It’s perhaps one of those paradoxical quirks of humankind like avoiding eating our greens and exercising: we are increasingly learning the benefits of reading, yet signs show there’s a reduction in the pastime. With competition over entertainment options, and less time in busy schedules, what’s really at the heart of not maintaining a reading practice in adulthood, even if we really want to?
International bestselling women’s fiction author Rachael Johns spoke with us about the difficulties of reading regularly.
With another book out in October ( Just One Wish published by Harlequin Australia ) it’s a busy year for the author and mum of three boys from Western Australia. Rachael is this year one of the Australian Reading Hour Ambassadors, something she says is a “real honour.” She’s keen to share the message that reading is a joyful, relaxing, accessible – and crucial – skill to develop and sustain.
“I’m excited to be part of ARH as I want to break down misconceptions about reading; a lot of which is carried from growing up. I want people to experience reading who haven’t given it a chance in adulthood. The prospect of bringing non-readers to reading is exciting.”
On what holds us back from reading more she says, “We’re blessed with so many entertainment options these days, but in our lifestyle there’s pressure to be available 24/7. Teachers are replying to emails at 10.30 at night. We get calls throughout the day and night. We’re always busy and if you’re not, it’s almost like there’s something wrong. We’re expected to achieve and do so much and that takes away time from reading.”
Reading can be a time for happy discovery as a young child. We read silly, colourful stories that somehow, as we grow, are not seen as serious forms of learning. “Many parents unfortunately don’t value reading as much as maybe Maths and think that picture books and fiction are just fun and frivolous. It’s important for kids that books and stories are interesting. Reading fiction can be as powerful as learning from a history book,” Rachael says.
As a former English teacher, Rachael believes some of the reasons we don’t carry reading into our adult lives, besides getting busy with work, kids and life commitments, is down to challenging high school English texts.
“The books they make you read in high school are challenging for teenagers! We had to read Far From the Manning Crowd. I didn’t know what was going on and it was far too long. So many good books are out there but not in the curriculum. I think what happens is we are forced to read these hard books in high school, so reading feels like a chore. We forget that we ever enjoyed reading as a kid and associate reading with school and bad things.”
She’s seen this legacy broken by popular titles. “Books that people have mocked like Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey have brought people back to reading. One of my colleagues shared that she hadn’t read a book since high school and was recommended Fifty Shades of Grey. She read it and said “It was just so easy to read!” I told her there are a lot of books that are easy to read. Many have the misconception that reading is hard.”
Shame and other emotions around reading may impact on our reading habits too. In an article about social media competing with reading time, it opens with the idea that our relationship to reading is likely defined by guilt.
“It’s funny, I actually haven’t thought about guilt in terms of not reading before. I have more so felt regret or a wish to read. It’s possible we feel guilty taking time to read instead of feeling guilty about not reading as well.”
“Another feeling I have about reading is overwhelm. There are so many good books out there that I want to read, but there’s just not enough time in the world. I buy way more books than I will ever get a chance to read and I almost feel anxious about the books I won’t get to.”
“There are so many benefits to reading we don’t think about. It’s almost like reading is a luxury or something we don’t have time for – like having a massage or getting a facial. But reading can help you relax and feel great and it’s much more accessible than going to a beautician. Libraries provide free access and are fabulous spaces for quiet time.”
When writing her own books Rachael says she’s aware of making her stories accessible. “I want everyone to be able to read books. As much as I love literary fiction, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t want people to say, “I’m not smart enough to read books.” Often my editor reminds me to use the most simple word, not to talk down to people, but to make the story clear and smooth. I would prefer that my characters connect with people and offer universal experiences. I want my writing to be as accessible as possible.”
Interestingly, the ABC Life article claims that social media, often touted as one of the main competitors to reading books, is an enabler of reading and nurturing a reading practice.
