“The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” Malcolm X
When my first daughter was born, there was one thing about my pre-motherhood life that I was determined not to let go of. A few hundred sleepless nights later and I realised that I already had. I’m talking about reading.
Books have always played an important part in my life; my mother loves to tell the story about how I would fill up my bags and drag my books around with me wherever I went. After having my own children, however, as other mothers may relate, it was difficult not only to find the time to read, but also to get back into a good reading habit. But fast forward a few years (and another baby) and I find myself reading more now than ever before.
Recently, a friend asked for my advice; she had never (in her own words) been a much of a reader, and she wanted to know how she should begin. It didn’t take me long to come up with a list of tips, all of which are based on my own personal experience in the last few years.
So if you’re having trouble maintaining a good reading habit, or have never been a proficient reader (seriously, it’s never too late), perhaps you’ll find some useful advice below.
Ease yourself in slowly
Though it may sound obvious, reading is a skill like any other- you have to work at it. If you’ve had a long break since you last read regularly, picking up Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace probably isn’t the best idea. Instead, ease yourself in slowly with an easy-to-read book, and something that is gripping so you want to keep reading it. Children’s books such as Harry Potter are good for this, or my personal favorite, murder mysteries, such as anything by Agatha Christie.
If you have young children or are going through a stressful period in your life, don’t place too much pressure on yourself; stick to what you can handle.
Start light and work your way up slowly. When my eldest daughter was a year old, according to my Goodreads list for that year, I read nine books in total (my lowest so far) most of which were light, easy reads (I wouldn’t have gotten through a book with heavy subject matter at that point in my life).
Never think of reading novels as a waste of time
Something I hear from some Muslims with alarming regularity is that reading a novel is being wasteful with time. Obviously, the subject matter and content of a book should be considered before reading (I’m not telling anyone to go read 50 Shades of Grey ) but a good novel is never a waste of time. This isn’t the place to talk about the importance of storytelling in the Islamic tradition, but if you need a more ‘substantial’ reason to read a novel, then do it with the intention of wanting to improve your reading skills overall.
‘How to Read a Book’
I highly recommend watching Shaykh Hamza’s lecture ‘How to Read a Book’ based on the book of the same name by Mortimer Adler. There are different levels of reading beyond just reading for information at a surface level. The lecture explains how we can become better readers by reading for understanding. It also goes into the importance of reading in the Islamic tradition and is super motivating.
If you are already a proficient reader but want to improve further, well then go straight to Mortimer Adler’s book. I would recommend reading this as part of a book club so you can discuss and try to implement the author’s advice as you progress through the book.
Audiobooks are an excellent option for books that don’t require an appreciation of the language itself (so not classics). They are particularly good for non-fiction, especially when read by the author of the book itself.
I especially loved listening to Trevor Noah’s narration of his book ‘Born A Crime,’ as well as all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.
The last audiobook I listened to was ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ (which became available recently), read by the actor Laurence Fishburne (just an aside, I first read the book when I was a teenager, and seriously, Malcolm X’s dedication to the actual ‘craft’ of reading is beyond inspiring and has never left me, hence my choice for the opening quote of this article ☺).
Try Kindle or reading on your phone
Some people hate e-books but I don’t mind them (although nothing will ever compete with the smell of a new book), especially if I’m reading in bed as it saves me getting up to turn off the light (I know, I know, looking at your phone before bed is probably not the best advice).
Another benefit with e-books is that copyright is no longer active 70 years after an author has passed away, meaning that most classics are free to download and read.
Find a method that suits you
I’m going to say something that, in my experience, is divisive. Some of you will find a kindred spirit in me, others will decide we can never be friends.
I always read more than one book at the same time, in fact, more like seven (there I said it).
This may sound like a ridiculous thing to do, but it works well for me. I read one novel, like a classic that takes time to get through; one light read that I can read without having to pay too much attention; a poetry book (which will be read super slowly); a non-fiction (I read a lot of history books); an ‘Islamic’ book (such as the Book of Assistance by Imam al-Haddad); and I also listen to an audiobook when I go running, or before bed.
Most of these books are read slowly, so only a chapter a day or even one chapter a week are read, while the ‘lighter’ book is read whenever I feel like it. This way I also don’t get bored and read whatever I’m in the mood for. If I’m too tired to read, I listen to an audiobook instead.
This method will not work for everyone, but if you find yourself not in the right mood to read something you’ve already started, try pairing it with a different type of book entirely.
Join a book club
Joining a book club gives you more motivation to read, and by discussing the book with others, it can really help you gain a deeper understanding of the book, or at the very least, another perspective.
In our Covid lockdown/post-Covid lockdown times, Zoom book clubs have become all the rage. I am currently part of (wait for it) five book clubs (four online, one-off), two of which are monthly, while the other two are weekly discussions of a chapter.
Find a routine that works for you
Choose a part of the day where you know you won’t be interrupted (for me its always the evening), and to begin with, set yourself a small amount to read per day (either a chapter, or just 5-10mins). Increase it slowly.
I have a friend who reads on his daily 20-minute commute, on the way to and from work. You will be amazed just how quickly you can get through a book utilising just this part of the day.
Know when to move on
If you’re really not enjoying a book, to the point that it’s preventing you from reading at all, then leave it and choose something else. I’ll be honest, the slightly neurotic part of me struggles with this (Ben Elton’s Identity Crisis is currently the bane of my life), I always feel as though I ‘should’ finish something I’ve started. The reality is that it tends to slow me down and I end up avoiding reading, so don’t be like me and just put the book down in the first place!
Track your reading
There is an inexplicable pleasure in finishing a book and ticking it off your ‘books to read’ list. The sense of accomplishment is surprisingly satisfying- or maybe that’s just me.
Downloading an app such as Goodreads (this is the best known, but there are others out there) can help with tracking the books you’ve read or want to read. You can also set yourself a target of books for the year, which I find keeps me accountable.
I have a friend who writes a short summary of every chapter/book she reads; it is a method that not only helps you retain the information you have read but forces you to pay close attention as you read. This is something I’m currently working on doing, though I’m not quite there yet.
Zara is the founder and editor of Sacred Footsteps, an online publication dedicated to spiritual & alternative travel, history & culture from a Muslim perspective. Alongside our articles and guides, our podcast aims to highlight aspects of history and culture that are often overlooked, as well as trends within travel and the so-called ‘halal travel’ industry that aims to cater for Muslim travellers. We now offer uniquely packaged tours, that have a particular focus on encouraging sustainable, ethical and responsible travel practices. You can find Zara on Twitter @ZaraChoudharyX and IG: @zara_choudhary/