Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Lifetime Reading Habit: A Strategy For Reading

Reading plans are very popular among devoted readers. For that special breed of nutcase wanting to delve deeply into the classics they are practically a necessity.

There are many ready-made reading plans available on the internet with most of them requiring several years to complete and taking the reader, working chronologically, from antiquity to present day. Unfortunately, I think these plans share several limitations.


  • They are either too long, or not very meaningful.
  • A long, chronological sweep over a multiple year project is fatiguing.
  • The selection of works is too arbitrary, and may bury the reader’s main areas of interest late in the life of the project.
  • Only a single reading of each work is planned.

A Strategy for Reading

While any plan is better than no plan, a different, less linear approach can provide greater benefit early in the project while retaining the same overall diversity of texts. Additionally, the project can become open-ended and extendable, essentially becoming a reading habit as opposed to a special project.

Key Features
  • A cycle of reading sequences
  • Each sequence has a limited scope
  • Repeat readings of key works
  • Concurrent reading

Sequence, Sequence, Sequence

While reading is the pursuit of a lifetime, most people will have a difficult time staying with a multi-year plan. Rather than one long, linear plan, my preference is for an open-ended cycle of relatively short sequences, each requiring no more than 6–12 months to complete. The shorter the duration of each sequence, the more likely the reader will finish it without a significant interruption.

Limited Scope and Re-Reading

The short sequences also lend to a narrower, more tightly focused scope without sacrificing the wider scope of the project as a whole. The first sequence may focus exclusively on the reader’s primary interest, such as the novel, while the second sequence can be expanded. It may include a broader time frame and a greater range of works—perhaps including epic poetry in addition to novels—as well as providing for a selective re-reading of the most important or most interesting works. Later sequences continue building on this pattern, maybe including readings from philosophy in addition to or instead of epic verse while still continuing to include novels.

With this flexibility the reader is able to adapt the scope of each sequence in order to maximize an early benefit from the project without completely neglecting its diversity. Important works for which the reader has a less immediate interest are still included, but without dominating any stage of the project.

Concurrent Reading

The final piece to my approach is concurrent reading. If the current sequence includes several different types of literature—plays, essays, and novels—it makes sense to work on more than one work at a time. What should be avoided is a concurrent reading of the same type of literature. Avoid reading two new novels at the same time, two plays from different playwrights, or two books of poetry from different poets. Re-readings are a special case. As the level of interaction with the text is different than it is for new readings, it is perfectly acceptable to read a new novel and re-read another at the same time. Concurrent reading is optional, and it is important not to go crazy with it by reading half a dozen books at a time. Limited to 3 or 4 works, concurrent reading provides variety and can stave off reading fatigue.

Mutating Goals

Each aspect of this reading plan is flexible and can be modified to suit the reader’s circumstances and habits. While the reader may start with a broad goal, a specific list of books or authors, the project need never end. Once the goal has been met, identify enough books for the next sequence and keep reading. If the goal becomes less attractive several sequences into the project, it can be adjusted or dropped without interruption—the sequences will stand on their own while a new goal is being decided.

A Habit of Reading

With a few changes, the linear reading plan can be turned into a lifelong habit of structured reading. The key to this is in the flexibility of short reading sequences with a limited scope, repeat readings of the best and most interesting works, and a strategic use of concurrent reading. Reading is for life, and this, I believe, is a reading strategy suited to a lifetime of reading.

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