“I do agree with this article when I think about it,” Rachael says. “Things that really are a hindrance to reading include Netflix and online games. But there are a lot of online book clubs and platforms. People find friends within online book communities.
“These days we are often quite isolated and may not know our neighbours. A lot of people are lonely. The online book community gives them a chance to talk with people and feel connected. I know that Reese Witherspoon’s book club, which has 1.1 million followers, is doing great things for reading. She’s making reading fashionable and cool. There are a lot of people who only read one or two books a year and they are reading the books that these celebrities are pushing. They’re doing good work and social media is facilitating it.
Challenges on Good Reads and Instagram encourage people to read – as well as the Australian Reading Challenge. “Despite the Facebook scroll syndrome” Rachael says, “social media does help people get excited about reading. It’s about setting boundaries to find balance and being your own parents.”
If we’re not reading books as much as we used to be, and reading more so from social media posts that are shorter, what might this mean for our future? Are we headed for a post-literate dystopia?
“As long as we’re consuming stories, it’s okay, I guess. We might be listening to audiobooks or reading ebooks. If we did give up books and reading, literacy levels would drop.
“Coming from a teaching background and having three sons, I can see the difference from the kids who have been read to and the ones who are readers themselves from childhood and importantly, through adolescence. Those who don’t read are generally not as good spellers and they don’t have a wide vocabulary.
“It’s not just English this affects but every single subject. If you can’t read the questions in maths, you don’t understand how things are phrased in maths.
“Having low literacy also makes communicating with people harder. So in a world without reading, it would have a flow on effect. Books do spread knowledge. Reading a post, or even an encyclopedia about a place is one thing, but there’s nothing like reading a fiction book where you become the main character and experience the place as they do. We will still have TV, games and movies but we might not take the content on as much. So that would be very sad. How would we document history? It would be so easy to put or gain everything online but books regulate things more.”
Books and reading have shaped Rachael’s life, so how much does she get to read now, with such a busy schedule? “I read every day. I always have one book on the go, sometimes more than one if I have an audiobook going as well. I read every single night before I go to bed from ten minutes to an hour. Maybe once or twice a year that doesn’t happen.
“I always have my book with me for something to do if I’m waiting. I often go early to pick up the kids from school to get a good parking spot and read for 20 minutes before the kids through the gates. On the weekend, I allow myself a bit more time to read. Audiobooks have definitely helped me to read more because I can do that while exercising or driving. Audiobooks for kids are undervalued. They might complain about fighting and bickering on long drives but audiobooks are the saviour!
“And reading always makes me feel good. I became a writer because I love reading and story. It always makes me feel happy and relaxes me. It’s my treat. I know that sounds awful as it sounds like I feel guilty doing it, but reading is just so important.”
We asked Rachael for some tips for returning to reading:
- Joining a book club is a good idea. There are many niche book clubs. Be sure you find the reads that are easiest for you to get into.
- Read to your kids – this can create a routine for them and you might be inspired to read on.
- Read short stories or novellas – there are plenty that are free and available online. They will be quicker to consume and give a sense of achievement.
- Ask your friend who knows you well to recommend something for you.
- Walk into a bookstore or library and say you’d like help finding a book. Staff members love these requests.
- Try audiobooks. It’s a great way to consume a story that may help you appreciate books again. They’re also relaxing to get into.
For those who already read, here are some tips to increase your reading practice:
- Audiobooks – give them a try if you haven’t.
- Prioritise reading and have a routine. Read just as you’ve woken or before you go to bed.
- Have a bath instead of a shower and read in it!
- Always have a book with you because there are so many times in the day you can get stuck where you could be reading.
- Try a speed reading course. Someone at work did one for business purposes and it helped them get through more books.
- Keep a list of what you read and post it on Facebook. It allows me to look back, spurs me on and challenges me to read more the next year.
- Join online book communities to keep you accountable.
The Australian Reading Hour is on 19 September 2019.
The Australian Reading Challenge is open now.
Out October 2019.