.
1984, Lord of the Flies, In Cold Blood, Othello. I teach a lot of great stuff. Every time I reread or reexamine any of the texts I teach, I see new things. It’s wonderful.
The issue is that the grading, paperwork, and need to revisit curricular texts leaves me limited time to read new things. My personal reading habits suffer because of my teaching job. I often joke that I’m the worst-read English teacher on the planet.
Changing my reading dynamic
Besides teaching 130 students, I have kids and a messy house. Plus, I’m trying to get some writing done on the side. Someday, I want writing to be my full-time job. It feels impossible, which is terribly deflating. What kind of English teacher/writer reads so little?
Last year, I reached the point where I was tired of my less-than-healthy reading habits. I’ve long known that reading more makes us better writers. My work situation isn’t going to change anytime soon, so I had to come up with a plan.
I decided to choose something dissimilar to the books I teach. Last fall, I checked Stephen King’s 11/22/63 out of the school library. It’s hefty — over 800 pages. I hadn’t read any King since high school but was intrigued by this book’s premise. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
Reading it and simply enjoying the twists and turns of a good story felt awesome. When I finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It took me about six weeks to finish, which is incredible based on my normal pleasure reading pace.
Since then, I’ve read a couple of YA books because I’m in the muddy middle of writing one myself. Reading them gave me ideas on diction and pacing. They also gave me confidence. Neither book was stellar. They were entertaining but just okay. This showed me that people are getting published even if they aren’t writing high literary fiction.
Lately, I’ve been slogging my way through A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It’s been two months since I started. I’m loving it, but it’s been a slow go. My disheveled existence and hectic school schedule sap so much of my time, that I often nod off while trying to read in the evening before bed.
I knew this would happen once school started up again. Being patient with myself is key. I’m human, not superhuman. There’s a lot to accomplish and only one of me. If it takes me until the end of next month to finish a book I began in August, I’m okay with that. At least I’m reading.
There are other titles in my to-read queue. Some of them are heavy, so starting to read them later in the evening doesn’t seem quite right. I can’t imagine plunging into Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship at 9:30 in the evening. I wouldn’t make it five pages.
Coming to terms with the season I’m in while trying to get some reading done is the best I can do. The energy required to teach all day and be a wife and mom only goes so far. Add freelance writing to the mix, and it piles up.
How to read more
The fantasy of sitting for hours on a weekend afternoon with a cup of tea and a book isn’t realistic at this point in my life. Learning to glean pockets of time is my only hope if I’m to increase my reading.
Stealing fifteen minutes or other small intervals is great. Large spans of time are hard to come by for most of us. Eventually, the time will come for lazy days of books upon books. Learning to work with the time and circumstances we have now is key.
Here are a few of my time-stealing strategies:
- Most of us scroll aimlessly on our phones while waiting for an oil change or a doctors’ appointment. Bring a book along or read online instead. Social media is a default activity that is easily replaced with reading.
- I don’t watch a lot of television, but one of the best ways to boost my reading is to cut out the little I do. Reading is better because it counteracts the sensory overload of daily life. It soothes at the end of a busy day by eliminating a blaring TV from the equation.
- Reading during lunch and forgoing the oft-negative conversations in the teachers’ lounge is one of my goals for this year. Nobody really needs to sit and listen to everyone complain after working all morning. Twenty minutes with a good book and my sandwich is a better idea.
- Read books to your children. Think about the classics you want to share with them. I loved The Wind in the Willows as a child. My old copy is perfect for snuggling up with my son so he can hear the story too. You may even choose to read something new you’ve been meaning to read. Why not share it with the kids also?
- Don’t forget about audiobooks. Listening to a book on the drive to work or while making dinner is a great way to squeeze in reading. And yes, listening to a book is still reading, just in a different way. Hearing a book also helps writers understand how dialogue and sentence structure impact tone.
If we want to be better writers, we must become better readers. We can’t write in a vacuum without influence and inspiration. Reading fiction, non-fiction, news, and poetry all have important functions for writers.
Think about ways to wiggle this important habit into your life. It’s likely you’ll discover clever ways to fit it into your schedule. A little creativity and intentionality make it possible for just about anyone.