The skies are crisp and white today, speckled by graphite patches. Rain bubbles by the horizon. I expect it to arrive later that day, or dissolve into a drier spell, as far as that’s possible in Southern England. Occasionally, a few sun rays fall through the clouds, streaking the ground with a honeyed gold. Through a gap in my window, an invigorating, yet soothing breeze enters my room and uplifts a few pages of the book I’m reading diligently at my desk.
This interaction between wind and paper reminds me of how there’s a timelessness to reading. Civilisations come and go; zeitgeists and cultures change to become something unrecognisable. But a distinct current carries our love for telling and reading stories through the decades. And all writing is, fundamentally, a story, either told explicitly through a work of fiction, or implied in arguments in an academic journal. Even the advertising on the mail truck which falters outside my house and attempts a clumsy turnaround connotes a certain immediacy in its colours and logo: it is attentive to the efficiency of communication our world demands.
Few people can experience life in its full emotional, practical and intellectual dimension without a strong reading habit. Through reading, we can acquire specialised and applicable knowledge on topics of interest to us, whether history or personal development or mathematics. Words capture certain truths about the world, building our wisdom and emotional intelligence. We develop a more nuanced and diverse outlook on the human experience with all its complexities. And regardless of the extent to which film and other forms of entertainment grow in popularity, both for better and for worse, regardless of how digitised our lives become, I believe reading will retain a central place in our culture because language – musical, with infinite dimensions of expression – can’t be supplanted or erased.
As well as making reading an intrinsic part of our daily schedule, we should expand the type of material we read. Sure, you might have a specific genre or subject matter which aligns with your life and interests more than others. This may be a general preference, like reading fiction as opposed to nonfiction, or writing relevant to your pursuits, such as reading history books as a history student, business self-help as a business owner, etc.
But what are some of the benefits of branching out what you read?
- An expanded world view. Put simply, you’ll know more about the world, strengthening your arguments and perspectives on topical debates. By understanding how the world works, we can give rise to more intelligent conversation, which in turn engenders tangible change both in our local communities and on a bigger scale. Sure, we can’t become experts in absolutely everything from history and philosophy to maths and environmental developments, but expanding our general knowledge in a variety of areas allows us to engage fully with contemporary discourse.
- Multidimensional thinking. You can apply ideas from a variety of sources to the problems you face, whether in education, the workplace, or day-to-day life. For example, plucking ideas from philosophy can help you self-evaluate and tackle hurdles like procrastination and comparison. Reading fiction streamlines your writing skills, regardless of what the purpose of your own writing may be.
- Enhanced creativity. Reading something new is often a foolproof way to channel creativity and develop ideas when hindered by problems such as writer’s block. You can carry ideas between disciplines and combine them in unexpected ways, exploring issues from a novel perspective. In short, you’ll establish an ‘inner library’ from which to draw information and insights when the need arises.
- Curiosity! Knowing for the sake of knowing is a worthwhile endeavour. We should nurture our curiosity inside and outside formal education, making learning a lifelong goal. The best way to do this is through reading, and the more you diversity your reading list, the further you will acquaint yourself with an array of fascinating topics.
- Intellectual development. New material is likely to be challenging and out of your comfort zone, making you think in different ways. Broader intellectual development will arise out of this, equipping you with the mental skills that can be applied across multiple areas of life.
Even with a single purpose in life, surrounded by micro-objectives, reading widely makes us far more knowledgeable and involved in the world as individuals, while strengthening us in what we do because knowledge has a fluid quality. Not constrained to a particular subject or circumstances, but capable of being decontextualised and applied to anything from a mundane problem to one of existential proportions.
How to vary your reading list
As well as dipping into an assortment of subject, varying the type of material you read exposes you to new ideas, insights and writing styles. The following lists includes some ideas to choose from, but the possibilities are truly infinite. Remember, therefore, not to restrict yourself and read whatever seizes your interest and attention!
