Reading is one of the easiest, most powerful and most enjoyable stimulants to creativity. Which is why so creators are voracious readers. I know I am. Since I was old enough to go out on my own, I rarely left the house without a book tucked under my arm.
Until a few years ago, when I bought a Kindle, and then downloaded the Kindle app on my phone and realised I could have a library in my pocket. I would never be without a book again. It felt too good to be true.
But after a while I discovered a downside. Ebooks gave me practically unlimited choice – no sooner did I think of a book than I could download a preview and start reading it. Which was great, but I soon noticed I was starting many more books than I was finishing.
Years ago, if I was stuck on a long train journey or a wet weekend away with just one book, I would persevere with it, even if some bits were a bit dull or difficult, and read it to the end. But with the Kindle, as soon as I got a little bored with a story or an argument got a bit difficult to follow, I would flip to another book, and start reading that. Until I got a bit bored with that book, when I would flip to another book…
Soon, reading books began to feel like browsing the web or flicking from app to app on my phone – diverting at first, but eventually frustrating and boring.
I missed the pleasure of getting lost in a book. And the satisfaction of finishing a book. One of my biggest joys in life, and my main sources of stimulation and ideas, was in danger of disappearing.
Then I solved the problem by devising a simple system for reading books.
My system means I always have a choice of things to read, but I never have more than three books on the go at once. It also means I’m rediscovering the pleasure of being lost in a good book, and finishing more of the books I start.
Friends and clients report similar results when I share my system with them, so here it is in case you want to try it for yourself:
1. Create your ‘reading channels’
The first step is to think about the types of book you read, and allocate a ‘reading channel’ for each type. For example, I have three channels: one for Poetry, one for Education, and one for Entertainment.
Poetry is – well, it’s poetry.
Education is any book that I’m reading to learn something, whether it’s a book of literary criticism, a business book, a book on personal development or spirituality, or a handbook of Japanese grammar.
Entertainment is anything in prose that I’m reading for fun. It’s mostly novels, biographies and history books, with a bit of football and pop music. It doesn’t have to be fine literature or improving in any way.
2. Read one book at a time in each channel
The second step is to adopt a rule that you can only read one book at a time in each channel.
So right now I’m reading Jorie Graham’s Selected Poems in my poetry channel. In the education channel, I’ve got The Poem, Don Paterson’s book about how poetry works. And in the entertainment channel, I’m reading Cured, Lol Tolhurst’s memoir about the early days of The Cure, which is certainly entertaining!
3. Finish a book or abandon it
The third step is another rule: every time you start a new book, you have to either finish it or make a conscious decision not to finish it, and take it out of your channel. And there’s no shame in giving up on a book, if you really don’t want to finish it.
What this system means is you always have a choice of what to read, but your choice doesn’t get out of hand.
I think it works because a lot of the temptation to switch books comes from not being in the right mood, or not having enough mental energy, for reading a certain type of book.
For example, if I’m wide awake and alert, there’s nothing I’d rather read than poetry. But if I’m tired, then I may not have the energy or inclination to figure out what Geoffrey Hill or John Ashbery are talking about. So I would rather read something less demanding and more entertaining – and my entertainment channel will always give me that option.
But if I’m feeling in the mood for poetry or to learn something, then I’m generally happy to read whatever’s in the poetry or education channel.
OK that’s the system – happy reading! And if this works for you, let me know in the comments.
You can hear an audio version of this articles in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast at 4’02”.