The reason many stories set in the nineteenth century, or even further back, still strike us as topical and relatable is that certain aspects of the human experience transcend time and socio-economic change. Fiction conveys certain truths about the world, whether of a philosophical nature or concerning the broader context of the book/story, that can only be (you can guess what I’m about to say next) shown rather than told. It brings new voices into the public sphere and acquaints us with the minds of people far removed from ourselves, in terms of both geography and experience.
If you’re an avid reader of fiction, try venturing beyond your preferred genre. Read from a variety of authors of different backgrounds and time periods. Searching for new books, especially outside your comfort zone, can be quite overwhelming. I like to use lists on Goodreads as a place to start, or suggestions on either Pinterest or YouTube, both of which have strong book communities willing to give their suggestions and reviews. Combine modern with classic literature, lengthy books with novellas and short stories.
If, however, your view of fiction has been spoiled by your school curriculum (not going to lie, I found ‘Of Mice and Men’ to be a fascinating social critique, but understand that GCSE English isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), autonomy over your reading list opens up countless choices that will change your mind. Which gives another reason to read widely, in search for the style, genre or theme that’s in line with your preferences!
In nonfiction books, complex sources, centuries of knowledge and multidimensional ideas are synthesised for consumption by anyone from a student to a specialist in their subject matter. Furthermore, diligently reading non-fiction is beneficial to students at any stage in their educational career: exploring our subject/s beyond prescribed material advances our understanding, boosting our grades in essay writing and exams. Reading on different subjects, in turn, broadens our horizons and equips us with dynamic, interdisciplinary thinking.
If a topic has been at the back of your mind, or if you read an article that caught your attention and left certain questions unanswered, build time into your schedule to read up on it in further detail. The topic in question can be specific (the history of a particular region, for example) or an entire discipline you’ve never ventured into before, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Politics/social sciences
- Science, technology and medicine
- Biography and autobiography
- Art and culture
- Literary critique
- Health and lifestyle
Self-improvement should involve goal setting and concrete intentions – set yourself purposeful and manageable goals, such as, for example, picking two new genres at the start of each month and reading 1-2 books within its scope.
Poetry reveals and connects. It is the utmost manipulation of language to carry across multiple and often conflicting interpretations that illuminate our world, or a part of it, with a different light. Poems have a strong timeless quality, asking questions immune to the passage of time. Just as with prose, works penned in the seventeenth century continue to stimulate an emotional response to this day. Poetry gives writers the freedom to push language to its limits, to create music with words and sounds, and this experimentation in itself brings readers delight.
Reading poetry gives your thinking an entirely new dimension, exploring both internal and external issues from a fresh and often daring perspective. If you’re unfamiliar with the craft and unsure where to start, visit websites such as poetryfoundation.org and poems.com (both these share a new featured poem every day) to explore which styles, subject matter and poets appeal to you the most. Alternatively, browse the poetry section at your local library. Keep note of anything you found particularly striking or impactful as a lesson to return to when needs be.
Controversy bubbles around the self-help industry, for there books have acquired themselves a reputation for being simplistic, detached and impractical beyond the author’s theoretical recommendations, in particular when complex subjects like mental and physical health are concerned. Many people prefer to derive lessons from literature that isn’t actively telling them what to do, such as memoirs of influential people or even fiction and poetry. Others, however, find self-help books to be life-changing. The more concrete the aim you wish to fulfil by reading these books, the more unambiguous their advice is likely to be (in other words, generalising and applying tips on how to overcome procrastination is harder than following a step-by-step guide on setting up and promoting a website). Give the genre a go, approaching each book with an open yet skeptical mind and determine the extent to which it matches your personality and goals.
In a world as turbulent as our own, maintaining an awareness of current affairs integrates us into questions of a national and international scale. Certainly, how much of ourselves we invest in current affairs is a personal preference. Some people spend hours reading and discussing the news, others know a general overview of major events but not the underlying, technical details. Regardless, existing in a vacuum is hardly an option. With current affairs on the tip of everyone’s tongue, keeping updated strengthens our own opinions and gives us a voice in salient debates. The more extensively we read, the better informed our decisions in elections become.
Furthermore, most institutions and industries are rapidly influenced by changes in political landscapes. Universities search for students who understand recent developments related to their subjects. Employers value commercial awareness. Reading the news will, therefore, benefit you as an individual and your society by making you an active part of it.
Choosing newspapers or news magazines to read is, once again, a personal preference, but look for ones that provide thorough analysis as well as commentary. For instance, The Economist is enjoyed by many: moderate and collected in its language, it provides a thorough and comprehensive overview of global issues on a weekly basis as well as insights on technology, science and culture.
Blogs and online articles
The blogging world is vast and growing every day. Anyone with internet access can set up a website for free or a minimal price, thereby finding themselves a voice on topics that matter and a potential audience. Blogs propose solutions to your problems, whether that’s writing an essay, arranging your bookshelf or starting a journaling practice. They build solidarity and discuss issues which matter to us as a culture.
Of course, anything posted on the internet (even if given scientific credibility) should be taken as opinion rather than fact. Just because a time-management approach works for a favourite blogger of yours, does not mean it will work for you. Seek medical advice solely from doctors and qualified professionals. Nonetheless, reading insightful content on the internet that is relevant to our lives strengthens our knowledge bank, and keeps us updated with trends and theories in areas of interest. And if you’re a creator yourself, reading the work of others is a great way to spark new ideas of your own.
Whatever topic/s you may be interested in, read both authorities and smaller creators in that niche. A great place to find new blogs is through social media platforms like Twitter and Pinterest, where many writers form communities to share their posts and take part in relevant debates.
Similarly to the other mediums noted above, magazines cover a sweeping range of topics, either highly specialised or multidimensional. They keep your knowledge up-to-date, serving as entertainment and a form of personal development simultaneously. Moreover, if you want to test the waters of a particular subject or topic but don’t want to commit to a book, do so by buying a magazine first (they, in turn, often provide suggestions for further reading should you find yourself interested).
Literary or academic journals
Presenting a range of fiction, poetry and essays, literary magazines or journals present a means to familiarise yourself with a range of established and emerging authors, and voices from all around the world. The short story is a format that never fails to intrigue me, for it pushes language to capture something significant and make us care about the subject matter within a limited amount of words.
Academic journals, in turn, bolster our specialised knowledge and familiarise us with professional research in any discipline. If you’re a student, explore your subject through journals and expose yourself to interesting perspectives, therefore maximising your chances of exam success.
What is the best way to implement this?
Just as with any goal, aim to be as specific and realistic as possible. Aim for a mixture of exploring genres/topics outside your usual interests and the exploration of your usual interests through a different medium. Of course, certain formats and subject matter may not appeal to you in its entirety, which is okay: do not force yourself to read for the sake of reading something. How you diversify what you read is an individual preference, but I have included a list of examples below to either choose from or adapt in accordance with your lifestyle and schedule:
- Read the news every day for X number of minutes
- Subscribe to a newspaper
- Subscribe to a magazine
- Read at least one book from a new genre every month
- Read an even mix of classic and contemporary novels every month
- Read X number of non-fiction books every month
- Read at least one book on a new subject matter every month
- Spend X amount of time reading poetry each day
- Read X new poems every week
- Read X short stories every week
- Subscribe to a literary publication
- Compile a reading list to educate myself on a new subject
Keep a record of what you read. To avoid passivity, write a few comments about anything you find compelling or challenge the author’s arguments. This will immerse you fully in the material you’re reading. And remember that if something challenges and intrigues you simultaneously, that is likely to be a sign of something good!
Let me know in the comments: do you vary what you read, or stick to the same genre/format? Do you think reading outside of your comfort zone is important?